Saturday, January 27, 2018

Deconstructing the DM's Brain

On JB's B/X Blackrazor Blog, John Higgins asks with regards to teaching DMs to DM, "What kind of pedagogical infrastructure would make you happy?"

Coincidentally, I had planned to try this.  The following source comes from my own gaming blog, Campaign Juvenis, which I've mentioned a few times this week.  For the purpose of this experiment, I will be removing personal information and extraneous detail from the content, though it is all visible through the link I've just given, if the reader would like to view it unexpurgated.

I have already described the scene once on this blog, but for the sake of the player's comments and play, I'll present the post as written, so that it can be fresh in the reader's mind as we examine the content thereafter.

[Let me just say that the players here have managed their characters with excellence and due consideration; this is not a post challenging their ability to play, but rather an investigation into what is the role of the DM and what is required of that role.  Starting this, I have some trepidation as to how long this is going to take to write ... I think this might be a very long post]

DM: You find yourself at one end of a bridge, sure enough. The chamber the bridge crosses is about 80 feet long and about 45 feet wide. The bottom is covered with water, far, far down, about 90 to 120 feet. Once in the chamber, hanging your head over the side, you can hear the water moving, but not rushing.
The ceiling is only ten feet above you - and the stone seems to be cracked, along the length of the bridge. The crack is only a few millimeters to half a centimeter wide, or less than a quarter of an inch; this doesn't let in much light, but it does let in enough to fill the chamber. You can see a shaft of light in the far left corner of the room, from your perspective (sorry, forgot to add this to the map, I'll update it next time), from a hole about three feet wide, in hex 1403.
There are no rails along the bridge and it is only a meter wide, plus, or 3 to 4 feet. The height is dizzying. It isn't a matter of dancing across this thing.
You can hear a faint chittering sound, like a small, rattling mill wheel (that's as close as you can get to a description). It might be coming from anywhere.
You can't tell what it looks like under the bridge; if it is natural or made, as you can't really get into a position to look over the side and under, without risking death.
Pandred: Anyone got a rope? Perhaps we ca have one of the lighter, or at least more observant members of our esteemed company try and cross, and we'll hold onto them with the aforesaid. Pandred herself is sitting at 5 hp, and Oddsdrakken is at 1.  I'm going to politely rescind my earlier offer to have him try the rope maneuver.  I do, however, think it's still a good idea.  If Fjall would like to offer some potential covering fire with my crossbow, Embla and I surely have the strength between us to hold onto whomever is brave enough to give this thing a closer look. 1403 is a bit far, but we might be able to get a decent vantage on it.  Volunteers or another idea?

Okay, this is me.  A couple of things about the above.  We haven't played in six months, and at this point both Pandred and I have forgotten that Oddsdrakken, her hireling, is actually on his way to town and not present.  This is not a big deal.  DMs and players forget this sort of thing all the time; there are a lot of details to manage, right?  Anyway, we do get this sorted later.

Note the manner in which Pandred speaks to her party.  Polite, patient, asking questions and not making demands.  She describes what she can do, in the context of other player abilities, proposing cooperation.  She does not leap in and start telling other players what to do or co-opting their characters without an agreement.  This is what we want to see as a DM; we don't want to see players running other players' characters.  If that happens, we have to step in and explain why that can't be allowed to happen.

Engelhart: Place is full to the brim with bats. If we disturb them they'll whip up a frenzy of leatherwing and endanger us. Best that we kill the lights, adjust our sight and send for the darkvision (and sure-footed, to boot) half-orcess. Bridge is too long for anything less than 100' of rope to serve as safety line, and I believe we left it on the cage the other side of this complex. Not sure if there's any such length between us anymore (none on me).
I don't mean to stop after every line, but if there's something pertinent that can be used to teach a little DMing, I'll take advantage of it.  Engelhart presumes there are bats.  There aren't, but as a DM I have nothing to gain in telling him so!  In fact, I want to be very careful not to say something that will give away this incorrect assumption; the party will learn the truth soon enough.  My goal is to let them draw conclusions unimpeded.

Now, also, Engelhart means "infravision" here and not "darkvision."  This is jetsam from playing a lot of different games, which tend to confuse one another.  There's no need to correct him on his language, particularly in text.  Eventually, after I keep using infravision as the term, Engelhart will get used to it and adapt his descriptions.  I don't need to nag him about it.

He's quite right about the length of rope necessary.  And it is SO much better for the characters to realize that on their own, without my having to jump in and say "no" right off.  It's best in these moments of planning that I just shut up and let them sort out what they want to do.  I can always nix impossible plans later on ... while a good party will usually come up with three or four solutions in the meantime.  It's okay to say "No," as a DM, whatever you've heard ~ but you don't want to say it too quickly.

Embla: I have no rope, alas. I am happy to walk along the bridge, but if we want to look at the hole, I think we'd want someone a little lighter (I may be sure-footed, but I'm a big girl).
Engelhart: The hole is out of reach, whatever we may make of it. Embla, if you're happy to go so much the better, because whoever goes had best go at it alone, since if you encounter trouble you may need to double back in a hurry, and that's where your sure-footedness would come into its own. Plus you're stealthy, too. You can guide the rest of us visually-impaired humans across once everything proves to be on the level. I don't think I currently have a lantern on me, but again, I urge you to douse the lights until we're across.
DM: If there are bats, they won't see a light.

So why did I feel the need to throw that in?  Basically, I'm playing into Engelhart's own projections.  He has mentioned bats as the probable danger; his statement about dousing the lights can't be for the benefit of Embla's infravision, there is natural light in the cavern that would spoil infravision anyway.  I assumed, therefore, it was meant to help conceal Embla against any enemies (bats?).

In a way, my comment is meant to be the sort of thought bubble that appears in one's head, reminding one of information that they may have forgotten or might need highlighting.  Often, the player doesn't need it; but with more than one player, listening as I'm listening, this might be an important point.  Anyway, I feel safe in doing it, since I'm not really adding information, while I am feeding the players' concerns that there may be bats.  If I say the word, as DM, it is quite suggestive; so this is a sort of mind game, too.
Lothar: If the chittering sound is indeed bats, I see two options to deal with them. First, we could sneak across hoping to remain quiet enough that they won't hear us, which may be difficult for everyone in the party to accomplish. Second, we could raise a ruckus, throw a rock, and get the bats to swarm and fly off while we are all sitting safely in the tunnel. A cloud of bats issuing from the ground might be a signal to other froglings in the area. I'm willing to risk that though, since I don't know that we'll all be stealthy enough to make it across unmolested. Then again, the chittering may not be bats, but some sort of waterwheel powering an underground grain mill? Engelhart, do you have a light spell?
Engelhart: I do have a light spell still primed and ready. I vote for the stealthy approach, but if the majority wishes it, I won't be at all exceptional to casting it.
Pandred: I think the proper thing to do at this point is declarative statements, since we've more or less settled on a course of action. I offer to hold anything Embla is concerned about losing.

The phrase about making "declarative statements" comes out of my own requirements for players describing their actions.  I prefer the active verb tense when a player describes what the character is doing, opposed to what they're going to do or mean to do.  Often a player says, "I will go across the chasm," which is a way of not saying that my character is going across the chasm now, but at a later time.  If something then happens, I have had players say, "But I haven't actually gone yet: I was just making plans to go."  And while this splitting of hairs is clearly a tactic, the solutions is to have the player commit their intention in the form of verb they use.

Often, I let it slide; but if it is something truly dangerous, I will often wait for the player to state the verb in the present tense rather than in some other way.
Engelhart: I get the sling out and prepare to lay cover for Embla. Holding action otherwise.
DM: Since Embla is the go-to person, just waiting for her to speak.

While everyone else has clearly agreed upon the plan, and even though Embla herself has said that she is happy to walk along the bridge, that's not a sufficient commitment in my book.  A DM can get into big trouble with a player, or with their group, if they're not patient enough to wait and be sure about a given player's commitment.  Often, a DM can get away with it several times ... but if it becomes a habit, it is bound to cause the players to feel that the DM is running their characters, while the DM believes that it's a matter of keeping up the "momentum."

