Friday, February 23, 2018

The Wiki Begins to Move

So, with working on it all morning, I have shifted 70 pages onto the wiki, mostly index pages.  Everything that I've worked on thus far is associated with Player Characters ... and so it will go for quite some time, as I have hundreds of spells to take from Wikispaces to Blogger.  As well as many sage abilities.

After I get all the Player Character Material across, I will start working on Combat.  Then, probably, Trade & Equipment.  By then, the back of the task will be broken.

Right now, the wiki all works, all the links should be sound (though probably there's an error here or there).  The way I've done it, a reader will notice that the original wiki and the new blog are interchanged completely, so that movement back and forth is seamless. There shouldn't be any dead links along the way.  That's the goal, anyway.

There were lots of places on the past wiki that did lead nowhere.  Projects that weren't finished, spell lists that still had spells that weren't written yet ... I do tend to change from project to project, without worrying about whether or not I'll come back to something. Eventually, I always do.  If there are five 4th level druid spells without descriptions, or nothing at all for 5th level spells and higher, its because this is work that doesn't need doing right away.

I haven't gotten a comment on the blogger-wiki yet, and I'm not surprised.  I deliberately wrote a harsh rejoiner on the comments field:
Comments are welcome; however, the content on this blog is not purposed for critical evaluation. Comments are strictly limited to errors in text, need for clarification, suggested additions, link fails and other technical errors, personal accounts of how the rule as written applied in their campaign and useful suggestions for other rules pages.
All other comments will be deleted.

Let's face it; we all know what the internet is.  I'm absolutely interested in receiving comments, and letting the site be somewhat open in that way ... but I want useful comments, along the principles upon which the wiki is built.  I don't care how some other game system solves a problem, or what people "feel" about a rule, or anything that isn't hard business on the matter.  I do want any comment that says, "link such-and-such doesn't work" or pointing out a spelling error.  Once I fix the error, I can then remove such comments.

Other comments, I hope, will stand the test of time.  I'll just have to see.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Two Million


While I was recording, the blog rolled over: two million page views.

Ah, not bad, not bad. Of course, some do this in a weekend, with a single youtube video, but it still feels like an accomplishment to me.  Not because of the number, but because I've been ready to write 2,563 blog posts (including this one) in order to eek out this number from my readers.

Makes me feel like I can definitely do more.  I'm consciously thinking, all the time, of what skills I can bring to bear, in what ways, to bring more light to the business of role-playing and entertainment.  The deconstructions are about that.  As are the podcasts.  As was the comic last year, or the long investigation into game design that I explored.

There is just so much to this field, untapped as it were, that I feel still needs uncovering.  To that end, I go on reading, researching, discussing, evaluating and approaching, always being rewarded with something new and different in my travels.

I am more than glad to transfer all of that to you, my Gentle and much Esteemed Readers.  Pat yourselves on the back.  You opened your browsers to this blog two million times!


Tao of D&D's Wiki

I'm going to have to keep this post to the point, as I have an interview in 54 minutes.

I have started shifting my wiki. And I have decided to do it in what must be the stupidest way possible, which will have many a computer programmer face-palming hard enough to break their knuckles.

Here's the thing.

I've looked over the wikis that are out there and they have problems.  Some are clearly still using the same technology that was advanced in 2001.  Some are painfully restricted in content size, as little as 50 megabytes, which is also obviously a 2001 issue.  Others are overloaded with media crap, making them effectively useless for pleasant perusal.  And finally, the remainder are unfriendly either in the loading process, or in the need to be hosted by a third party platform.

Sigh.

The thing that worries me most is that I will move all this content onto a new system, which will then crash land in its turn.  It is suddenly clear to me that wiki technology is not taking off, it is not something that has captured the imagination of the common crowd and it is something that will probably be on its way out.  I need a platform that I can count on, that I know will still be there five years from now, that I am familiar with, that is friendly, and most of all, is free.

So I have decided to handle this the way that suits me.  In some ways, this will be less pleasant for some users; other users will not give a damn.  Most users, I think, because we've all learned how to use a search engine.

I have decided to create yet another blog.

This will create some issues.  There's no RSS feed, there's no backlink support, there's no way to undo or adjust changes that another user would make on the wiki ... and so, effectively, I'm going it alone again.  And I'm fine with that.  My concern is that I can reliably shift the wiki to another source and that I won't have to do this again next year.

The good side is that, first, the shift is made EASY because I'm familiar with blogger and because blogger doesn't care about excessive program applications - which I don't need and I don't use.  I couldn't give a damn about RSS or most of the features the Wikispaces offered.  What I care about is TEXT, images and links.

I began blending a new blog with the old wiki today and it is already going pretty well.

The other good feature is that the blog allows both comments and comment moderation.  That sounds like fun.

I'm not happy yet with the way the blog looks, but that can be adjusted still.  Anyway, if you want a look, I suggest starting with the General Index.

[P.S.  I was sure there was a way to reverse the order in which the blog published, so that the oldest post always showed first ~ no one uses that feature, but I thought it was there.  If anyone can find it for me, I'd appreciate it.]

Podcasting Notes, Thoughts

So, some notes on the podcast.

I've done three interviews now, with a fourth being set to be recorded this evening.  I don't want to give any notes on the past that will jinx any of the interviews going forward, but I do think there are some things I can say with some fairness.  Particularly as I have now begun cutting audio for final copy.

Having an agenda as a guest is a bad idea.  Not because the agenda is wrong or because we shouldn't have agendas ... nay, I'm all for a good, solid agenda, whether or not it supports my viewpoint.  However, I'm finding that an agenda tends to blot out the guest's preparedness to just talk about stuff.  Once the agenda is off their chest and on tape, I'm finding the wherewithal isn't there to start a new conversation on a new subject.  I've had two guests enter the interview with this approach.

It is beginning to look like one of the three interviews just isn't going to work because of this ~ which is a damn shame, but this is a learning process.  I can tell you from experience, not every journalism interview ends in a story, not every screenplay gets produced, not every pilot gets picked up for a series and not every book gets published.  It is the way of things.

It would be worse if I ignored the facts and published the podcast anyway ... for the present, however, I'm still thinking I can save the interview in the editing process.

As regards that, there are still things I am learning about sound, as well.  I have to adjust my mic going forward, or else I'm going to have to fix everything I say in editing (I am just too damn loud at this time).  That's already mounting up to be a big job.

My plan is to collect 13 interviews and run them over 13 weeks.  At the moment, I have 11 guests, including the three I've done ... so I just need two more.  After the 13 week run, I intend to have a 3-month hiatus, and then begin recording for another 13 episodes, most likely with a different theme.  This will make two series a year, with three month breaks in between.

It is pretty ambitious, and perhaps it won't work.  Still, I'm not crippled by the editing (I kind of like it, actually, it is sort of relaxing), and I am certainly comfortable in the chair interviewing guests.  I think, too, that hearing me speak humanizes me in a way that my writing does not.

When will the first podcast run?  Not sure.  I'd like to have a number of episodes in place before I start to broadcast them.

At the same time, a part of me says, "Fuck the TV schedule crap."  Why not just release the podcasts when they're finished, like any other content I release on the net?  I admit, I'm less and less convinced that people rush to the net to search for a podcast they know is being released on a given day.  We may be witnessing the end of culture's infatuation with scheduled content ~ and that is not necessarily a bad thing.

If I released all 13 podcasts on the same day, some people would binge; some people would listen to a few and punk out.  Some would half listen to some, listen all the way through others.  It would be uncertain, for sure.

But releasing them week by week is no better.  People would listen to this week's, then forget next week and the week after, only to vaguely remember there were podcasts, search and find three waiting for them.

I think the only reason to release them one at a time is so that I can highlight each individual episode on the blog, on facebook and on twitter.  But in that case, who cares what the period between podcasts is?  Five days, ten days, two days ... whenever the next one is up, I'm going to write about it anyway, and subscribers are going to get told.  So a weekly schedule just isn't necessary.

These are thoughts in my mind as I settle in to edit, and as I continue interviewing.  What happens, happens.  Watch this space for more information.



Sunday, February 18, 2018

Robur's House

The following sequence arose from events associated with the Campaign Senex, played April 19, 2010.

The sequence relates to a number of events surrounding a mystery the party has only just understood ~ that being, that there doppelgangers slowly taking over a town in Germany, replacing town officials one by one.  The clues for this have led them to a name: Robur ... and then to the discovery of Robur's house.

At first they don't even see the house, which is part of the plan.  My goal with deconstructing this incident is to discuss revealing a scene, in order to freak the players out a little.  Remember that this has to be done without any pictures whatsoever, just as if I were describing this at a gaming table.

Note that out-of-campaign comments being made by the players will be shown in brackets: [*] and not in italics.  To focus on the main purpose of this post, I will be editing bits and pieces from the original post-and-comment stream.


DM: ... it is just two miles from the Ingolstadt-Nuremberg road that the party stumbles across a disturbing scene.
The first sight is not wholly informative; where the road takes a dip and turns to the left, about twenty yards beyond - below a stout apple tree, and partly concealed by it - the party can see the torn body of a horse. It appears to be quite dead. Just beyond, there is a body hung over a fence stile, on its side and facing away from the party. The body is covered with blood, but there is something familiar about it.
Now, it should be understood that all is relative silence. There are a few birds, and a gentle wind, but no indication at all that anything has happened, except for this awful sight.

