Saturday, April 21, 2018

Gamesmanship Examples

Which brings us to the subject of gamesmanship.  Here I'll be suggesting techniques to "game" Dungeons and Dragons, in a way that does not contravene any rule, nor rely upon an argument that "the rule does not exist," in keeping with Stephen Potter's 1947 book, The Theory and Practice of Gamesmanship (or the Art of Winning Games without Actually Cheating).

Techniques may be used to interrupt, distract or otherwise break the flow of the DM's presentation, making it difficult for the DM to remain on message, or the players to maintain comprehension of what the DM is saying, allowing for opportunities to misunderstand, misquote, quibble about fine points or otherwise undermine the DM's arbitration of events.

  • Taking an unusually long time to roll up a character, choose the right die, make up one's mind what to do next, or otherwise holding up the game while asking for enough time to properly and accurately make a decision (and thus causing the DM to feel guilty if this "necessary" time is not granted).
  • Asking for key elements of the adventure's descriptions, goals, NPC participants or other crucial facts to be repeated, explained again, explained more in depth, or otherwise dissected, while pointing out aspects or key points that were previously stated in different words ~ then taking further steps to identify which "version" is true.
  • Leaving one's chair at a key moment, to use the bathroom, to fetch a drink or food, to make an important phone call that has been forgotten, or otherwise to simply step out of the picture so that either the campaign has to be suspended for the interim period or tied up with having to explain to the absent person what has happened in their absence.  Often includes momentary disappearances just when the character's participation is crucial.
  • Throwing dice as to be a distraction, dropping dice on the floor, throwing them under objects, rolling dice without purpose, organizing dice or other objects so that key moments in the adventure have to be repeated, or acting in a like distracting manner when other players must make a decision or the DM is presenting something important.
  • Maintaining intensive eye contact with the DM or another player except when attention is desired or asked for.
  • Complaining at length about lucky dice, not having lucky dice, the failing qualities of lucky dice, the importance of getting lucky dice ready or any other lasting verbiage on the subject of dice and which needs to be used.
  • Failing to remember a character sheet, failing to properly update a character sheet, getting pages mixed up, shuffling pages, losing pages, offering to "remember" details that were not written down or otherwise using bookkeeping as a means of distraction or furthering one's advancement through guesswork and the natural generosity of others who do not wish to take a hard line.
  • Encouraging others who are feeling a sense of stress from game play that it is "only a game," waxing at length with academic details about facets of the game or adventure, underscoring statements made by the DM that fearful events "aren't so bad" or that consequences are "no big deal."  In general, downplaying the emotional qualities of the game.
  • Using tools or weapons with which a character is not proficient, only to mention afterwards that they're not.
  • Connecting the wrong results with die roll numbers momentarily, such as stating that a roll is under wisdom and then stating a half-minute later that "I was mistaken."  Various innocent-sounding mistakes that seem to occur with frightful regularity.
  • Deliberately overthinking situations, so as to slow down game play.

    Techniques may also be used to cause other players to overthink parts of the game, mislead other players from chosen decisions, cast doubt on the DM's presentation or otherwise make an issue or a situation more confusing by introducing complications.
    • Proposing speculations that fit the facts that have been given to the players but which are not, in themselves, substantiated by what's happened or what's been seen: "Maybe the villain is some kind of noble lord;" "Maybe there's a beholder at the bottom of this dungeon;" "Maybe we can't find the informer because it's a trick and there is no informer!"
    • Giving advice to other players that subtly increase the advice-giver's advantage.  Such advice is often vague or potentially destructive to the listener.
    • Asking for advice in order to seem like a member of the group, then paying no attention to it.
    • Claiming less ability at running a character, speaking in character, knowing what to do and so on, in order to gain an advantage as someone who shouldn't be held too much to task for errors made.
    • At the same time, claiming a much higher expertise than the player has, in order to cause others to give greater weight to the player's statements and suggestions.
    • Stopping play in order to point out possible dire consequences if other players take actions they've already decided upon, pointing out key details that slant the decision in a very negative light, so that the player feels a greater stress or hesitates before taking the action, or balks.