It's very easy to commit a lot of sins using the justification of momentum.  I don't believe that this is a good habit; always, always, get the player to specifically sign off on whatever action their character is taking; and if there is any feeling that the player might be in doubt, stop the game right there and ask, "Is this something you feel right about doing?"  A DM has to keep an eye out for the player who is being railroaded by the rest of the party; it is easy to feel, as one player, that you don't want to be the one dissenting voice when the rest of their party has already made up their mind about the plan.  The DM is there to even out the player lacking a supporting voice at the table, by being a good listener in the equation.  Then, if the rest of the party begins to browbeat the single player, the DM can be there to say, "Now, wait; if the player doesn't want to take part in your plan, you shouldn't bulldoze her."

This can go a long way towards helping your players trust you.
Embla: I give my backpack to Pandred, equip my javelin, and stealthily make my way across the bridge.
DM: Embla has the advantage of Stability, which gives her a 19 dexterity for checks, should there be a chance that she'll fall. It doesn't give her extra bonuses for combat (like the balance skill will), but I'll rule that she doesn't have to check her balance as she crosses, nor will she feel (as virtually anyone else would) the compulsion to get down on her hands and knees and crawl across.
Embla, you get about half way across. At this point, I'm going to need you to roll a d20. It isn't a dex check.

Okay, a few things here.  Embla has used the active tense and committed herself, while the conversation about the cave has helped instill some concern about what might happen.

At this point, because Embla is using a house rule to get across (note the link), I want to provide a quick synopsis about the rule to forstall any doubts about how I'll play it.  There are voices out there who talk about how searching for rules or calling out rules destroys momentum; I strongly disagree.  Not knowing how the rules work exactly destroys momentum, particularly if the DM assumes everyone knows the rule, when they don't.  The DM should have the rule handy, be ready to explain it clearly and quash any unnecessary discussion of the rule at the time it is being used.  This helps everyone be on the same page, reduces argument and definitely maintains momentum.  I was able to do so here in text; in speech, we're talking 30 seconds of game time.

Finally, I tell Embla what die I want her to roll.  I do not tell her why.  Unless the die succeeds in this particular case (noticing the thing hovering in the gloom), it is none of her business why.  This is why I don't say a "perception roll" or any other such description.

I understand that in most games, the players themselves declare that they're going to make this roll or that, depending on their abilities.  I consider this very poor game management.  The players, being voyeurs in the setting, should have no idea whatsoever that a given roll is needed or useful.  If Embla, in the case above, were to say, "I roll a dice to find out if I can see anything," my answer would be that no, she can't.  She has to get to the middle of the bridge, first.  I know that; Embla doesn't.  Nor do I want to warn her that she has to get half-way across before any check is necessary?  Her character wouldn't know this.

All die rolls, therefore, are my bailiwick.  I run the setting and the relationship between the setting and the characters.  Therefore I, and I alone, will say when a die roll is needed, and unless the matter is obvious, I won't say why a die is needed.

This forces the player to run the character and not the situation.  And it helps build tension, as the character cannot control their own intel.  They have to put themselves out there, moving forward, unsure of anything they might find, making themselves vulnerable to the setting that I run.
Embla: I roll a 10.
DM: About half-way across the bridge, you take notice of something floating in the air, about 20 feet to your right, just below the ceiling. At a second look, it seems to be a large insect, about 18-24 inches in diameter.

Note I do not tell Embla what she rolled for, exactly.  In fact, she rolled her wisdom or under, and I'll often say, "You made your wisdom check."  But that isn't the main point here.  The main point is what she sees because she made the check, so I skip over the die roll and go straight for the details.  This is another way to maintain momentum.  It isn't that the die rolls aren't important, but we don't need to spend overlong discussing them in the context of what's happening.

At this point, because of the play-by-post structure of the campaign, we were having issues with availability; I jumped ahead and had Embla's character point out to Engelhart the location of the hovering thing.  At a game table, I would never do this, but sometimes the blog requires adaptation to keep the game going, particularly on a day where I have plenty of time to run, and one player may not be available to comment regularly.
DM: Engelhart has his sling ready. Engelhart, you'll have to roll a d20 to see if you can see it in the shadows.
Engelhart: A 9 is rolled.
DM: Engelhart, you can barely see it. The thing is wobbling, moving ever so slightly and definitely not attached to the ceiling or wall of the cavern.
Embla: I scan to see if there are other insects within view.

Although Embla can see it because of her position, I'm ruling as a DM that Engelhart can only see it if it is pointed out ~ and then, only if Engelhart also makes a wisdom check.  Engelhart is a cleric, so it is no problem.

Embla will naturally ask me if there are other creatures she can see.  This is a deep-set player habit and one that is hard to break.  Because of her check, I have revealed this one.  She can see this one only because of the check; if there were others that she could see, I would have told her ... but the default is to ask the DM if there are others the player can see, that the DM has not revealed.

I understand this; it is bred from hundreds of hours of bad DMing, and the habit of letting the player roll for information, when the player wishes.  I am grateful that Embla is a good enough player that she says, "I scan for ..." rather than "I roll for ..."  The latter is far more common and far less correct.
Engelhart: I loudly whisper for Embla to get back and take my aim as I girate the sling.  I don't yet wish to strike however, as I don't want to provoke it... but I will if it starts getting nearer to Embla.
DM: None others that you can see, Embla.  Engelhart, Embla is not remotely in your line of fire.  It's 20 feet to Embla's right, and Embla is out on the bridge. Engelhart is still at the mouth of the tunnel, not on the bridge. You'll have to step out onto 0306 to use your sling.

Of late I've been seeing people talk about "DMing of the Mind," which means the running is managed by description alone, without props or maps.  The above is an example of the problems this creates.  Engelhart has misunderstood and thinks the floating thing is in front of  Embla, and wants to avoid friendly fire.  In fact, there's no friendly fire here to worry about.

I'm a little terse with the word "remotely" in my answer.  I wanted to stress the safety of Engelhart's shot; instead, it sounds a bit like I'm reproaching his error.  Again, too many statements like this can get on a player's nerves, and hard feelings are the result.

My last point to the above is that Engelhart has failed to specify his own location before firing, and he has failed to indicate if he is using a stone or a sling bullet.  I can't fault him.  This particular oversight is so regular that everyone does it, constantly.  There is just something resistant about players who use slings specifying the object being slung and the whole matter of stating clearly where a character is standing.  I manage this as a DM by indicating the necessity of stating a position; I've forgotten in this case to correct the lack of naming the missile.  Usually, I designate the character has used a bullet as a default; it reduces the number of bullets while the bullet offers the best possible damage.  Costs the player money though.

Also, Engelhart (and Embla as seen below) both seem oblivious of the fact that they're 40 feet apart, and can't really whisper to each other.  But this, too, is a typical player error.  It is often really, really hard to put oneself into the actual situation, and see the actual distances in one's mind.  In this case, I let it go; how loud they speak makes no difference to the creature anyway.

Embla: I retreat to Engelhart. I whisper to Engelhart that perhaps we could try waking it up before we attack it? We don't know what it is, and we might be able to scare it off - we're certainly fighting at a disadvantage here, and I doubt we could all sneak across the bridge without alerting it.
DM: As you step back a hex, it whizzes out of the dark, staggeringly fast; you stop from reflex, expecting that it is about to attack. Instead it stops in flight, ten feet away. It can be seen clearly now. It has the fat body of a dragonfly, with a long tail and SIX wings, not four. These wings are beating like a hummingbird's, creating the chittering sound. There is a long proboscis emerging from the front of its body, which seems to have an armored helmet-like front.

This is what I've been waiting for: Embla to move.  Embla's statement indicates that she makes her full movement towards Engelhart, but I discount that.  Once I say that the creature swoops in, because of her first movement, I have to give room as a DM for Embla to change her mind, with the new info I'm giving her.  Often, time has to be retconned in this way; a DM has to be flexible when interpreting the practical aspects of giving actions in words, when actual senses aren't in play.  If they were in play, no doubt Embla would have her eyes firmly fixed on the creature ~ and would react instinctively to the creature moving at the moment she moves.  I have to take that into account when DMing.

Okay, the creature itself.  This is a stirge in my game.  It's a large dragonfly like insect, one that can flit around very fast.  I know most see it as a bat-like creature, or sometimes a mosquito; but that hasn't felt scary enough to me.  The dragonfly is the most deadly of insect hunters and there is no giant dragonfly in the original AD&D lexicon. So long ago I settled on the stirge fitting this role.