This is all film-making 101.   The party can see the initial unpleasantness at a distance.  To press home the point, we emphasize two things: first, that the bodies are in a very unnatural way, even for something that is dead.  "Hung over a fence stile" implies that something really energetic happened, even if the players do not consciously make this connection.

Second, we emphasize what the players can feel.  Any time that we give a description of anything, we always want to list off the five senses.  The first three can be told at a distance: what does a scene look like, what does it sound like, what does it smell like?  We can cheat with touch and taste by describing the way a character suddenly feels ~ a shiver, a sense of their palms sweating, that they are conscious of freezing in place, that sort of thing.  With taste, we can describe the metal taste in the character's mouth (fear, adrenaline) or a sudden dryness.

But we want to pick and choose!  We don't want to load up too much imagery, as that only shows the player we are trying too hard.  Here, I went with the sight and the sound of the birds and wind.  It doesn't have to include more ... but we could have gone with other options (and we will, when we need to do a different scene some other time).

Note, too, that the "sound" here isn't weird at all.  This is what any scene would sound like ... yet mixing it in with the appearance of the horse and body makes this quiet feel disturbing.  But, in fact, only because I take the time to state it.  When we highlight the weird with the normal, the end result is always sort of creepy.

And, of course the small mystery of the "familiarity" is an extra little hook I've added.

Delfig: I'm loading and half-cocking my crossbow.  "Let us send one person out to look at the person.  Andrej?  Avel, you and I should stay on the carriage and be watchful."
Andre: "Hmmm.  Watchful.  Yes."  Andrej will cross himself and draw one of his maces with his off-hand, keeping his primary hand close to the other, stuck into his belt.  He'll cautiously approach the body sung over the fence, once Avel and Delfig seem ready."

Mmphf.  I just love how players go straight into cop-mode when they see this sort of thing.  They're not wrong to do so.  There really is the chance that something might be still happening.  In fact, in keeping with my agenda to let the reader know what I know as I'm reacting to the players, there is no threat here at all.  The whole point, however, is to make it look threatening, so as to entice the players into the scene and get their blood racing. We don't want, at any time, to give them the least sense that they are safe (even though they are) ~ and so, with our words, and our voice, we want to take it every bit as seriously as the players do.  We CAN'T laugh or make a face when we see them react.

DM: The quiet is very disturbing, although it isn't complete. Upon moving down the slope of the road, Andrej can see a second horse, standing near the decimated remains of a small brick-and-timber house. The horse is alive, but its flanks are soaked in blood. A leg, detached from a body, hangs in the horse's stirrup.
The house has a facing of perhaps twenty-five feet, with a door in the center and two windows. The door has been ripped off its hinges, the bricks on either side of the door have been - to some degree - torn out. One window is broken, and an arm hangs through it, and a stain of blood shows on the wall beneath.
The odor, the color of the blood ... Andrej understands at once that whatever happened, it was within the last hour. He moves forward, and looks at the other side of the body hanging over the stile.
It is wearing the livery of a soldier of the Palatinate of Upper Bavaria.

Okay, so I've satisfied the first mystery.  The body looks familiar because of the livery ~ and because the players were aware there were ...



The continuation of this post, all 5,500 words of it, can be found on the Tao's Master Class blog, along with the other two deconstructive posts I have written, which can be read on the Tao of D&D blog here and here.

Unfortunately, the Master Class blog is available only to those who have pledged and successfully given a $3 donation on my Patreon account in the month of February.  Truth is, these posts are draining and exhaustive to write; they are as long as two university term papers, each; and they use every ounce and vestige of my long-acquired experience in running as a DM.  My feeling is that not only does material of this kind not exist anywhere else on the internet, it can't exist anywhere else ... because in ten years of writing this blog, I haven't met or seen anyone capable of deconstructing their own thoughts and motivations to the extent that I am able to, nor are there any continuous online blogs existing anywhere with eight years of available material that can be deconstructed.

So, yes, I am sorry, but I'm going to put this material behind a wall.  $3 is very, very little to ask, for two such posts per month (I will put up another on the 28th of February).

You can, if you wish, pledge $3 to Patreon and see all material to date when March comes, or you can use the sidebar to dedicate $3 to me right now, which will bring you on board with all those who have already supported me in February.

Guys, I don't know what to tell you.  This sucks.  Please, however, overlook my miserly approach to monetizing my expertise and read the rest of this post.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

We Are in this Apart

I've been thinking where I might pick up from this post and I think it is this:  "before teaching can happen, there has to be some consensus on what ought to be taught."

Fair enough.  It isn't an easy question, but this blog is about going head-on into the storm.  So let's go head-on.

Teaching is the imparting of knowledge, which comes not from the opinion of an individual, or individuals, but from a shared, universal experience that everyone encounters when interacting with a particular thing.  A large-mass object moving at sufficient speed has the capacity to cause a lot of damage.  The speed and the amount of mass are important in this equation.  It isn't necessary to accept anyone's opinion that this is true.  Anyone can experiment with this principle, say, in a busy street, and quickly come to the same conclusion.  This is how we know a particular thing is knowledge.

Picking a game at random, and following this thought, what can we say, with knowledge, about Dungeons and Dragons?  What does everyone, regardless of personal opinion, encounter when participating in the game?

If we listen to opinion, we're sunk right here.  Because people LIE.  If we propose that the game is hard and difficult to play, some will say it isn't.  If we propose that the game has the capacity to frustrate a DM, some will say it has never frustrated them.  If we propose that the official rules or description of the game is clumsy and hard to understand, some will say they have no problem with either.  In part, this happens because people resist admitting to any faults, either in the game or themselves; and in part because some people just want to muddy the water.

Then, if we will say anything about the game, we must rely upon reason and consistency.  To do that, we must begin with first principles ~ and, if possible, principles that cannot be rationally disputed.

To begin, our 1st Axiom is this:
The Player and the DM have different roles to play while participating in the game, and therefore must be considered independent of each other with regards to game play.

We can argue all day about what those roles are or how they are different, but we must admit elementally that they ARE different: and anyone who disputes that sounds like a bloody idiot.

True to philosophic principles, the 2nd Axiom must be deduced from the first, without depending upon assumption.  And so it does:
The principal conflict in game play arises from the discontinuity of the Player's agenda from the DM's agenda.

And again, so it does.  We can argue how the conflict manifests, or what the agenda's are, or how the conflict is the heart and soul of the game, but we cannot not rationally argue that these agendas do not conflict.  They obviously do.

So from this we propose a 3rd Axiom:
Since the conflict between Player and DM is as much a matter of Out-of-Game participation as it is In-Game participation, it is consistently difficult to separate "Real-Life Conflicts" from "Game Conflicts," as these tend to bleed into each other, so that they are mistaken for one another.

D&D, and all RPGs, are profoundly unique in this regard.  Because participants are being both themselves and someone or something that is not themselves, throughout the conflict, distrust arises when any participant feels that the "Character" that is being run is actually concealing a "Personal" slight, or when a participant feels that the "Personal" entreaty by one of the participants is actually a "Character" conflict.

And that sentence makes no sense whatsoever unless you have played D&D, at least a fair bit.

What I'm arguing here is that D&D is, at it's core, a mechanism for creating distrust.  As a DM, I am both fucking with the minds of my players, AND showing concern for my players well-being as human guests at my table, at the same time, and this is truly, thoroughly, 100% expected by the players, to the point that if I was not fucking with them at least a little bit, they would be bored.

In How to Run, I equated this to the magician's performance; we might think of it as a magician-audience contract.  As an audience, we know the magician is intentionally misleading us; and we want the magician to do it!  If the magician does not do it well, we would not be happy.

However, if the magician were a house-guest, and used the same skills to shift things around the house, or out of our pockets and into that of the magician's, there's no contract and we would absolutely, and rightly, be furious.

When playing D&D, as a Player, we're fine with our characters being deliberately given misinformation, or led down a dangerous path, or even corralled and railroaded for a time ... so long as we don't get a whiff that the DM is doing any of this out of a personal vendetta for our personal character.  Once we think that might be happening, like the magician, we feel that a certain contract has been broken and we are, as before, furious.

D&D, however, unlike the magician's stage, is much more subtle ... and much more easily misunderstood, by both Players and DM.   That "whiff" can easily appear inaccurately in the mind of any of the participants.  If expressed, rightly or wrongly, it can lead to a parade of denials, followed by more accusations and more denials, all of it built on a feeling that the real contract has been broken and ~ though there may be no proof ~ trust with it.

To teach DMing, then, is to teach trust.  How to gain it, how to hold it, how not to destroy it once it has begun to tenuously take hold in a campaign.  Early trust is very fragile, very easily shattered.  Trust that has been built over years is virtually impossible to breach.  Hard-earned trust enables the DM to play really spectacular tricks on a party's imagination ... but it must be earned with hard, hard work.  It cannot be managed in a weekend, or a three-hour session.

When we sit down to consider what D&D is, or how to improve ourselves, we spend so much of that time thinking about stories and adventures, about dungeon encounters and devious tricks ... but we think so little of gaining trust.  Games have to be simple, because a simple game is the most a typical player will trust.

Some DMs talk about "good players" and "bad players."  Much of this has to do with player who will easily trust us, and players who won't.  Some of the best players are "bad players" who fight and chafe against every decision ... because they feel, in their bones, that the DM hasn't earned the complicity the DM associates with "good players."