Note that while I describe the creature, I don't say that it is a stirge.  Nor do I describe what the creature is about to do, as I often see DMs do.  That's just bad form.  It is important when describing anything to keep the descriptions in the immediate present.  What the creature intends will be revealed when the time comes (or when a spell reveals it).
Embla: Oh dear. Is it fixated on me, or the rest of the party?
DM: Definitely you.
Pandred: You're in front Em, and there's no room to maneuver. Duck for cover and let our slinger get this sorted! I'll hold the pack Embla gave me in one hand and start fishing for my handaxe with the other. I'd rather not lose it to the chasm but I'm sure as hell not getting whatever disease this bugger has!

It's only one stirge; but that potential fall is high in the players' minds and even through the blog format it is easy to see the tension.  I want to play on that as DM by keeping my answers to the player's concerns short and cold.

Another sign of stress is seeing the players make up additional dangers in their minds.  I don't know from what in my description that Pandred got the idea of a disease, but something tipped that concern.  It's nice when overthinking works in a DM's favor!
Embla: I throw my javelin at the creature and retreat I throw my javelin at the creature and retreat as far as I can to the other side of the bridge (towards 1806).  Javelin: 10+1(Str)=11 to-hit.
Lothar: Fjall has a partially loaded crossbow for you Pandred. Last I remember it had two rounds completed, not sure if they still count though.
DM: The javelin misses and is gone.  The flying thing shifts to dodge it.

Strictly speaking, Embla needs to roll for initiative.  However, at the time I was prepared to believe that the creature would not move until Embla did; and that her javelin throw could be reasonably expected to happen before the stirge reached her.  Therefore, I discarded the initiative roll, maintaining momentum, without feeling the need to explain why.  I have the players well in hand at this point, if I need to impose an initiative roll, they'll simply accept it; while I have a clear, fixed idea of when the roll is needed and when it isn't.  That ideal is this: if multiple combatants come to the same place at the same moment and have an equal chance of affecting the other first, then initiative is rolled.  If, on the other hand, on is using a missile while the other is dependent on body contact (whether or not through a weapon), then initiative can be discarded.

Sometimes, and this is hard to call, if the missile-using combatant has reason to fear the charge of a body-contact assailant, there is a chance that the missile-user will freeze up and lose initiative, if the distance between combatants is slight.  But I did not think that was the case here.

I was watching the others as they discussed Fjall's crossbow.  Fjall is a hireling, so I have some control over his actions, though I tend to let the party dictate what the hireling is doing.  The party did not say so, but in my mind I had Fjall move up behind Engelhart and finish loading his crossbow.  The online party is still a little fuzzy on how my crossbow loading procedure rules work, otherwise one of them would have said specifically the words, "Fjall finishes loading his crossbow."

Anyway, Engelhart has been whirling his sling for enough time now, as the creature has hovered, so he will need to fire.

DM: Engelhart, as Embla makes for 1806, the creature will zero in on her. I'm going to give you initiative, so please let go a stone or bullet [indicate which] if it pleases you.
The tunnel is so narrow, Pandred, that only one of you can stand in it and see the chamber. It is just large enough to fit Engelhart's shoulders. He has to step out onto the bridge to fire.
Embla, please tell me what your movement rate is.
Embla: I have 4 AP currently.
DM: Okay, Embla has 4 AP. Halfway across is 1006, she backed up to 0906, now she moves towards 1806 (as fast as she is able); that puts her in 1306.
Technically, all this moving, plus her javelin throw, accounts for two total rounds. This gives time for Engelhart to emerge from the tunnel, spin his sling, roll to hit, and still have 2 action points to spend.
I know that Engelhart said he has his sling "ready," but I have to read this as having his sling in hand. He has time to move 1 AP, load, fire, then be left with 2 AP after.

Here I am in full DM-mode.  There are a lot of things going on; there's information I need to have and things I need to relay to the party, so that everyone understands what is going on.  Though the party are all here together, they form three basic groups: Embla, Engelhart and those in the tunnel.

Primarily, I have to establish two principle details: placement of people and time.  No one has really talked about how long any of this has taken, so I'm stepping up.  I'm measuring time from the moment Engelhart wants to fire at the stirge; nothing before that moment really matters in terms of time.  With time established, I want Embla to know exactly where she is, I want Engelhart to know the same, and I want those in the tunnel (which is very narrow, only four feet wide) to know that only the front person there can take a meaningful action.

I want to do this as fast and as clearly as possible, to maintain the slightly freaked out moment that Embla has as she runs for the end of the bridge before being potentially struck and knocked off the side.  I don't want to spend any time discussing this possibility: I don't have to, for one, the player's imagination is stronger than my words would be and again, I don't want to talk about the futureNot until it happens.

In my book, How to Run, I talk about how important it is for the DM to predict the future in gaming.  This is just such a case.  However, I don't want to predict just one future.  While managing the details, I'm lining up in my mind what rolls Embla will have to make if the stirge hits her and stuns her; and what will happen if the stirge hits and doesn't stun, but grips her clothing and drives its proboscis into her body, to start sucking blood. And what will happen if the stirge misses.  And even what will happen if I roll a 1 to hit and the stirge fumbles.

It isn't just about what will happen to Embla, but what the stirge will do next if Embla falls, or the stirge fumbles, or the stirge misses and has reason to search for another target.

And because I've been playing D&D for 38 years, I'm running all these future movies in my head in a couple of seconds; if I'm doing it at an actual gaming table, I'm doing this without thinking, in the blink of an eye.  It's called pattern recognition and the book explains how this works.

Oh, and I remembered here to ask Engelhart to designate a stone or a bullet for his sling, even though it was technically already loaded.  But these things can be retconned.  He never did tell me, though ... which, as I say, is typical and not really a big problem.
Engelhart: I fire. 18 to hit, 2 mighty damage.
DM: That hits! And this may surprise you. The creature spins out of control and drops into the cavern. Lucky shot. It was AC 2.

Because of my mass to hit dice rules, a stirge does not weigh very much and therefore, though 1+1 hit dice, cannot have many hit points.  They're a lightweight creature, but fearful in large numbers.

I thought the combat was over at this point, and I was glad.  I did not really want to throw a stirge at the party; I hoped for an easy kill.  Unfortunately, I needed to get the party to the kitchen that came after, which needed a chimney, and which could not logically buttress the chamber the party had been in before encountering the bridge (this can all be discerned from the Juvenis blog).  Moreover, I'd dropped a lot of water out of the previous chamber with a mechanism, so I needed somewhere for that water to go ~ and so I conceived of this bridge chamber, with water running on the bottom.

With a passage to the outside, I could not rationalize that such a chamber would be empty, so, I had to put something in the room.  A stirge seemed frightful enough, given the potential fall.  Mostly, however, I wanted to get the party to the kitchen, where there was treasure, which they had earned through overcoming many obstacles and at least one big fight.

Unfortunately, after "killing" the stirge, the cleric wrote (and this got eaten by blogger):
Engelhart: No, wait. I forgot I don't have proficiency with the bloody thing! Shouldn't have posted from the hip, many apologies. Rewind as needed, I will have to turn in.

Well, damn.

I really considered several ways of letting this pass.  Oh, I really wanted to have the thing just fly away or justify Engelhart hitting the thing, so we could move on ... but no, the right thing was to retcon the incident, which I did.

Okay, I'm going to stop here.  This has been four hours of writing and I'm done.  I hope it helps deconstruct the moment to moment pattern of my running experience; I hope it helps crystallize what I'm sure most DMs do, but don't recognize, in their own games.

To see further posts of this sort, 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 it will require that you wait until May 1st to see the content.  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.

I write two posts like this per month.

Friday, January 26, 2018

Fertile Soil

My Gentle Readers, I am land capable of producing crops in abundance.  That is the meaning of fertile.  And when someone comes along and plants something in me, I write.  I write and I write and I write write write.  I write that I'm right, and put down here put downs against the short and the tall, the fat and the small, in fact for all, for that's what I scrawl.

This row, pronounced row as in boat and not row as in sow, sprouts from recent seeds that have been sown about the overblown rhetoric of grognards that groan that the game has not grown in tone since its becoming known.  "This thing, I say, is, as I say, impossible to stay, because I say, so why do you flay the horse that dead lays, while enterprise pays, so pray, why do you make hay of this way that we play, it's all so cliche, we'll play it our way whatever you say, you'll make no headway with this blogging mainstay." 

And if so that I can't with this descant that I'll grant, for it's a scant rant that could enchant a houseplant, I'll yet slant this decant with a sharp shan't shan't shan't.  I'll write just in spite of the sprite that's too tight for this month's cockfight, and put down in words the slurs for the nerds, absurd as they're blurred by the sounds of my words.  I'll let the queue review the menu of the brew that I spew, however construed is the zoo that ensues, though a new world should be pooh pooh poohed.

For the right that is right is a written screed pittin' a point that's befittin' when the scene's gone to quittin', that the game's not just for sittin' in a dumb corner knittin'.  When the game's made for shills, we won't take to the hills, we'll fight for our thrills and write with our quills that the game's about skills, not anthills with frills, distilled to the gills and choked out of gristmills.

So I'll write and I'll write, I'll write write write write, 'till the trite is put flight.  In truth it's delight, to smite with eyes bright the wights of this blight.

But now though excited, and feeling beknighted, I'll leave off on this height and wish readers goodnight.  Beknownst it's alright, for our way is alight; and when again I'll recite you'll all get an invite.

Where Responsibility Lies

Been a bit like being under siege these last couple of days, both on and off the blog.  It seems to be coming from this list of questions for the podcast.  Some of it is coming from new readers, who are not familiar with the tenor of the blog.  Some of it is coming from old readers who seem to have forgotten who I am or what I believe.

For example, I was approached today by one poor friend (as I growled and bit him for it) with a link arguing, "I have fun when you have fun.  If you, as a player, are not having fun in my games, then I have screwed up and I want to fix it."  And my friend asking, "Part of the question for me is, if the players are not having fun, is it time to assess if you are an impediment."

Okay, that is a trigger for me.  Because if we are running around, building our loved things, be they art or campaigns, for other people, woe be to us. Once you get on your knees and grovel to the whims of someone who does none of the actual work, because they deign to give you their time, you are no longer a creator, you are a slave.

Players want all kinds of shit.

Personally, if the players are not having fun, then they are in the wrong campaign.  I am happy to show them the door.  There are plenty of opportunities for fun that I build into my discourse and delivery. I joke, I tolerate jokes, I create funny things that happen, I am occasionally very generous and I give good, solid, meaningful rewards for risks taken.  If someone plays in my world, and sees none of that, because they cannot bring themselves to see, then they need to get out of my world.

This "responsibility" thing seems to confuse people.  Here are the three definitions of responsibility that I think might apply here:

  • "The state or fact of having a duty to deal with something or of having control over someone."  (a job with greater responsibility)
  • "The state or fact of being accountable or to blame for something." (they denied responsibility for the bomb attack)
  • "The opportunity or ability to act independently and make decisions without authorization." (we would expect individuals lower down the organization to take on more responsibility)

All right.  I do not expect as DM that I have control over anyone.  I have control over the consequences for a player's actions, which I determine, and which I take pains to make realistic, rational and believable.  I have control over the setting in which the players act.  But I do not tell the players what decisions to make about their characters.  I do not tell the players what to think, or what to find funny, or what to make a joke about or when to enjoy themselves or not.  I have no interest in having control over any of that.  I am here to provide a venue in which people come to participate in an event.  I decide the seats, I decide the ticket costs, I decide the show.  If the players have fun or not, that is their responsibility, and not mine.  If they don't like this sort of show, they should attend some other venue.

I am to blame for every consequence I prescribe and for every part of the setting I create.  I am responsible if the seats are uncomfortable or if the show is boring or if the ticket prices are too high.  I am not, however, responsible to anyone who comes a second time to see the same show, pay the same price and sit in the same seats.  If they're willing to act in said manner, then they are responsible for those decisions.  Now and then someone will come to play, who doesn't like it.  Fine, they are welcome to leave.  If I have no players at all, then yes, I might have to question myself.  But if I have players who keep coming back, despite the present circumstances, then something else is going on here, and it isn't me.

I do expect players to make decisions about their characters, their game play and their emotional states without my authorization.  I am not Mommy.  I am not here to button their coats and put their hats on and remember to make lunch for them.  They are adults and it is time they recognized if they're going to get something out of an activity, they are going to have to take responsibility for finding it themselves.

As a DM with adult players, I am not fucking responsible as a DM for my players having fun.  Sorry.  They will have to be responsible for themselves.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Dice Rolls are a Threat

Now, if you can keep the last post in your mind, I believe the ground work has been laid for this post.

I was told by Fran├žois Laroche the other day that, "I guess my difference of view also comes from the fact that I do not value "randomness" as being inherently better than predictability (or "control," as you call it).

Well, since it is my post he was commenting on, and the word predictability means something totally different from control, I think I will continue to use "control" as the word that means what I mean.

Laroche's argument is the sort of false equivalency that I was describing.  When he says, "I do not value randomness ..." he is clearly using that description as though all the forms in which a role-playing system can be played randomly is equivalent in value to every other system; that there is no distinction between this system and that.  He has played in a few systems, where randomness was employed, and he's convinced.  Randomness just isn't that big a deal.

Those experiences are certain to be extremely limited, for reasons I described in the last post.  It takes months to get the hang of a DM's campaign.  Even if our good Mr. Laroche has played in thirty such campaigns over the last ten years, three different campaigns for four months each, that's still just thirty campaigns.  There are tens of thousands of campaigns out there: who in hell knows what is going on, if the participants aren't broadcasting their style on the internet?  There are probably dozens of overtly sexualized campaigns, with players participating in the nude, that none of us will ever discover.  After all, if you ran such a campaign, would you blog about it in this internet climate?

So we're all ignorant.  That is a given. Those who insist we're not are just kidding themselves, hoping for a badge of professionalism that isn't really deserved (though how would that be inconsistent with normal human prestige?)

But rather than continue in this line of reasoning, the best I can do is try to highlight how one type of random series of dice can differ considerably from another.

Let's take the situation with the bridge that is happening with the online campaign.  You, dear Player, are standing at one end of a bridge more than 100 feet above an uncertain watery floor.  The water could be deep enough to catch you, or it could be inches deep and completely irrelevant.  You are 1st level and have no magical powers or items that will carry you across.  And I am your DM.  How do I handle this?

"Control" dictates that the character has the ability to simply cross the bridge.  You, as player, argue that you're a hero, or at least a willing adventurer, you're not like normal people, you don't know the meaning of fear, and therefore you walk across it.

However, I argue thusly.  You and I can easily walk along a sidewalk, without there being any chance of "falling off" onto the grass.  But if a force comes along and suddenly raises that 4-foot-wide sidewalk a hundred feet in the air, what would you do?  We both know the answer, though perhaps I'm the only one to admit it in the game setting, since the player knows that admitting it undercuts the argument.  Both of us immediately fall flat on the sidewalk and pray not to die.  The idea of going along such a sidewalk, with a hundred feet on either side, would be too scary to contemplate.

Why?  Why do we have this response?  Why are we afraid?  Is it our character?  Our constitution?  Our lack of wisdom?  No.  It is our survival instinct.  Our construction as beings says, "Don't walk across that bridge when the drop will kill you, stupid!  What, you want to die?"

So we freeze.  Even heroes freeze.  No "brave" persons saunters across such an obstacle and to argue that one can is to throw out everything that matters about describing an immersive condition for the players to inhabit.

Many who argue control hate that immersive conception.  The last thing they want to do is admit frailty, or hesitation, or anything that reminds them of their real selves, which a great many players dislike intensely.  However, I think the "fun" of the game is to experience, just a little, what it is like to be moving along a narrow pathway a hundred feet over death.  And I know there are others who also feel this way, because quite a lot of us jump or feel creeped out when the camera in a movie pans over the drop and gives us a good feel of what it would be like to be there.

[the maker of this video clearly has a balance or sure-footedness skill a 1st level shouldn't have]

If we discard automatic success, then, we are now stuck with a die roll.  And here is how most DMs handle it: "Roll a die. Success indicates you make it across."

How do I know "most" DMs do it this way, with my lack of real experience of other DM's games?  That is how the modules are written; and the modules are celebrated, gushed over, repeated, bought, sold, treated like fetish objects and thoroughly pitched and pumped to players who have never played them, night and day, on bulletin boards, blogs, vlogs, animations and every other form of RPG communication between participants.  And no one ever, ever says, "Oh, but when you come to the place with the bridge, don't just roll a dice to get them across.  Come up with something more interesting."