I don't say there aren't bad players.  But perhaps we should make a second distinction, between "easy players," who don't take much work, and "difficult players," who can take a great deal of work.



Difficult players can't be cajoled with a few trinkets.  They want more.  They want to believe they can trust us.  We need to work on the skills that give us the ability to make them trust us.  And, in turn, we need to each ourselves what sort of players deserve our trust, too.

Because we are not in this together, DMs and Players. We are in this Apart.  We don't want the same things.  We're not meant to want the same things.  But we must trust each other, and we must earn that trust.

Then we can play well.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Challenges Make Opportunities; Death of a Wiki

... is closing it's doors

Some knew of it before I did.  I only found out this morning.  It's true.  Wikispaces, where I run my game wiki, has decided to end its term as a wiki provider.  To continue my wiki, I will have to move it to another service.

Here is one of those moments where my Role-playing experience coincides with my professional experience.  I have moved databases before; I have torn them down, page by page, and built them up again ... of course, this was more "fun" when I was being paid for the privilege, and didn't have to worry so much about getting enough time or help to get the job done.  Still, this is old hat.

Wikispaces gives me an option to download my entire wiki into a pdf format.  I've done it every now and then, just to be sure I have a backup.  I've always been sure at some point that wikispaces would die; just as I've always been sure that blogger will go tits-up eventually.

This is an opportunity.  Yes, honestly.  The wiki needed a cleaning out of old business and pages that didn't accomplish their purpose ... and this is a good way to root them out and ensure they don't get carried over.  But it is a lot of work also.  Here's how I'll do it.

Once I settle on a new platform, which will probably be today or tomorrow, I will begin to move sections of the old wiki to the new, adjusting links as I go.  The link adjusting will be the most annoying part, but for as long as I can, I'd like to enable the reader to have full access to both the old and new wikis, while the transfer happens.

The usual business model (which I strongly disagree with, having seen the alternative), is to build a whole new duplicate wiki in secret, then reveal the new wiki on the same day the old wiki goes down (or, sometimes, with a decent overlap period).  This is the sort of thinking we can expect from managers who, in high school, had wonderful hair and were able to manage a 63 in math.  What always happens is that the new data base, because it was built in an untested vacuum, goes down in the flames of burning shit almost immediately, followed by twice as much work being needed to fix all the hidden problems that wouldn't have been hidden if it had just been built publicly.  But business managers will never learn.

It seems like more work to do it piecemeal, with having to adjust the links more often, but doing it this way, problems get exposed almost at once and then fixed before the whole wiki is brought across.  The process is then a learning experience and not a public relations clusterfuck.

Then, when I am running out of time in July, the most important stuff will be shifted; the pages on the old wiki that are shifted will be gone; and the remainder of the old wiki can be downloaded as a PDF.  Those will be the least valuable, the least needed pages, and many of those won't be shifted at all.

Following this, someone is going to suggest that I should use some program to automatically make the shift and "save time."  It's shouting into the void, but "saving time" is the best way to not save time ... and the best way not to improve something.  As I said, this isn't a disaster, this is an opportunity to make a better, cleaner wiki.

What does time have to do with it?

Saturday, February 10, 2018

List of Mountain Types

Just now, I'm trying to fit together some mountain climbing rules ~ and I'm sorry the link I'm giving there does not direct to much content. However, to make some of my rules ideas work, I need to make a list of mountain types. Frankly, that's easier to do on the blog here than it is on the wiki. Then I can link the wiki to this blog post and it all works out.

And so, this post gives details and images for 4 mountain types, for the purpose of determining the amount of time, or number of slope lines, that a mountain represents for the prospective climber. There are many more than 4 types of mountain in the world ~ but this number should be sufficient for a DM's needs.


File:Matterhorn from Domh├╝tte - 2.jpg
In its most extreme form called a glacial horn, this describes an angular, sharply pointed mountain that results from cirque erosion, due to multiple glaciers diverging from a central point.  See also Nunatak.

The example on the left is the famous Matterhorn, found on the border between Switzerland and Italy.  The modern climb usually consists of 12 to 15 hours, with the benefit of a cable car that enables the first 963 meters to be skipped over.  The full climb, including the cable car section, from the base of the mountain to its top, is 2,858 meters (that's counting from Zermatt in Switzerland to the peak.

The time necessary to climb a mountain like the Matterhorn would likely be excessively greater than the modern period, as most of the equipment we now take for granted wouldn't exist.  In point of fact, it might even be impossible to fully climb a mountain like this with 17th century equipment.

Arete

This is a narrow ridge of rock that separates two valleys, which is typically formed by two glaciers eroding parallel U-shaped valleys.

The example on the right is the Striding Edge in England, near Ullswater.  The modern climb usually requires about 5 and a half hours, from a point only 48 meters above sea level.  The total ascent is 908 meters.

As a mountain like this is usually done with minimal climbing gear, the difference between a modern day ascent and the time of my game's world would likely be very little ~ though it must be noted that much of the actual trail on a mountain like this has been tailored and worn down by untold thousands of day visitors.

Fold and Thrust Belt

These are mountainous foothills that can feature stacked and breaks, as younger rocks are pushed up and over older rocks, resulting in a collection of cliff walls, cracks, scree fields and chimneys.  The example on the left is Yamnuska, or Mount John Laurie, which is about 60 miles east of where I live.  It features both easy climbs and expert climbs, depending on the slope lines one desires to take.  The easy scramble that is offered to most tourists takes about 4 to 5 hours and features a 1200 meter elevation gain.

Yamnuska is the first "mountain" that can be seen along the highway that goes west into the Rockies.  It is just a tiny little thing, mostly notable for being stuck out by itself and looking like a ridge-back dinosaur, complete with head, when viewed from the highway.  The larger, higher mountains further to the west are of a similar geology, only higher and snow-covered.

Conical Hill

I will skip a picture for this.  Conical hills may be of any size, as large as Mount Fuji in Japan or ~ like a shield volcano ~ as vast as Mount Kilimanjaro.  The time necessary to climb such a mountain, the number of "slope lines," as it were, is more a matter of total distance of the slope, affected by the degree of incline, the presence of snow and the total altitude (as a very high altitude, above 10,000 feet, tends to slow climbers due to a lack of breath, so that slope lies become shorter and shorter as one nears the summit.


Well, that might be a bit to simplistic to build rules upon, but for the present I'd rather not get too ambitious.  Hopefully, the rabbit hole that mountain climbing is proving to be won't make it too difficult to complete.

I'd Like to Be Wrong

What edition do I play?

For some years now, I have been describing my game as a Frankenstein's monster of the original AD&D books, but I wonder how true that is, any more.  Especially in the last five years, with extensive changes to various elements of the combat system, increase of the sage abilities, expansion of the wiki, considerable redesign of how monsters and spells work ... there's still a hint of the old Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, but it is definitely dying.

Yesterday, answering the question where my rules came from, I decided to have a look at the old DM's Guide, to see what was left ... and realized I hadn't reached for the book in almost six months.  Not one time since getting the online campaign started again, which is strange.  Truth is, I just don't need it any more.  I've surpassed it.

Used to be, back in the day, I would turn to the book once in a while as reading material, looking for inspiration.  Some passage in the book would make a half-hearted attempt to discuss something like titles for nobility or the building blocks for a laboratory and I would be off for days writing detailed structures or researching medieval alchemy ... and that pattern went on for decades, until I squeezed every drop of suggestion from the book.

I watched as the other editions came in; got copies, perused the tables and so on, less enthusiastically that others ... and couldn't help noticing again and again that these later editions utterly failed to bring in new rules.  And so it was with every other RPG that came along.  The format was settled by those early games, like Traveller, like Rolemaster, and two generations of designers added nothing to it.  Design the character; design the combat system; design the spells or tech, the magic items, the list of feats and skills.  Add an equipment table.  And then stop.

And what did the supplements include?  More characters, more spells, more tech, more equipment.  More of the same.  And as this went on, and on, and on, I shook my head at all the people who seemed satisfied with this, who purchased room-fulls of the same material, the same concept, the same design, repeated ad nauseum.

So it goes.  Nothing has changed.

Yesterday, I realized one of my characters possessed a mountaineering knowledge that had been acquired at 2nd level, which I had failed to expand.  The game had been on hiatus for six months, wih players talking about how it would probably never start again, and I had simply forgot.  I didn't realize until the character went to third, and I had reason to look at that list of sage abilities.

[I would have appreciated the player reminding me when we started again, a month ago, but I know that players often resist this sort of thing because they presume I'm "busy" ~ but I'm always busy, and yet stuff gets done]

I wrote the rules, caving and cave finding, mountain routefinding and rock foraging, skiing, and it wasn't that hard.  Took two or three hours ... easily the same amount of time I might spend playing Patrician-3 for relaxation, while listening to a film, a lecture or a documentary.  Instead, I did this.  And it wasn't that hard.  None of the skills are particularly powerful, they are at best occasionally useful ... but the key is that they don't cost the player anything.  The player gets the skills for free.

I don't want to get into point buy systems here, but just let me say, this is why point-buy systems suck.

My larger point is that players, left to their own agendas, will constantly get themselves into situations where what they can do becomes a big issue.  And DMs will constantly get themselves into positions where how does this work becomes a completely different issue.  Yet the entire design industry in the role-playing community has consistently decided that the solution to this is to have the DM just make shit up.

This is an astoundingly bad strategy.  Yet everyone just lives with it.  Hell, there are a significant number of DMs who argue that it is better this way.  Better?  How, exactly?  Since when has any design strategy been improved by the designers just not doing anything?