No, what they do is they roll two athletic rolls and then everyone dies on the vines.  And the commenting audience is good with that, and everyone says it's "fun."

Yeah, pitted against that, I'd pick "control" also.

If we want a better random approach, we have to take control into account ~ and here is what everyone misses when making vast equivalency statements about randomness.  Some of the situation can be controlled, and some of it cannot, and it is up to us to decide which is which.

We can get the answer for that one by training ourselves to deconstruct the situation.  [That's not how I thought of it when I was 15 and running my first games, but it was what I was doing, having trained myself to do that through many other means, such as learning how to write, fish and make cabins].

First, the character has to begin.  Then the character will become aware they are over the drop.  Don't laugh.  Many's a time we've started something, only to get a little way in and think, "Wow, this is really awful," forcing us to take a breath and pause, deciding if we dare continue.  Following that, there's a moment of triumph as we realize we've reached half way.  And then there's a moment of dangerous overconfidence when we think we've done it, letting down our guard before we should.

Anyone in a rescue profession can see all of these at work.  People freeze up and can't start at all.  People don't think, start off, then realize where they are and freeze up.  People get halfway across, get confident and stop being careful.  People get almost to safety, then look back because they want to prove to themselves that they really did it, and then fall.

All of these are a potential die roll.  Some of them could be suspended for the sake of abilities or dexterity, or personal knowledge, like a thief vs. a fighter or a mage.  Some, with a very low wisdom, might have to roll at all four points.

But so much for randomness. What about control?

Because, again, as anyone in the rescue profession can tell you, there are strategies for each of these as well.  People can be supported.  They can be coached.  The high wisdom cleric can be placed behind the low wisdom bard to give moral reassurance.  Packs can be lightened.  Salt and other materials can be spread on the path to counteract dampness or ice.  People can get down on their hands and knees and crawl.  These are all possible options.  Some might be a little humiliating, such as having your big tough fighter crawl across the terrifying gorge, but you know what ~ in reality, in the military, brave, tough fighters cry.  In fact, it is perfectly all right.  As any veteran could tell you [though they probably won't, because this is kept inside the brotherhood].  If the reader needs it, I know a military NCO from Canada who would be happy to come make comment, arguing the validity here.  Or you can believe Simon Sinek.

It is about a million times more interesting if the party remembers when the fighter got down on his knees and crawled, with the attitude that they would fight to the death anyone who dared say it was true ... because that is fucking real, people. That is life. That is where this game could be.

Randomness isn't dull.  Randomness is a threat.  It is a gun pointed at your head.  It is a bullet that says, "If you don't figure this shit out as best you can, I am going right through your skull."  That is not boring.  That is not something that we describe with equivalencies and statements like "we all play different games."

No, I am playing for stakes on a field you can't even find.  This post is describing one simple bridge, in one simple situation, and I play this way for everything that happens in my game. Your role as player is to try to control every situation to the point where you don't have to roll ... and ultimately to accept, sooner or later, there are going to be rolls you can't sidestep, that you will have to choke down.  And as your hand reaches for your die, you're going to realize something you've never realized while playing an RPG before.

Your hand will be shaking.


Stipulated, I am a Canadian. However …

The second paragraph of the U.S. Declaration of Independence states, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal …”

It has taken two amendments to straighten out this “self-evidence,” the 14th and the 19th, but I take no issue with that here. Rather, I’d like to point out something that 99.999% of the world does when reading or hearing this, which the Gentle Reader most likely also did.

Most read this as “… all men are equal.”

The word “created” is ignored, dismissed, glossed over or otherwise discounted in arguments about the equality of individuals. Yet no sane person really believes that “all persons” are equal. The Revolutionary Soldier initiated by the Declaration certainly did not consider the British soldier to have an equal voice in the affairs of the new America. The British Soldier was being given two options, and two options only. Quit or die. Of course, the Brit was giving the revolutionists the same options, but the Brit was not kidding himself about anyone being equal.

When we decide to shoot someone, we do so from a self-styled position of superiority, where we believe we have the inalienable right to take away from someone all that they have, and whatever value they have to family and friends. This is why all arguments against war begin with someone saying, “Those people have as much right as you to their ideas, place of residence, choices, freedom to act, etcetera,” and all arguments for war answer, “No, they don’t.”

The word "created" is not an accidental adjective that flew off Jefferson's pen and was then ignored by the Declaration's 56 signers.  It's very clear what it means.  It means that what you do with your life after being created matters ... and that if you want to be treated as someone better than equal, you had better try be better than equal.  Or else, you will have to live with being less than equal.

But our re-reading of the Constitution, and all like documents, discards this condition.  "I have a right to equality because I am a human," the present-day argument goes.  "I have blood, I have flesh, I have feelings, I am therefore the equivalent to everyone ..." followed by that most important rejoiner, "... and everyone is equivalent to ME."

A number of social philosophies have gotten us here.  The whole Soviet experiment, along with Orwell's answer to it, which has stigmatized the words, "More equal than others," to the degree that anyone who dares to lift their head above the trough is trying to live in the farmer's house.  Coincidentally, all those shouting at us to keep our head in the trough clearly have their heads out of it, since they can see us well enough to rebuke our momentary curiosity about things.

The insistence on absolute equality for all, regardless of distinction, is flooding through every social discourse at the present.  In a recent interview with a long-time heroine of mine, Christie Blatchford, who used to write brilliant pieces for the Canadian Globe and Mail, when it was a good paper, Jordan Peterson made the point clear in this discussion:
Blatchford: "How is it possible that we don't recognize that ... there's that minimum on one end and then there's somebody who's sexually assaulting women, physically raping them."
Peterson: "Well some of it is, there's a concerted effort on the part of the radical postmodern left to erase the distinction between categories of critical behaviour ... the postmodernists don't like categories.  If you go way down into the structure of the current culture wars, what you see is that at the very base of it, there's two things that the postmodern neo-Marxists are, they're full-scale assaulting.  One is categorization, because they believe that the only function of categorization is power.  The other one is that there's a war on competence, because if you admit that there are hierarchical structures that are predicated on competence, then you have to grapple with the issue of competence."

Now, let's back off a little, because this isn't a political blog, this is a gaming blog ... and I am going in the direction of gaming, where I will get before this post is over.  But I am laying the groundwork for what I'm seeing everywhere, because I believe the above attack on distinction is right.  "Created equal" and then failing at life from a lack of competence is not "Always equal," something that we're told to believe but that we really don't.  And there's the trough again.  Argue against the latter and you're taking your head out of the trough and daring to think out loud, for yourself.

[I hate that this has all been assigned to labeled groups like the "neo-Marxists" or the "postmodernists."  It's a short-hand, but it unfortunately plays into the hands of the alt-right, who can take a label and make it into an oppressor themselves.  But I digress]

The subject of gaming is under siege as well by these same philosophical equivalencies.  The most commonly used argument runs thusly: "It is just one of the ways to play, it is just a different system, everything has pros and cons, such and such does not automatically produce a better game and therefore can be dismissed," and so on.  Arguments that don't specifically deconstruct or discuss the matter at hand, but rather take the approach that "I have seen an example of that sort of game, and it didn't impress me; and all of that sort of game is exactly equal, so once I have seen one, I have seen them all."

It is an easy position to take, particularly in that my comfort with my game is never compromised by ideas that I can dismiss, taking the position that my narrow perspective is sufficient to make me an expert.

Here's something that keeps coming up with RPGs that is particularly telling ~ and I have done this myself.  "I have been playing for 20, 30, 40 years, and I know what role-playing is."

Do we?  Can any of us?  Here is a game with no real universal presence at all. There are perhaps a dozen on-line games that can offer a shared media experience ... none of which are open to new participants, most of which are funded by the company, and none of which offers any in game discussion of the rules while the game is ongoing.  In other words, these are mock-presentations that have little, if any, similarity to a real game between real participants who are not playing for the sake of celebrity.

And how many "games" can a person really say they've played in, say, 40 years.  If you've DM'd all that time, most of those "games" are just one game, yours.  Which is fully capable of deluding any of us into thinking we have all the answers, because by gum, we've been doing this so damn long.  Most of the rest of these "games" that we've played were fleeting moments, a session or two ... and anyone with a lot of sessions under their belt got them at Conventions, where the DM was collared, with hands tied, by a presentation-agenda that did not allow much latitude.  And what were these sessions anyway, in terms of hours?  Three?  Four?  No one, anywhere, can hope to understand a gamemaster's world or style in a time like that.