I used to think this was an oversight.  That the designers failed to realize that, if the players wanted to climb a mountain, or fight in waist-deep water, or start an armorer's shop, there ought to be rules for it.  But I wonder.  I am beginning to think that while Gygax might have had some of those things in mind, as rules that could be made some day, the rest of the designing community was more inclined to say, "Fuck it.  They have dragons to kill.  They ought to be happy with that.  I'm not making rules for shit that doesn't involve killing dragons."

So we have had tons and tons of gaming skull-sweat to create, justify, expand and build adventures for an endless parade of reskinned, functionally equivalent races and character classes, all of which are mysteriously embraced by the vast community [please, I beg of you, don't try to explain the infatuation with "dragon-borne," which resemble orcs and run like drow, and are apparently nothing at all like dragons] as the most interesting part of a game, deserving of endless bulletin boards and comment threads that repeat and repeat how great they are.

All of which leads me to believe that most RPG players represent the least brightest pennies in the piggy bank of humanity.  And that perhaps all the abuse, all the exploitation, all the bad advice, all the short-shrifting of design, all the monumental oversight and resistance to solve real game problems, is somehow a phenomenon of awarding bad karma to those who deserve bad karma.

I'd like to be wrong.  I see the response to the additions I make to rules on the wiki and it is always positive.  I fill out a few details about how to fit skiing into the game and I get cheers from my players.  It causes me to feel that others would receive a like benefit from their players, if only they would design something that players could do, or want, that wasn't another spell, or another magic item, or another character class to run.

I'd like to be wrong.  Two years after publishing, How to Run is still selling (half the time I depend on it for a significant part of my income), and always, always, I get good reviews for it.  People want insight, they want explanations, they want an answer to the question, "How do I run this fucking game?"  The question is everywhere, constantly everywhere, on every site, on every thread, on every format, from video to text to podcast.  How, how, how?  Yet all the company can say is to have something big explode into bar where the players are sitting, or have something try to assassinate a player, and then give it a tattoo or a weird ring so the players are interested in where it came from.

That is it, for the most part.  Plot hooks.  Lists of a hundred plot hooks, repeated plot hooks, the same plot hooks written into the Dragon Magazine in 1983, the same plot hooks that have been used by every B-movie since the 19-teens, the same plot hooks that were used to write stories about Kit Carson and Jesse James in the penny-dreadful books of the 1850s.  Plot hooks and big bads, and the same dreck between, and oh how the money pours onto the game store counters to buy another one.

I'd like to be wrong.  Someone, please, tell me that I'm wrong.  Tell me that this isn't it, that there's a groundswell of participants who are smelling the air and noticing how stale it has become after forty years.  Please tell me that "playing for 30 years" means expertise, and not someone who is dumb enough to play the same game over and over, in the same way, for the same reasons, pumping out money for the same trash, for thirty years.  Send me to a website.  Footnote a source. 

Because I've looked.

Typical D&D Player
Ah well.  Hello.  I'm a D&D Player.  And I can explain both how to run and how to play, if you'll just take the time to keep reading.  I have an extensive wiki with lots of house rules on it for things you've probably never thought of; I have a few books for sale; I am starting a podcast for people who are interested in becoming better DMs.

Yes, I'm a bit tetchy. But look around you.  Look at what's happening.  Would you expect the one guy not giving you the same advice as everyone else, the same useless advice that's been given for 40 years, not to be a little tetchy?

Remember when Pai Mei snatched Elle Driver's eye, because she just wouldn't "get it?"  Yeah.  He was a little tetchy too.

Us crazy teachers with excessive wisdom usually are (even Gandalf has his days) ... but don't worry.  We usually come to a bad end.

Friday, February 9, 2018

The Consensus Strategy

Regarding the last post, New Grass, I understand the resistance to any thought of consensus.  Some nine years ago on the blog I proposed a crowd-sourced effort to create homebrew rules on a wiki.  I thought it was a great idea; an opportunity to build rule ideas using the creative capacity of dozens, perhaps hundreds of people.

No interest.  Didn't happen.  Null program.

Every time since that I have made any proposal for a consensus regarding D&D, the answer has always come back the same.  I slowly built a wiki myself of more than 1,300 pages ... and did get four volunteers to come work on it with me (after all, I'm a "volunteer" too).  And yet, in three years since proposing that, I've had no one else come forward.  Consensus just isn't a thing among D&D players.

I have some theories about that.  Culturally, we have a high resistance to any idea of "consensus," because the concept has been co-opted by the powerful, particularly employers, as code for "obey and do it our way."  Consensus means conformity, which is another word for enslavement.

Similarly, accountability has come to mean, "Getting axed because I didn't conform."  Those in control reap the benefits, the reward, and everyone else reaps the accountability.  This has been inculcated into our perceptions.

So when I say, a consensus for how to play D&D, the reader goes straight to, "Others telling me how to run my game."  And when I say accountability, the reader goes straight to, "Having to answer for not running my game according to the consensus."

And no one wants that.

A strong case for the rules-as-written folk is the consensus that arises out of everyone having to bow to those rules; many of the trials and troubles of game play arise from lawyering, misunderstandings and frustrations between those who are prepared to run by the rules and those who are compelled to game the rules at every opportunity.  Rules-as-written is a bulwark against excessive gamesmanship, the art of winning games by using various ploys and tactics to gain a psychological advantage.  RPGs, with its elements of role-play, innovation through using equipment and abilities in new ways, interaction between players in the party and the presence of an adjudicator who may not know the rules as well as the "gamesman," is particularly vulnerable to this practice.  And while the methods of playing the DM and the other players isn't technically illegal, it is dubious and, on the face of it, self-serving and directly aggravating to others who have no interest in it.  Gaming the game has ruined many a campaign and driven many a player out of the activity.  It is a pervasive, viral, difficult to manage problem that sits at the heart of game play.  Worse, it surpasses the capacity of many a DM to handle it ~ mostly because "handling" it requires less a sort of game skill and more an ability to be the sort of personality who can face selfish people down when they behave selfishly.  Not only do many people not possess that skill, many people don't want to possess it, or take part in an activity where possessing the skill is a prerequisite.

It isn't that rules-as-written is the preferred way to play.  It exists because it is a weapon; as is any consensus, against any sort of game play, adopted by a community in any activity in which humans take a part.  I've said that doctors became accredited in order to maintain a standard of life[-saving practice; similarly, engineers became accredited to stop disasters like the St. Francis Dam disaster or the collapse of the Quebec Bridge.  Rules arise that restrict behaviour when it becomes clear that behaviour needs to be restricted.


Similarly, rules appeared in hospitals for visitors when it became clear that patients needed silence and periods of rest, so that visiting hours and visitor behaviour required a sort of management that had nothing to do with the wishes or comfort of the visitor.  Likewise, rules for behaviour exist in all sorts of activities, most familiarly with sports.  The last words said by the chair umpire at a tennis match before a serve are, "QUIET PLEASE," words that are directed at the crowd and not at the competitors.  Cell phones are silenced at movie theatres and events because the personal right of a person to be notified of a personal call is suspended when the pleasure of a majority is compromised.

When I say "consensus," I'm not speaking of how the Gentle Reader runs their game.  I mean the basic attitudes and mannerisms that should be expected from all participants in accordance with what we, as the community, feel ought to be in place.  When I say there ought to be an accountability, I mean that those rules should have teeth, in that individuals should be warned to cut it out, or told to leave the campaign.

The power of a consensus is that the individual doesn't need to feel that the onus for deciding correct and inappropriate behaviour is on them.  Back in the days when fighting was considered a reasonable activity, a code called the Marquess of Queensberry Rules was drafted to ensure "clean" fighting.  Read them?  It's a short list.  They don't say that fighting shouldn't happen; they don't say that people are necessarily safe during a contest.  But they do argue, in different ways, that you can't beat on someone who's down and you can't use equipment that gives you an edge.  They say you have to win by winning.  And they exist because gamesmanship has always been a thing.

Likewise, this is why Edmond Hoyle set out to establish official rules for games back in 1742; to put a stop to the endless fighting and disagreements associated with multiple cultures and groups wasting time that could be used for fun on contests of gamesmanship and the perpetuation of self-satisfaction.

Humans cannot be trusted to police themselves.  Yes, yes, we're basically good, because if the situation calls for it, we're more or less willing to be policed.  But without the police, there's always a certain amount of fraying at the edges, of getting a bit more than we've got ... and this eventually ruins everything for everyone.


Wednesday, February 7, 2018

New Grass

This cup not for sale

For those who may be interested on the podcast front, I have finally solved my technical problem.  I had a successful test and I can now record voices off the internet without the guest sounding like he is at the bottom of a well.

Unfortunately, the process of solving that problem has put me two weeks behind my intended schedule.  I have had to cancel on three guests, which I hope I will be able to reschedule in late February or in March. There has been disappointment and I really can't blame anyone.  I don't like having to fail on any commitment ... but I had run out of options.

One of those guests was supposed to be interviewed tonight, and one tomorrow night. But I haven't been able to do any real tests with my introductions or proper preparatory work ... but thankfully that's past me and I should be good to go with everyone who has scheduled with me to date.

These last two posts, the one about accreditation and the one that discusses credibility have been part of the launch I'm working towards.  The name "Authentic" on the podcast is not just a random buzzword that I've opted to exploit ~ to me, the word has a definite responsibility attached to its use.  I want to get to the genuine role-playing substance:  what is it in the hands of independent DMs, creating their worlds, coming to grips with their demons, their lack of inspiration, their frustrating players and their own sense of right and wrong ~ or properly terms, the pursuit of legitimacy.

Here is what frightens people where it comes to measuring their capacity to Dungeon Master: accountability.  We've all been in this discussion: it's the one where Person A says, "It's the DM's world" and Person B says, "Players can leave any time they want to," while Person C chimes in with "The point is to have fun," with Person D adding, "It's the DM's responsibility to ensure the players have fun," followed by no one explaining in clear, concrete terms how this is done.

Accountability, real accountability, demands quantifiable evidence that a particular DMing strategy is effective at producing a valuable player experience ... and on that score we're lost.  We can talk about "improving" the game, but until now most of this "improvement" has been about shifting and moving random rules around with new editions and seeing what happens.  No one is talking about a "discipline" of DMing; or serious attention being paid to teaching others how to run the game; or increasing the game's quality or the number of experienced participants.  I have seen the format for Game Cons and their "tournaments" ... they move the players in like cattle, making them sit as tight as imaginable at cruddy tables, taking their money under the auspices of "enabling" these players to basically entertain themselves as the money-rakers look on.  I don't see this as an effective strategy for producing anything but the worst game experience ... but I also think it flies because the masses just don't know any better.

Getting people to know better involves "teaching" ~ and yet, before teaching can happen, there has to be some consensus on what ought to be taught.  There isn't a consensus.  Even between myself and my small number of readers, what consensus have we reached.  Now and then I get a comment that encourages me to keep writing about a point, or someone says they agree with a particular aspect or post that I've written, but this is a whole helluva a lot of miles away from a consensus.  And right now, most readers are still grappling with the notion that any consensus would also have to incorporate a sense of accountability.  And doesn't that make the hackles on the back of your neck rise?

Yet shouldn't we see past our emotions, our sensibilities, and see the sense of it?  This was the point of Jane Austen's book, after all: that Sense, a sane and realistic attitude to situations and problems, superseded the idiocy of sensibility, in which a person's sensitivity to ideas rendered them offended or, worse, imprisoned by their own choices.

We've had sensibility; it is all we have right now in every venue.  Sense demands that individuals be encouraged to examine and change their practices of play, that they acknowledge that there are better examples and techniques, that these techniques need to be examined and evaluated, so that they can be taught to others, through methods that encourage support, a means of governance, and a population of students who arrive at the gates with an eagerness to learn.  It demands that the participants conform to recognized facts because those facts yield measurable, proven results ... and that the measurements are not compromised by baseless defensiveness, gut feelings and self-serving prejudice.

Just now, I don't have a road map for how we get there.  No one person can; or ought to.  That is the meaning of consensus.  But we have to get there; because there is no "game" in the future without this.  The cattle who are amused by the herders will evaporate as soon as new grass takes their fancy ... the trick is to be the new grass, to figure out how to grow it and steal the cattle away, teaching them how to be people.

That's our job.  Which we can't do if we can't decide the difference between what matters and what really matters.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Credibility

So, on Quora, I asked the question, "How can anyone giving advice about "How to dungeon master" prove their advice is competent?"

Obviously, they can't; which is my point.  What's always interesting in a question like this is the way in which people answer ... as Miguel Valdespino did.  The full comment is available on the Quora list I just posted; some of it is a joke, some of it attempts to help me as though I must be some sort of noob ... and the remainder goes as follows:
"RPG’s are a hobby and your DM ain’t getting paid for this. What’s more, these games can be played in many ways. I’ve seen everything from martinet killer DM’s to loosey-goosey hippies. Each group has it’s own feel and it’s own problems."

I don't want to disparage Valdespino here; though I must point out that his self-made description reads, "Over 3 decades of RPG's."

At the same time that he is saying there's no way to tell, he's being sure to establish his own credentials by telling you how long he's been playing.  And he's not alone.  Let me run through some other commenters that we can find on Quora, from a search for "role-playing games."

  • Ed Han, Been playing for decades. 
  • Edward Conway, played from 1st edition on, familiar with 5e and Pathfinder 
  • Thomas Pierson, I own more games than is probably healthy 
  • Inigo Gonzalez, GM for The Penumbra Extinction, an actual-play podcast 
  • Robert Anthony Ramos, Been playing RPGs since the early 1990s. 
  • Steve Waddington, Player and DM for over 40 years 
  • Rebecca Harbison, Played and ran tabletop games for 20 years 
  • Travis Casey, GM since 1980; wrote columns on RPGs, currently publishing 
  • Matt Slater, Lifelong roleplayer, 30+ years experience 
  • Steffen Hauser, playing Pen&Paper Games since 30 years 
  • Thomas Narvaez, Avid 15+ Year gamer 
  • Adam Smith, Fan since 1st Edition AD&D. Currently DMing 5th Edition 
  • Samuel Silbory, I've played and/or DMed every edition of D&D 
  • William Travis, D&D player since the red box days

And on it goes.  See a pattern?  We can argue all day that there is not "certification of competence" associated with D&D, but it is plain that if it isn't there, people will go ahead and make one up.  And as one can tell from the above, it is based on a) how long you've played; b) how many games you've played/purchased; and c) are you a DM?  Publishing and podcasting is a good secondary notation.

In my last post, I talked about how it became necessary to establish accreditation for surgeons because the number of people dying on operating tables was getting embarrassing.  I want to ask the question, how did that accreditation happen?  Do people not think that before the establishment of surgeon's colleges in the 18th and 19th century, there was a rather intensive effort for individual surgeons to create measurements for what made them a better surgeon than the cutthroat down the road?  Of course they did.

Patients not dying, obviously.  Getting a diagnosis right.  Being able to train others to do what you do.  Shared, reproducible knowledge!

Note that no DM ever says, "Have trained dozens, scores, hundreds of people how to play and run D&D."

Why?

I'm guessing most of the reason comes out of Valespino's rebuttal.  That DMs come in all shapes and sizes, and we can't know what sort of DM we're going to get until we run with them.  Game "feel" is not universal.  Game problems are not universal.  And most important of all, no one's getting paid for this.

Those are tremendously specious arguments.  What does "pay" have to do with it?  If it has, we've just discounted the first hundred years of amateur Olympic sports, where rules were rather in force, no matter who you were, not to mention the millions of people who are right now giving their time free of charge to NGOs, not only a home but also overseas, in some awfully dangerous places, where still, rules apply.  And somehow, these volunteers manage to teach other volunteer noobs how to volunteer.

But DMing is just too darn hard.

We can teach people how to talk to people in the jungles of Brazil, the urban slag heaps of Sao Paulo, the war zones of East Ceylon and Zaire, where the people really are different, where the rules really are different, where martinet killers and loosey-goosey hippies really take on characteristics of immeasurable proportion ...

But DMing is just too darn hard.

Yet there it is, the quest for credibility.  Believe my answer on Quora, because I've been playing for a long time; I've played lots of different kinds of games; I own a lot of modules; I'm a DM.

Something here just doesn't add up.

Today, just before starting this post, I asked the question, "How can the game company run D&D tournaments at hundreds of Game cons world-wide if there's no such thing as a way to accredit a DM or a Player?"





And got back this answer:




Which, nicely, came back just in time for me to get to this point in the post.

Do you agree?  Do you think "League" accreditation is indicative of being able to Dungeon Master or Play?

I'm asking four questions of Cliff, who of course has done his best to create his own aura of credibility, just as everyone does (because we're human):
  • Does accreditation as a DM originate with the WOTC?
  • Does this accreditation indicated competency and ability running D&D, or does it indicate competency and ability adhering to WOTC policy?
  • How rigorous is this accreditation?
  • How are the people who examine and evaluate the game reports accredited?

I feel these are fair questions.  They're questions we should all start thinking about.  Just as soon as we're ready to pull our heads out of the sand.


PS.  Giley has recently responded to say that this tracking method isn't an accreditation at all.  Which makes me wonder why he answered my question with it.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

D&D ... For Kids!


I've recently been tooling around the website Quora, where anyone can ask or answer questions on any subject, including role-playing, Dungeons and Dragons and other table-top gaming subjects.  Naturally, my opinions there are just as weird, just as incomprehensible, just as contrary as they are in the blogosphere or anywhere else.  Still, it is fun to push the envelope and answer questions.

I recently asked a typically Alexis question, mostly as a preliminary to writing this blog post:
"Why is there a right way to hold a golf club, a right way to swing a baseball bat, a right way to perform an operation, a right way to try a case, a right way to build a bridge, a right way to worship, but there's no right way to DM an RPG?"

 And not surprisingly, I received but one lone answer, exactly what I expected to hear:
"Surgery is science, do this, this happens, etc.  DMing is art, it is about creativity and individuality."

I suppose it's of little interest to most who would answer this question that "science" is about trying one hell of a lot of things before ending up with "do this, this happens" ~ and that it is STILL trying a lot of things, because that is never ending.  The bigger point about science, however, is that nothing counts as "do this, this happens" until "this" is measurable.  We're really saying that science is measurable and that art is not.