So when we pretend we are "experienced" in gaming, we mean, "more than a noob."  But this is not the same as a player in the NFL who has been playing football with and against strangers for hours since they entered their first league at six, amid a shared experience where every professional game and tens of thousands of amateur games are recorded, dissected and replayed over and over, providing twenty and thirty thousand hours of experience to every participant.

Our "experience" at role-playing is not equivalent.  It can't be.  And we should realize this.  There is so much out there that we will never see, so many good DMs and Players that we will never meet, no matter how many games we play and no matter how many Conventions we attend.

So we can't just say, "I've seen that style of play and it doesn't work for me."  We've got to explain exactly why.  Without the generalized, personalized, supposed opinions based on experience.  If it is random die rolls that are the problem, we've got to say why they don't work, in detail, with examples, conceding that there may be ways of rolling dice in a game that we just haven't considered.  Because it isn't universal, this dice rolling thing.  Not by a damn sight.

And if I take umbrage with something like Alignment, say, then I'm equally under the gun.  I can't argue, "I tried it and it didn't work, so I don't use it."  That is an argument from ignorance.  That is me saying, I, personally, with my phenomenal brain [so conceived] couldn't make it work, therefore it doesn't.  Horseshit.  That is me arguing that because I'm equal with everyone else who likes alignment, my opinion is just as valid as theirs.  And people who like alignment would be right to disregard any argument of mine that ran that way.

If I'm going to go after alignment, I need a better argument.  I need a universal position, one that argues from evidence: as in, according to psychology, we have no evidence to show that human beings ever behave according to one set of dictates.  Or, according to psychology, it is quite clear that every human being, given the right circumstances, is capable of being both the best of the species and the worst of the species.  This argument doesn't argue my opinion or my experience; it argues the millions of lives spent contributing to a body of knowledge that is indisputable by any single person's opinion and experience.  It is a body of knowledge that disregards opinion.

And those of us who are better than equal human beings are those able to recognize this, because it represents our movement forward from jungle law and imbecility, while those who resist this recognition are less than equal because they can't fucking tell the difference.

This insistent, ludicrous clinging to a false equivalency of opinion, as I say, has the social discourse by the throat.  And the way out of it is to recognize the equivalency when we hear it and call it out for what it is: a desperate grasp at having merit where no merit has been earned.

We are not equal.  We are created equal.  And then some of us fail.

Some who have failed can and are ready to fix this.  And some aren't.  They want the world remade to suit them.  But here's the key to that.

That we are created equal, but do not remain equal, is self-evident. That is, we have no control over it.  Whatever laws we pass, whatever philosophies we engineer, whatever bullshit we tell ourselves at night to help us sleep, in every social system that ever is, the better than equal people will find their way to the top and the less than equal people will find their way to the bottom.  The only winning strategy is not to be less than equal.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

All Con

The other concern I have with the video in the previous post is this, which happened early in the video and then later:

"The most dangerous thing here was getting on the ship.  It was 50 feet up and we had to make two athletic rolls and of course, none of us could climb.  Several of the players kept falling off and breaking their legs and arms.  Those vines ... they wanted us dead."
"We pried up some damaged boards and made it down to the lower decks and started exiting the ship of the NPC's, climbing down on the vines.  And this is where the ship crew started dying like flies.  Even more than earlier ~ not the gorillas, but the vines.  Because remember, all the ship crew have exhaustion; meaning that they suffer penalties when climbing.  If they stay, they'll get burned alive.  So it was like, "All right you guys, come down here."  First guy [falling body]: "You're dead!"  [falling body] "You're dead!" [falling body] "You're ... also dead." [falling body] "Wow, he's still alive ~ just both of his legs are broken."

Okay.  So most readers were probably laughing through this.  So funny.  Breaking arms and legs, impossible vines, hah hah hah. 

I see nothing funny about this.  I see a seriously broken game, with a set of irrational arbitrary demands from a DM who is virtually non-existent in the teller's narrative.  I see my players, not being able to climb, asking if the ship is worth salvaging (not apparently), does it look like it has treasure (possibly), testing the vines and asking, "how safe are these," to which I would have to rationally answer, "Not safe in any way, whatsoever," because characters are actual people and people can perfectly able to recognize a situation that will probably put their lives in extreme danger.  I would presume characters, being adventurers and therefore skilled at assessing risk, would be doubly able to do so.

So the characters in my game would ponder, and figure out a way to use the trees to which the vines are attached, or chop the trees down, to cause the ship to crash to the ground, with the argument, "the gold will be fine."

But once discovering the crew was aboard, the characters would be, "How can we enable the crew to descend without our having to go up?"  And that would produce a lot of possible answers, such as digging out blankets and lacing them together, to create a thing to catch the crew, or some other means to produce a soft landing.  And if the crew refused to jump, I can see my players asking, "Are we really firemen here?  If they can't save themselves ..."

There's no way, no way in the world, that any players of mine would try to climb vines that were so hard to climb that two rolls were a virtual guarantee of falling. And if one did try, that first failure would absolutely, certainly, ensure the players did not send up another character by the vines.  What I get from the story, then, is the DM pointing at the players and saying, "Thou shalt climb the vines, because I order it," and the players answering, "Yes master, we are thy miserable chattel, we are grateful for the privilege of licking your boots with our dice."

And this makes me really, really mad.

Just now, as I get the online Juvenis campaign in motion again, the players have come to a four-foot-wide stone bridge over a 100 foot drop, in a dark cavern, with sounds, and without any certainty of what may be in the half dark.  They are taking it quite seriously.  No one has made a joke about dying.  The most sure-footed is making her way out onto the bridge.

How would it be if I, as DM, decided that to cross this bridge, everyone should have to make two rolls that would produce a 50% chance of a character falling to their death.  How fun!  How exciting!  Wow, we're really playing D&D now, aren't we?

What a load of bollocks.  You, dear reader, can laugh at the hilarity of the Puffin Forrest video, but the truth is, it's a really, really crappy stand-in for an "adventure."  The concept, the expected adherence to the DM's solution to the problem, the arc of the undead appearing and the ability of undead gorillas to flawlessly climb these vines (unless, hm, they imaginatively climbed up some other way ...) is just gawddamned bloody sad.

I am sorry, very sorry, that to play this game you have to prostrate yourself to this level of creativity.  And then, from desperation to defend it, to argue that somehow it is "fun."  Yes, so fun, to roll dice that ensure failure, to take part in a sequence of events that a NASCAR fan would find infantile, in order to have something to do on a Saturday night.

I ... I just ...

When I started this blog in 2008, I had issues with D&D that I had been carrying around for years, knowing the sort of narratives that had been floating around the game since the early 80s.  But you know, it's not surprising that stuff like White Plume Mountain is deified as a game adventure ... when compared to what is being described here.  At an official company organized event.

And I had someone tell me yesterday that this 5e thing  is "just a different system, with different pros and cons."  All I see is con.  Mounds and mounds of con.  Holy shit, it's the wrath of con.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

When the Character is Smarter than the Player

"... the warlock decided to help out by casting flaming sphere.  However, he forgot the fact that 'flaming sphere' is a sphere that is flaming ... as in, it has flames, and the wooden ship immediately caught fire.  Oh, this is much better!"

If you watch the video, this event occurs about 4 minutes in, as the party is fighting undead gorillas.  I actually kind of like this narrator, but the above example is something I have heard repeatedly in D&D war story videos.  What it says about what seems to be a typical game is ... troubling.

Basically, the story goes like this.  The party is in trouble.  The mage casts a spell.  It is a really, really bad choice of a spell to cast, because in varying ways it is like deciding to get away from the bad guys by lighting the car's gas tank on fire.

And every time the example crops up, the DM never says, "Your mage is perfectly aware of the ramifications of that spell, and therefore will be aware that this is the effect that will happen; do you still want to cast that spell and potentially kill yourself?"

Whereupon, given the intelligence of the players as described (the video above being an example), the mage would probably say "yes," but that isn't the point.

What is it with the proliferation of this game philosophy?

As human beings, we know how tools work.  We know what will happen if we hit our foot with a hammer.  It is probable, then, unless we are batshit insane, that we're not going to do that, especially in the middle of a crisis.  "My wife is in labor, before I get the car started, I rush immediately to my tool box, pull out my hammer, and start hitting my feet with it!"