Okay, that sounds reasonable.  Let's take something measurable: say, how to tie a Windsor Knot:



And let's examine the introduction:
"Hello, I'm Charles from Louis Purple, and today I'm going to teach you how to tie a Windsor Knot.  The Windsor Knot is actually a very simple knot to tie, and its very useful because it projects confidence.  It's a wide, triangular knot, that's very suitable for presentation, job interviews or cultural appearances ... so this is how you start:"

Why am I showing this?  DMing is a LOT harder than tying a tie, so what do these things have to do with each other?  Well, I'd like to break this down.  First, Charles gives his credentials: he's a well-dressed person in the fashion industry, employed by a recognizable name.  You're not trusting Charles to explain this, you're trusting Louis Purple, which is giving its endorsement (we assume - we have no actual proof of any of this, but we take it on faith because we're hardwired to do that).

A Windsor Knot is recognizable.  And yet, still, many people are in error about what they think a Windsor Knot actually is.  Ask yourself: before seeing him tie the tie, if you even watched the video, were you absolutely certain that your perception of a Windsor tie was going to match his?  And if it differed, would you change your mind, or would you rush to argue that Charles doesn't know what he's talking about?

So, "facts" are pretty darn tricky.  If you and Charles agree, that's great.  But if you disagree, well, it's pretty much a free-for-all.

And this is what everything is like, all the time ~ and it is certainly what surgery was like for most of human history.  Which killed a lot of people.  So after a while, with really, really important things, like tying ties and removing kidneys, various entities began to take things out of the hands of common, ordinary, everyday idiots and establish measurements.  When ties mattered, absolutely everyone knew what a Windsor Knot was, because they could recognize one on sight.  When your tie was tied in some independently imaginative way, it branded you in the eyes of everyone who cared about presentations, job interviews and cultural appearances.  It showed you weren't competent to tie a proper tie, and therefore you weren't competent enough to hold a job.

But now, when ties don't matter, we've lost that awareness; most people couldn't recognize any knot from another, and so we have an endless variety of knots.  Along with an endless variety of meaningless claims as to which is a Windsor Knot or any other form, because it no longer matters.  There's no accreditation.

When something matters, like removing a kidney, we ensure you acquire a great many credentials before anyone lets you legally cut into someone's body in order to remove a kidney.  Naturally, if you wish to do this illegally, you'll find the accreditation path somewhat less rigorous.  You might need to take a few stabs at finding the kidney, though, if you don't read a book first.

My argument is that we're free to argue endlessly about things like how to DM or if there's a right way because, well, it doesn't matter.  I will never see you DM.  Apart from my putting stuff online, you will never see me DM.  We don't need accreditation to run a game and no one gives a good gawddamn if people not at our table like what we're doing.

There is something about this that really, really bugs me.  D&D doesn't matter?  This game I love?  It doesn't matter if it is run well?  Huh?

Right now, I can't get into a game as a player.  Not because I can't find one.  Hell, I could probably figure out how to get into a game in the next couple of hours ~ there are about three game shops I know that are running games right now.  No, my problem is that any game I can find is going to be, almost certainly, a total shit-show.  That's not a definite fact.  I could be wrong about that.  It's just that in the last 30 years, every single live example I have ever seen of a game, both on and off line, looks like the last fucking game in the world I would ever want to play.  I mean, these people who are running these games seem cosmically incapable of running the sort of game that would remotely interest me.

Let's have some examples.  I'll skip imbedding the videos; I'll just quote as much of the introduction as I'm able to watch before feeling I have to roll my eyes:
Call of the Wild Ep. 1 "I will be the Dungeon Master, and I will be running ... through another Epic Campaign of mine.  In this one, these adventurers start as members of a barbarian tribe ..."  Gad,cliche.
Out of the Abyss, Session 1, Part 1 "I'll be your Dungeon Master for this travel through the Underdark, and out of the Underdark, perhaps maybe, no, [mumble mumble] they're probably just going to die ... [players giggling] ..."  Oh, ffs.
D&Diesel with Vin Diesel:  [speaking in excessively dark Pantomime]  "The small village of Bronbog has recently come under a baneful curse.  The young are born deformed and demonic.  The denizens are driven to madness and suicide.  Those that remain, stubborn ..."  Trying pretty damn hard, aren't we.
YogsQuest, Episode 1 "YogsQuest!  Scraping the bottom of the barrel of adventure. It is the age of heroes ... unfortunately, none of them were available at the time of recording ..."  Okay, this is supposed to be funny, but the first two jokes are older than steam, so I'm not that fucking impressed.

And no, I'm not going to feel bad that I'm judging these books by their covers.  I'll explain my reaction.  It is something akin to entering a doctor's office to be examined, only to find the floors and walls haven't been cleaned.  It's something of a clue, see, as to why I should immediately get the fuck out and find a better doctor.

You, gentle reader, most likely see nothing wrong with any of the above.  They're fun, they're dramatic, they're just dudes mucking around, playing a game.  What's the big deal?  It's not like any of this really matters.

That's why this blog is so damned contrary; and why I am contrary.  It matters to me.  The games above don't sound interesting, they sound cliched and boring; like the Wandering Gamist's quote put it in my last post, "To pretend to heroism or godhood has lost its appeal to me; better to strive for true abilities in this beautiful, chaotic, universe in which we find ourselves."  I so agree!  The examples above strike me as derivative, amateurish, pandering and lacking any real substance.  I don't want to play in a game where I'm a "hero" or even an "anti-hero" ~ or any crude stereotype of a wooden character.  I want to play an actual human personality, with depth, individuality, self-determination, with the power to meaningfully examine the ethical quandaries that arise from my decisions, while pursuing a worthwhile purpose enabled by my imagination.  That is, I want to be me ... and fight goblins.

This is the creative and individual "art" that runs contrary to the do this, this happens "science" that starts this post.  Only it is my belief that, as a character, if I "do this," what happens should NOT rely on the creativity and individuality of the DM, but upon the rigorous, reliable fundamentals of what happens in all art when we investigate motivation, narrative and conflict.  We've spent thousands of years interpreting and establishing principles for the effectiveness of creating art that perfectly fits the "do this, this happens" argument that is supposedly only applied to science and not to art.

When art is run without rigor, we get the cheesy content I've linked above.

I'd like to believe that rigor in this particular art form of RPGs is possible ... because right now, what passes for "the best" examples of role-playing wouldn't receive even minimal attention if it was attached to any other form of art.  It's juvenile and reflective of the outside world's perception of Dungeons and Dragons: that it is a children's game.

F♭

Look Ma!  I've "mastered" DMing.

Funny what you find.  I stumbled across this passage from the Wandering Gamist in early 2016:

"More importantly, I'm pretty well done with fantasy, RPGs, and related. The more nonfiction I read, the paler it all seems; our worlds are shallow and simplistic, our characters likewise. Even if they weren't, what's the point? To pretend to heroism or godhood has lost its appeal to me; better to strive for true abilities in this beautiful, chaotic, universe in which we find ourselves. I understand the necessity of the underlying social ritual, the weekly gathering, but the overt pretext, of The Game, is growing increasingly empty. I've picked up a couple of useful things in my several-thousand-hours of gaming and thinking about gaming over the last decade (exploiting systems, intuition for probability, memorizing rulebooks, historical trivia), but is it really worth putting in another couple of thousand hours to master DMing? I look at Alexis of Tao of D&D, who has made that investment, and I have to conclude that it doesn't seem sensible to me. There are so many other useful, interesting things I could be learning with that time. Opportunity's cousin, Opportunity Cost, also comes a-knocking on occasion."

I've had so many mental breakdowns on this blog, it's nice to be the centerpiece in someone else's breakdown.

The Wandering Gamist's blog still runs.  It has published 88 posts since the one quoted above; and it still talks about RPGs. Mostly ACKS.

But I think the post above has terrific merit as a demonstration of just one thing: the pervasive belief that the game of D&D is, fundamentally, trivial.  I think that's a belief that most of the gaming community has.  I believe that they try to cover that belief up by constantly, dogmatically, like monks in abbey cells, chanting with Gregorian fervor that the game is fun ... fun ... fun ... fun ... hoping that in that word will be a justification for spending their lives pursuing a game that they feel certain is useless to pursue.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Another Deconstruction of a Game Running, Role-Playing This Time

How not to DM

As I did last time, I will start with the description at the top of the scene.  This Passage is from the game I was running online in 2013.  The party was aboard the Petrel, a ship under the authority of Captain Ramona Salvador, whom the players had already discovered was a no-nonsense, somewhat criminally minded woman, and definitely a pirate, who yet owed the party a debt and therefore ~ it was rightly believed as it turned out ~ could be trusted.

As the ship moved along the Dalmatian Coast on the Adriatic Sea, they ran into a storm:
The captain's mood in improved somewhat as the wind improves from the early afternoon through Friday evening, with a gentle wind that blows the ship down along the coast of Cres Isle and into the open Adriatic. This wind dies during the evening, until the ship is merely edging outwards upon the current ... but with the morning comes the worst.
A terrifying blizzard strikes the ship an hour before dawn, bringing with it frosty temperatures that immediately freezes all the guidelines and the deck, making even walking a dangerous activity. There's little time to string the necessary safety measures, and the party is rallied - at sword point if necessary - to help in battening and managing the ship. Ahmet's chicken cages are tossed about - but manage not to break - and the whole ship is put into a wild flight as the captain fights to keep her ship from flying into the Adriatic. Steadily, almost miraculously, she drives her crew to maintain the desired course.
At one point, Ahmet finds himself commissioned to hammer the knots in ropes to break them apart. Burnt by the screaming winds, soaked to the skin, he endures as one of boatswain vilifies him for not swinging hard or fast enough ... whereupon Madam appears, shouts an order at the boatswain that he fails to understand, and she strikes him so hard that it lays him on the deck. Ahmet cannot understand what either of them are saying, but the officer leaps to his feet, appears contrite, and flies at once towards the bow.
Step by step, throughout the day, the storm diminishes, while the ship makes good time; the coastline reappears (its been there all along, but couldn't be seen) and the crew describes it as Dugi Otok. They've come through fine, wasted no knots and the ship has come through with little damage.
By evening, though the rain continues, at the point marked by the yellow star, the wind has died again, as it shifts to the northwest ... whereupon a strong breeze sends you quickly along. Dugi Otok falls out of sight and the sea steadies into clear - if unpleasantly wet - sailing.

And, as before, comments not indented indicate my commentary on the game.

There are a few things that I meant to establish with the above description, first and foremost the discipline on board the ship.  The storm was randomly rolled, according to the system I was using at that time; but in the light of the storm, I used it to create a sequence of events to send the message to the party what shipboard life was like.  Ahmet, for example, is a "passenger," but on board a ship in a storm, passengers work.  At one point, the boatswain, or bo'sun, is struck by the Captain and accepts it dutifully.

My second goal, given the storm, was to emphasize the Captain's skill at managing a crisis.  I wrote the scene to be as much a depiction of danger as I could.  I was going for scary, discomfort, the possibility of death, or the ship breaking up ... which I hoped the players might worry about as they read through it.

I never knew, as when the description ended, no one said a word about their emotional reaction.  I wish I could say I've gotten used to this.  It's better at a game table; I can see the faces of the players as I push the routine.  On the other hand, if this had been a live game, I wouldn't have a record of it, and we wouldn't be deconstructing it now.

There are four players running: Lukas, a mage; Maximillian, a druid; Andrej, a cleric; and Ahmet, a fighter.  They discuss several things after the storm ends, but I want to focus on what Maximillian does, from his first comment on the post. Mareo, who gets a mention, is a hireling, and of no importance here:

Maximillian: During the storm I willingly assisted wherever needed, probably with the horses, and made certain Mareo did as well. Now, in the calm of the evening, I'll share my ale with whoever is not already asleep or on duty (I think I have about 30 pints, can't remember exactly), before crawling off to bed myself.

As a DM, I'm always watching for moments of action or behaviour that I can build an adventure around, or even an important scene.  Max gave me one here.  I seized on it immediately.

Now, my DM's instincts tell me to play this close to the chest, just as I did with the party, revealing what it is about the passage without overt explanation ... but since we're trying to deconstruct DMing, I'll walk through my thought process as it came to me.

Grog, or any form of spirits, is a BIG problem aboard ship.  Much of shipboard life is pretty slow and repetitive; but it is also very dangerous.  A bad step and a sailor can slip over the side so silently, particularly at night, that they won't be noticed until long after they're missing.  The heavy ropes that are used can grab at a body part, snatching it and crushing a limb, snapping a hand off at the wrist; or loose rope can get free and whip out fast enough to kill a man.  So in spite of the boredom, the crew must be diligent, constantly diligent, to avoid error.  Grog can be both a compelling Mistress against the boredom and a dangerous companion when one is supposed to focus on one's job.

No one knows this better than the Captain, who understands what the state of the crew must be for every inch of the journey.  There is a time to drink and a time to be sober, and it is the Captain that decides.  Still, given an opportunity, a crew will drink, if they get the chance, because they don't believe in the danger; a crew member very often will imbibe, no matter how rigorous the ship's order or how hard are its punishments.

Of course, Maximillian isn't thinking about any of this.  He's grateful they got through the storm, he wants to reward the crew, he knows grog is just the thing for it ... and he happened to have grog with him.  In other words, he's thinking like a passenger.

DM: Maximillian, Several of the men take advantage of your offer of ale, pleased as punch for the opportunity to sip a sud or two.

So, as I've explained before, I see a movie instantly forming in my head.  How will the Captain learn about this?  What will be the Captain's reaction?  Surely, it won't take long for the source of the drink to become known; a crewman will admit it.  Probably, a drunk crewman.  Hm.  Suppose we have a crewman who is made drunk somewhat easily?  Someone with a medical condition, who is great fun and a buffoon in port, but whom everyone knows to keep away from the grog when at sea.  Everyone, obviously, except a random passenger.

Now, I said the Captain was somewhat criminal.  And this is a pirate ship, and the party knows it's a pirate ship.  So what would a Pirate Captain do?

I saw it playing out the way a gangster would handle it:

DM: After going to sleep, however, you find yourself roughly seized in your sleep by two large men. You have no idea what their intention is.

I know that the shorter I make the description, the more worrisome the situation will be for Max.  He does know he's on a pirate ship ~ and that he's the only one in the party without a personal history between himself and the Captain.  The Captain's debt is owed to Maximillian's companions, so he is naturally a little bit more leary than the others.  Too, Max is a lower level than the fighter, mage and cleric.  And like the movie in my head suggested, he immediately assumed this was a random attempt to kill him by two strangers.  At no time, as I expected, did he connect this event with what I had said in the sentence immediately before explaining that he was jumped below decks.

Interesting, isn't it?  If you look at the original campaign post, you'll see I wrote the two quotes above in one comment:



And even though Max had time to see the words written on the page, he still didn't make the connection.  As a DM, you've got to trust in this.  You don't have to engage in elaborate cover ups to deflect from your intentions.  In fact, the less elaborate the cover-up, the less additional stuff you put in to separate the two ideas, the less likely the player will be to catch on.  If you misdirect too much, this will create suspicions: "Why is the DM trying so hard?"  Players will catch on, because they're human and they're instinctive about anything that looks out of order.

'Course, it doesn't hurt that I called myself "dumb" in the same post.  Wasn't intentional; but that probably did help sell the notion that I was guileless here in presenting the description.  I wasn't, however.  I had many dark evil plans in my head.

So, Max responded as expected:
Maximillian: I'll let out a yell like a startled donkey, and struggle as best I can. If the men are on either side of me, I will do my best to get to one side or the other, trying to move directly towards the man on that side. If they are both on one side, I will pull away from them.
DM: Roll a d20.
Maximillian: d20: 13.
DM: You manage to clip one of the individual's on the jaw (roll a d4 minus 3 plus strength bonus to damage to determine damage done). They are neither of them stunned, even if you roll maximum (though it's potential experience).
Maximillian also manages to squirm out of the way, so that the one with fists as big as the druid's head misses a punch and slams his hand into one of the solid posts by your hammock. The other, however, jabs his fist hard into Maximillian's ribs, causing three damage. Roll the d4-3 for damage and then let me know your next action.

My goal here is to play it straight, let Max think what he wants to think.  He has no idea these two men were ordered by the Captain to come collect him, just as a gangster would send a couple of boys around to your house to pick you up, if you annoyed him.  There are some "big" clues I'm giving; these are absurdly big fellows, with big fists, who are too big to be threatened by a little pipsqueak like Max ... and they're not using weapons.  Moreover, they haven't tried to silence Max, either.

Max knows he's probably going to lose, but in true D&D fashion, he's not going down without a fight ...
Maximillian: Not stunned, hp: 17. My next action is still dependent on their positions, as I'm trying to get free of the hammock and put it between me and the one with the big fists. I'm fine with moving towards the other one if that's what it takes to do so.
DM: Reading that as trying to free yourself from grappling, Maximillian, please roll a d20.
Maximillian: d20: 18.
DM: Maximillian manages to squirm out of his hammock, drop to the floor and get to where his back is against the bulkhead.  He can see now the two men. They're both huge. You've seen them before over the past few days - they seem to spend a lot of time near the Captain.
"Slippery fellow, isn't he?" says one, rubbing his sore hand.
"Yeah," says the other flatly. He draws out a belaying pin from his belt. "But the Captain said bring 'im, and she said bring 'im bruised. And I ain't convinced yet he's bruised enough."
They move around the bunk and Maximillian will need to roll initiative. A d6 please.

Now, I've got to say, Max is doing a pretty good job here.  I described the scene at the start as two guys grabbing him; he's managed to free himself from one with a poke on the jaw and above he rolls well and gets free from the other one.  He's using the scene around him to preserve himself; there's a good sense of space and investment in his character and situation.  So the scene has been fun.

As such, I felt it was a good time to tip my hand.  I have the two guys banter light-heartedly; they're clearly not angry.  And one says outright that the Captain sent them.  But as I'm DMing, I have to keep on two hats: the one where I am role-playing the two sailors, and one where I am handling the technical side of the game.  I ask Max for an initiative roll ... but at the same time, I fully expect he's going to realize, "Oh, this isn't what I thought it was; maybe I should find out what the Captain wants ..."

Max doesn't, though.  Instead he rolls initiative:

Maximillian: d6: 3.

Which leaves me no choice.  I've got to play my end as DM.  I know what the Captain wants, but these two guys have their orders.  I want to say, "Max buddy, just take a few bruises and give in."  Instead, I have to roll initiative.


DM:  The boys are going to roll a 4. They advance towards Maximillian, pins in hand - and a voice behind them says, "That's enough."
It's the boatswain, and he says, "Jacobo, he's bruised enough. Take him to the Captain and let's get on with this."
The men move to seize Maximillian.


Yes, then I realized there was a cheap trope I could use to get out of beating the druid into the deck.  Have a bigger authority show up and stop it. We've seen this in a thousand TV shows ~ but it works.