That's how this shit reads.

I blink furiously as I realize that this is the level of play that goes on.  And the level of DMing.  And apparently the level of how these humans comprehend both communication and sensibility.

IF we want to give any advice on how to improve game play, we might start by educating players as to how their spells, and any other tools they have, work.  And the effects they have.  And what to expect when the tools are used.  AND perhaps pasting a warning label on character sheets that reads, "Spell; Use with Intelligence."

Instead, we're allowing both players and DMs to play out high level intelligence characters as imbeciles in the old clinical sense, apparently because no one wants to take responsibility for the question, "Are you sure?"

I remember when I started running the game blog, I had some players who took umbrage that I, as DM, would dare to question their decisions for their character's actions, as though somehow I was breaking some massive rule that argued I was not allowed to express my human incomprehension at totally illogical instructions.  I don't see it that way.  I think that human beings, with a hammer in their hands, about to hit their feet as hard as they can, have a little voice that pops up in their heads and says, "What the fuck am I doing?"

And I think a DM has a right to be that little voice. Indeed, a responsibility to be so.

Look.  The player is sitting at a game table.  The character is factually in a visual, audial, tactile world, with blood pumping and self-awareness that, apparently, the player is often ignorant about.  If the player can't picture the character about to do something that is clearly irrational, given the character's sensory input, then I am going to make that input clearer to the player!  "Hey, player, if you cast that flaming sphere, everything in the room is going to catch on fire.  Your character knows this.  How come you don't?"

I know this is sacrilege.  But I feel it needs to be addressed.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

North Wowotu Production, Part II

See Part I.

Close up visual available with this link.

Now the reader can see that I've reduced the sizes of the references, adding additional icons for labor, food and wealth.  There are only six hexes on the map that generate "wealth."  All the references on the map generate "income," but we can see that as money that must needs be poured back into the system, to maintain the roads and move the goods and buy outside products, etcetera.  "Wealth" is categorized here as "disposable income," or money that can be used for unusual purposes beyond an ordinary budget and expenses.  This money can be given to expanding education or development, used for war, or it can be used to line the pockets of the local lords.

I haven't calculated if there is enough food to feed the population.  However, I could calculate it, fairly easily, but I did that with another post once and got little response.  Truth is, food is a changeable element.  We can establish how much food is needed to feed how many people a diet of 2,200 calories a day, but people can live on less and be malnourished, with shorter lifespans, and people can certainly live on more.  Food won't be distributed evenly, whatever our calculations ... the more important thing here is to see how much food would be available if an army chose to plunder a location, or how much must be shipped out of a hex during that time of the year when it is harvested.

This is pretty much it, for the moment.  I think I am going to talk about other things for a while; I'm working myself into doing the podcasts, which at the moment is getting me to research about how people respond to people and what are good strategies for encouraging communication.  That's where the Simon Sinek video came from, for instance.

I am going to come back around to the infrastructure and development concept: but surely this experiment has proved something.  I took a group of perfectly random answers from 12 different people, and produced a completely workable landscape that is the equivalent of any fantasy map that is out there, doing nothing but tracing through the logical effects of terrain, vegetation, the placement of the settlement and the sort of products that might exist.  With any other group of products, with a different collection of terrains or vegetation, signifying a different climate, we could obtain a positively, identifiably different habitat, based mostly on what the inhabitants do, as opposed to where the inhabitants live.

I hope that many of you have learned some lessons, that you've had your eyes opened to why most game maps fail utterly to move your players and what can be done about it.

I hesitate to say this, but ... the reader knows I don't actually have to spend this extra time making a game map I'll never use, for the sole purpose of spending many hours presenting the case, and then painstakingly teaching it.  But I do it for my own self-aggrandizement, for the sake of causing others to view me with respect, and because I sincerely want your worlds to be BETTER worlds.  I want you to stop trailing after the miserable, established, old crappy way of doing things and realize that there is room to design better structures, better systems and elaborate upon better ideas.  Please understand me when I say, to hell with the OSR.  The Renaissance was nice and all, but it wasn't about doing things the old way, it was about taking the old ways and using them as a jumping off point to change the world in a million different ways.  We didn't get Rome from the Renaissance.  We got the Enlightenment, which brought the Industrial Revolution and all of this wonderful health and existing possibility that we have today.

So let's stop putting old D&D on a pedestal.  Let's make a better, greater D&D, let's do it ourselves and let's stop waiting for someone else to do it for us.

Oh, and if you could ... support my Patreon.  That would be nice.

North Wowotu Production, Part I

Above, the reader will find that I have added all the various reader-chosen references to the map of what I'll start calling North Wowotu.  The location of the references was determined randomly, according to arbitrary designs I've created for designating where a particular type of reference might appear.  Some features of the map were done according to my whim.  Someone else might have drawn the roads in a different way, or the lake in a different way, but the important thing to remember is that it doesn't matter.  What matters is that we get a collection of details that form an interesting framework for running adventures.

First, landscape.

I made anything with a type-5 hex or better into lowland, though there are hills all around.  The hills are black, the type-7 hexes almost hills and the type-6 hexes lower still.  The desert areas beyond the hills in the upper right are gray.  There is a ridge that runs down the middle of the district, with two gaps on either side of the wilderness hex at 0805.  To clear up the map a little, I have reduced the "hex type" number to a "- x" after the hex location number.  As in, "0806-5" for a type-5 hex.

I'll go through the placement of things now.

Port Tethys is the only settlement hex of type 1, 2 or 3, so all the heavy manufacturing has to go there, the shipbuilding, the tools and the two market references.  Let me remind the reader that although "Rainus" has a little white circle, it is technically a "rural" type-2 hex.  The circle is a private manor village, not a public village like Avalon or a public city like Port Tethys.  Go to Rainus and you will get harassed by the local Reeve.

The farms for rice were placed in a random hex of type 5 or better.  As they came out next to each other, I added a lake, to account for the water that rice needs.  The lake then makes an obstacle for any good road to Avalon - it would need a bridge to cross the river to the sea, and why do that when sea travel between Port Tethys and Avalon is so easy?  So there is no easy foot access from one part of the district to another.

The gold and iron went into random type-7 or type-6 hexes.  The limestone and salt went into random type-6 or type-5 hexes.  The logic is that since stone is needed for building, a settlement will be built nearer to it; and conversely, randomly placed stone should be nearer to a settlement.  Here, we see that one limestone was very close to Port Tethys and one was nearer to Avalon.

I decided that since the gold in 1103 was closer to the "Manor" in 0804 than to Avalon, that the Manor actually controlled the gold and therefore the road should go in that direction, along with the close iron.  The other gold goes to Avalon.

Hosiery is a handicraft, so it can be made at a manor estate ... I rolled randomly and it ended up at the Manor rather than Rainus.  The salt in 0807,

Both salt references ended up on low land sea hexes, so I assume it is being made from the sea.  Salt is not a "heavy" production, like ore or stone.  It can be hauled on donkeys, mules or in carts - so it is better to haul it to Rainus than up and over the hill to Avalon.  It can be carried to the lake, boated across, then taken along the road towards the market.  The salt in 0406 can be hauled across the bay.

That just leaves the sheep.

Now, there are two kinds of roads.  A thicker line and a narrow line.  The thick line is a road made of ground stone and broken pottery laid over of clay.  This is a Dev7 region, so we shouldn't expect better than that.  The narrow line is a cart track, with two hardened ruts.

Throughout the map the reader can see round red dots.  These are carter posts, which work like medieval truck-stops.  Carter posts may be continuously occupied or not, or seasonally occupied (Wowotu might have a short, wet, unpleasant season, justified by the rice production).

Gold needs a heavy road because any shipment would be rigorously defended, and would want a good, wide passage to ensure a minimal likelihood of ambush.  Iron needs big wagons to haul ore.  There are no iron foundries anywhere in North Wowotu, so the best is a few smithys that would exist at Port Tethys.  Most of the ore is shipped out of the district in raw form.  Limestone must be treated the same way.

Sheep, however, can be driven, and the low-weight fleece can be transported on carts, so they only need cart tracks.  Pastures, where sheep are raised, occur in rural 4, 5 or 6 hexes.  There might be good forage where the rice is raised, but the land there is used for rice and the sheep are not welcome.

All told, there are four half-references that ship to the Manor, four that ship to Rainus and four that ship to Avalon.  Port Tethys accounts for 11 half-references (the markets, the shipbuilding and the tools are each a full reference).  And ultimately everything has to go through Port Tethys, to be sold or exported elsewhere.

So we have a demonstrable economy, which in turn describes the local politics clearly.  It tells us why the roads exist, what to expect to meet upon them and where the influences of local patrols and interests are placed.  It gives us a good social reference for what it is like to be a salt-digger in 0406 vs. one in 0807, and what it is like to be a sheep farmer in 0504 vs. one in 1102.  We have four wildernesses for players to investigate, ranging from a little hex near town to a big pile of nothing at the northern border.  That gives something for characters of widely different levels to cut their teeth on.

The next step is to calculate labor, wealth and food to the map ~ which I shall try to have up later today.

Continue to Part II.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Dying on a Hill

“I’ve spoken to so many people, smart people, people who are sort of on the conservative side of things, or at least don’t see themselves as social justice warriors ~ and their attitude is often, ‘Oh well, you know, so what, it’s not such a big deal.  I’m not willing to die on this hill,’ I hear that a lot.  And I understand that.  I mean, there are a lot of hills I’m not willing to die on either ~ and the left always makes it a matter of dying on a hill.”

~ Janice Fiamengo, professor in english studies at the University of Ottawa.

I found this funny yesterday, since I've used exactly that phrase twice on this blog in the last week, and was thinking, wow, "I've got to stop saying that."  Now I'm thinking it would make a good name for a D&D blog.  That's what heroes do, after all, and we're told that D&D player characters are heroes ... so it makes sense.

Why, oh why, does the left make it about dying on a hill?

That's simple.  It is because, for those on the left, this is a personal war, in part waged in our past and in the pain and suffering of other people that we witness.  It is strange that the right can so easily understand why Liam Neeson can go berserk, murdering and killing dozens of bad guys until he can save his daughter, but they can't understand why a group of leftists are willing to fight to rewrite laws so they can save their friends and families who are suffering and dying as victims of austerity cuts, racist law enforcement, social stigmatization and, in some cases, legally condoned rape.

It's war.  We get that the right doesn't get that, that for them it is just business as usual, or that they feel we should all just quiet down because the Schutzstaffel have it under control and, "What's the point anyway, you won't win."  Yeah, we know we won't win.  But that's the thing about war.  It isn't won by one soldier, it is won by thousands or millions, who won't quit, who won't stop, who will keep going until the enemy loses their will to fight or runs out of resources.  This is how Vietnam defeats a big country like America, this is how the Basque and Catalonian regions of Spain just won't quit trying for independence, whatever concessions they have been given, this is why there are gays still fighting in Russia even though there are thousands who have been imprisoned and executed.  Because they know, in the end, someone will win this fight.  And they know, if we, you and I, hold this hill today, if we make them pay in blood to take it, that will hold these bastards up long enough that our brothers and sisters will gain the resources they need to come back some day and take it, and all the hills that all the people like us have died on.

And those who won't fight?  Civilians.  In modern warfare, legitimate targets.  Because, as Sherman understood in his March to the Sea, as Sheridan understood as he laid waste to the Shenandoah valley, as the Russians understood as they burned the fields in retreat and left people who wouldn't flee behind to die of starvation, as the Allies understood as they bombed Dresden, as the Americans understood as they bombed Cambodia, if you're not on our side, you're aiding and supporting the enemy ~ which makes YOU part of the problem.

No one ever gets to say if something is a war or not.  If one side is willing to fight, the other must, and everyone caught in the middle must endure.  There's no sense in getting on your haunches and saying, "Why are you fighting?"  One side, or both sides, have their reasons, and so it goes.  If you want the war to stop, give us this hill.  If you won't, then we'll kill you as you come forward until we die on this place, right here.  Come on you Apes, you want to live forever?

News and Patronage

So far, I've accumulated eight guests for my podcast, expressing various concerns about what they can meaningfully say that will be useful for listeners.  I take this as a good sign.  We're replete with "experts."  We can use some people expressing doubt.

I'm thinking now that my best course will be to put together 10-13 podcasts (13 would be ideal), then call that a season and take three months off, then do it again.  Two seasons a year, for 13 episodes a season, would be my target.

But of course I have yet to do an interview.  I'm gathering together my resources, fermenting my mind on the general concept and waiting for inspiration.  That is what I do a great deal: wait for inspiration.

Yesterday, I restarted the Juvenis campaign.  It will probably be a slow start; I work inconsistent days and half days Monday to Thursday, limiting my involvement to the afternoon and evening, while Fridays, the day I'm sure to get off, always were pretty slow for the gang.  So, the campaign will likely crawl along, until my situation changes.  Still, it is good to be running online again.  I get a kick out of it.

I've updated a load of maps on the wiki, those with A, B or C in the file names, work that I've been grinding at for months and months now.  I found there were some shortcomings, too, on the map files for those who have donated sufficiently to my Patreon, which I've corrected.  If you're a contributor, have a look at the private map files also. The most recent two that I've updated are Brittania and Germania.  There are some considerable aesthetic additions to these maps, along these lines.

Let's see, what else?  I recently got into an argument on Twitter about artists being paid for their work.  The position I argued against is a common maxim posed by university and post-secondary trained artists, who are propagandized to "Never, ever, ever, work for free for anyone ever, period."  The agenda behind this is plain and obvious to every creative soul in every field:  established artists, particularly established artists dependent on grants for survival, don't want the competition.  The maxim is always presented as something that is in YOUR personal interest, if you are an artist, but it is really just speaking from fear.

It is, of course, ridiculous.  I'm creating right now, for free.  So are millions of other people, because they enjoy creating and because they don't expect to be paid for it anyway.  Of course, I'd like to be paid, and in a greater sense my readers do pay me, regularly, because they appreciate what I do.  But this has nothing to do with how much content I choose to produce, because I love producing and sometimes have to restrain myself from doing so.  This is a blog with too many words and I'm always ready to add more.

Those artists who most pitch the "Don't Work For Free" belief are almost always static visual artists ~ either painters or graphic artists ~ coming from a very specific institutional framework, usually an art school.  And such people look down on writers, they always have.  We are the scum of the art field, usually because to get into the field of writing, writing for free is the only method.  Long, long before we can expect a publisher to print us, it is necessary to enter non-paying writing competitions as early as elementary schools, followed by hundreds of hours writing plays and scripts for high school drama departments (because there is no writer-arts department), followed by writing anything and everything in an attempt to get noticed.  So being told, "Don't write for free," sounds like the spastic grunts of a pig caught between the stiles of its pen.

Of course, by the time we are paid (and I've enjoyed steady work at 30 cents a word, which would make this free blog worth $750,000), writing is easy.  The computer forms the letters for me, requiring no physical skills whatsoever, while thinking and writing become pretty much the same process.  Which is why painters don't think of us as "real artists."

Anyway, I got some peeps angry with me about this, but no never mind.  The thing that has to be remembered about making any sort of creative thing is that making it is more important than being paid for it.  If no one is paying you, make it anyway, because what you'll learn through making and problem solving is more valuable to you than steadfastly refusing to work because there's no paycheque.

Moreover, working for free enables mutual collaboration with other artists at your own level, where neither of you expect to be paid right now.  It makes for contacts in the future, opportunities, gained skill in dealing with others and getting to feel your own voice without training yourself to be a slave to someone with a wallet.  That's the worst thing about being creative and in someone else's pocket; you can't speak your mind, because there's always the chance that causing offense will make the money go away.

Work.  That's the only thing that matters.  In this fabulous age, with the internet, with direct contact with the customer, with hundreds of conventions that will let you sell in real time, with Patreon and other like sights, the world has never been friendlier for the Do-It-Yourself Artist.  Believe me, I grew up in a time where the doors were all closed, all the time.

The only thing standing between you right now and getting your art and your message to a friendly, supportive audience is how many skills you have, against how many you'll have to pay for.  Learn to lay out your product, learn how to sell, learn how to write a blurb, learn how to page design, learn how to draw or copyread or edit.  Learn.  You may be awful at it to begin with; look at me, I still have many shortcomings.  But if you pitch and try and rework, things get better and better, you get smarter and smarter, your work develops, you gain confidence and in the end, you don't need anyone.

You are your own Patron.