So there's some catching up with the rest of the party, I let them get involved a bit, Maximillian gives in and the party gives him a few concerning comments.  The fighter, Ahmet, has put it together I think, as he says,

Ahmet: "Your heathenish love of drink has caused this," Ahmet mutters at Maximillian.

But that's all he says.  And after a few more words, including that the player behind Maximillian announces his real life engagement, we pick up the scene again:

DM: Maximillian finds himself brought to the Captain's cabin - which is, after all, only twenty feet away - and the party in tow, the door not closed to hide what is going on. All will see the first and second mates, along with the ship's steward, standing side by side - not looking at all comfortable. There's a man who's back is turned to the party, standing in the center of the cabin, and the Captain appears to be have been interrupted while redressing him.
She looks at Maximillian and says to her men, "Bring him here!" in a very forthright manner.
Maximillian is pushed forward, to stand beside the other man.
"Do you know this man?" The captain asks Maximillian, pointing at the other.
Maximillian does. He was one of the men eager to have some of Maximillian's ale, earlier. At the moment, the man looks a bit drunk ... however, none took more than a few swallows of Maximillian's ale.
Maximillian: "Good ... evening, Madam Captain. I have made his acquaintance as a member of your crew."
Lukas: Lukas cringes slightly at Maximillian's flippant greeting and response.

Lukas is quite right in his observation.  At this point, I'm wondering myself if Maximillian has caught on.  But I have a whole dialogue set up in my head, and so far he's done nothing to derail it.  Of course, the opportunity is there; Max could say something clever, or reasonable, or intuitive ... but for that, he's going to have to think faster than he apparently is.

I'm doing my best as DM to give him clues.  The Captain is angry but polite.  She's forthright, not furious.  It's the crewman that pushes him forward; the Captain doesn't ask for this.  She has been dressing down a member of the crew.  It's not obvious, but the dressing down is for drinking.  The man is described as "a bit drunk."  If you look "a bit drunk" in the Captain's presence, you ARE drunk.  It seems probable that Max hasn't put this together, however.  That might be for a number of reasons:  the life experience of the player, a lack of personal experiences with military practice (even criminal military practice), which demands a certain structural hierarchy.

The man was eager to have some of Maximillian's ale.  Am I at fault because I didn't role-play this earlier?  Absolutely not.  What would you expect to have the crewmen be?  Not eager?  And I did say the men were "pleased as punch," which was Maximillian's intention.  There's no reason in the world that he, his character, would have singled out a single person as notably more eager than any other, unless I, as DM, made it obvious as hell by drawing attention to it.

This is a difficult tightrope to walk.  You can't put a neon sign on every part of the campaign without flatly ruining the mystery ~ and drawing excessive attention to anything as DM, the Immortal GOD of the universe (at least as far as being the only voice that describes it) is sure to kill it. As DM, you've got to say as little as possible, less than a little if necessary, to promote a sense that the world is a big, stressful place, full of uncertain conflict.  I needed to downplay the giving of the drink, so that I could up-play later why it was a very bad, bad thing to do.

That said, part of my plan was that no bad thing could happen to Max.  Yes, I was blind-siding him a bit, and yes the Captain was pissed, and yes it all looked very threatening ... but unless Max did something truly stupid, like grab a weapon of some kind and try to fight the Captain, he was safe.  At worst, he'd get a talking to, a little public shaming.  Practically the right of the Captain to do that: it is what every figure in power does, without hesitation.  Max, however, made it a little easier.  It became clear that he felt wronged, though technically he was responsible for doing something stupid (handing out grog) ... which took awhile to beat into him.

DM: "And did you give him strong drink?" demands the Captain.
Maximillian: "Madam, I provided for this sailor the same as I provided to the other off-duty sailors, what meager ale I had to share. I cannot take responsibility for his current state."
Andrej: "That is to say, I'm sure the small amount Maximillian gave was not enough to result in such a stupor."

I expect the cleric, Andrej, to jump in and defend his party member.  But it is clear that neither has grasped yet what a serious problem grog can be aboard a 17th century seagoing vessel.  Note that Maximillian does not even call Captain Salvador, "Captain."  He calls her, "Madam."  That's a strong sign that he just isn't getting it.

I could have had the Captain go at the cleric, or berate Maximillian for his error, but I've seen a lot of military movies, so I knew just how to handle this scene from a dramatic perspective.

DM: "Steward!" says the Captain. "Who here is responsible for allocating the rations allowed the sailors aboard this ship?"
The Steward: "I am, Captain!"
The Captain: "And who approves those rations?"
"You do, Captain!"
The Captain looks at Maximillian. "And are you aware that this man -" she points at the apparently inebriated sailor standing beside the druid; "- suffers from a condition where the slightest amount of alcohol renders him DRUNK?"
Lukas: Bites his lip stifling a comment.
Maximillian: "No, Captain."
DM: Still to Maximillian: "Did you clear it with the Steward before adding to this man's rations?"
Maximillian: "No Captain."
DM: "Did you clear it with ME?"
Maximillian: "No, Captain.  Did he?"

It's a great scene.  It would play out well in a film.  The Captain is beating the hell out of Maximillian ... and what can the player do, really?  She runs the ship, the room is full of pirates, the party depends on the ship to get to their destination and the fact is, SHE is in control here.  She must be obeyed.

But Max can plainly feel the pressure.  Playing this on the blog, a half hour passes between each of his answers.  And the last plainly has a back-talking statement in it ... which, frankly, I still don't understand.

What happened, however, was that the player behind Max jumped into a discussion about rules for arbitrating conflicts between player characters and NPCs ... which was clearly a compulsive derailment of the tension of the scene.  Even as we go over it now, the reader can feel the tension.  If you, as player, were on this particular carpet, you'd goddamn feel it.  If you have military experience, you probably HAVE been pulled up on a carpet like this.

Not all "role-play" is stupid, silly joking.  Actual hard-core role-play can be downright unpleasant, stressful ... and uniquely memorable.  Speaking for my own campaigns, I don't always get players who appreciate this approach: but I am a lover not just of humor, but of drama too.  Drama is where the rubber of my role-playing sessions, such as the one described here, meet the road.

So, after pulling Max back from his derailing discussion of rules, frankly telling him that he's stepping out of character because of the tension, I get back to it, picking up the Captain's words (I had her ignore his last statement, because it didn't make sense]:

DM: "If you want to take on the privileges of being Captain and bestowing on my crew whatever you like, you can experience the other part of it too. Bos'n - take seaman Praest to the bottom hold and chain him. He can have two dozen lashes in the morning. And have Mr. Boii sit with him overnight and make sure he's comfortable."
To the druid she'll say, "I'll make sure you get a good look in the morning. Now get out!"

Maximillian Boii [his full name] is more or less being let off the hook.  A night in the brig as a companion to a man, named Praest, whom Max has just helped consign to a tortuous whipping, could be an opportunity to role-play a lot of different things: contrition, a promise to preserve the victim, a decision to seek revenge against the Captain if the man dies, or perhaps to bring news to the man's family of his fate.  Most of all, just to make the man's hours before the whipping more cheerful and decent.

Instead, the response is this:

Maximillian: As we're being lead away, I express my displeasure to the sailor. "A fine way to repay a kindness, wretch."

That's very small of him.  And so I let Max have it right in the eye:

DM: The Bos'n, who's leading you down to the bottom of the ship, remarks, "This man's about to take a whipping for you, because you never took account of where you are and what it takes to manage a ship. You think we came through the last storm by luck and a prayer? The Captain's discipline brought us through it, and you saunter along the decks as though these men are your personal gamesmen to play with. They're HER men, you supercilious fool ... and when you watch this one die on the rack tomorrow, you might give a thought to what your thoughtless temptation has lost this ship!"

The Boatswain is not cheerful about what's about to happen.  In truth, the Captain probably isn't cheerful about it either.  She isn't doing it out of malice or anger; if she's angry at anything, it's that this situation is out of her control.  She has to punish the man, and she has to make it hurt, to send the message that when she gives an order, it means something.

I have to hand it to Maximillian, however.  He came right back with an excellent poem, and a message about the effectiveness of the sequence we've just examined.


Maximillian: 
"Bourne to Praest was ale
To wet his lips with thanks.
Wretched Praest grew pale
No thought for steadfast ranks.
Blind to fate he mustn't be
Knowing blows she bring'st he.
Bear his burdens now must we
When his temptations snared me."
I applaud you, Alexis. That sequence was exactly what should have happened. I've read enough sea-stories that I really should have seen it coming, but I was completely taken off guard, and that really built tension as I went through the stages of incomprehension to indignation to resignation. At first I thought this was a mugging, and I was going to be dumped overboard.

I don't put this forward as evidence of my DMness.  I want the reader to understand has this formula is accomplished.  You watch a lot of movies, read a lot of books, put together why characters are motivated to do this or that.  You see the world through the eyes of the various people: through the sailor who just wants a drink, through the two men sent to arrest a passenger by an angry Captain, through a boatswain who loves his Captain but sees where all this is going and hates it and through a Captain whose hands are tied ... and you pull these characters together to create a situation that doesn't actually harm the player character, but does provide insight, opportunity for growth, an experience of excitement and emotion, and overall a game that can be both predicted ["I should have seen it coming] and nearly completely impossible to understand ["I thought this was a mugging."]

Now go forth and be better DMs.