    And techniques may be used to "set up" other players by deliberately failing to act as a team member.
    • Making a promise to support another player in a dangerous situation, then failing to act when the time comes.
    • Attacking weaker or minor creatures in order to minimize the amount of damage sustained, while strongly remarking upon the joint participation at the end of the fight.
    • Hanging back to be sure to give support in the way of healing or other aid, while risking no real harm.
    • Inflating one's participation, particularly when rolling extraordinarily well at a lucky moment.
    • Refusing to share resources because they must be "saved for later.

    I'm sure the reader can think of several of their own.

    Friday, April 20, 2018

    Will the Real Participant Please Stand Up

    Continuing with yesterday's post, I'd like to expand some of my points about character, discussing what a character is, as opposed to what a character does or wants.

    First, I'd like to express any misgivings that some readers have that this post, or the last one, is a lead-in to any idea of creating game effects to enhance character play.  Far from it.  It is my wish here to explain that characterization is so far afield of role-playing games that it is actually quite foolish to pretend that we're role-playing a meaningful character.  At best, we're manipulating cardboard cut-outs of characters ~ what I called in the last post, "robots."

    To understand what I'm arguing, we have to get a better idea of what makes a character.  It's safe to say that the readers and I are helplessly adrift where it comes to any assignation regarding character types, character quality or the meaning of character in a story.  As individuals, we easily fall in love with characters whom we find familiar, or with whom we identify, blinding ourselves to legitimate interpretations of merit or import.  Because we think a character is "cool," we discard all discussion regarding the actual structure, function or legitimacy of the character in the story, becoming hot-headed and insisting to others that they just don't understand why such-and-such is the "greatest character that has ever existed," a belief that is based more upon our visceral sense of that character as it relates to us, rather than how it might relate to others who have different interests or tastes.

    It gets worse when a judgment is applied to that belief.  We decide not to be friends, or even acquaintances, with people who don't like our favorite characters, as though these are yardsticks towards determining who is a real person of value and who is obviously a dolt.  The internet is full of this sort of thing; and it makes any instructional discussion of character nearly impossible.

    I am, here, going to discuss three types of character, directly in terms of how they functionally act within a story, with an intention to explaining what makes something fictional more like what any real person actually is.  The goal of an artist making a character at all is to relay a certain reality, from the perspective of someone who is not you in the hopes that you will understand the motivation of a perspective other than your own.  Our perspective, however dear it is to us, is limited.  We turn to art to expand our limitations; to understand better how other people think; and hopefully, in understanding, we expand ourselves, so that we become more aware, better prepared for other people and more empathetic of their needs.

    And so ... this long-winded effort is simply for this purpose: please put your emotional attachments on a shelf, and listen.

    Looking through literature on this subject today, I am unsatisfied by the scholarship on this subject.  Most of us are familiar with the terms round or flat characters; fewer, perhaps, with dynamic vs. static.  I'm perfectly in agreement with these terms; but I find that I want a more definitive separation in types of round or dynamic characters.  Therefore, I'm going to propose three character types that I'd like to discuss: fixed, reflexive and conflicted.

    Fixed characters are those that fit into the categories flat and static.  Regardless of the circumstances of the story, regardless of what's happened, the character neither expresses nor functionally acts in a different manner.  For example, He-Man and Skeletor.  Every episode of the children's show features the same characters, acting in the same predictable manner, with the same goals, the same function, employing the same responses, with no real emotion.  An earlier example, from my childhood, would be Dudley Do-Right: utterly without fear, or comprehension really, but excessively brave, ready, tenacious and indestructible.

    Virtually every character ever run by a player in a role-playing campaign is a fixed character.  The background fetish, as a feature, is the means by which most players set their character's behaviour or motivation in stone.  Who among us have not noticed when a given fighter, regardless of how many fights, how many close calls with death, how many foolish mistakes, ALWAYS bulldozes into every doorway and every fight without the least hesitation?  Or the thief that always steals, or the cleric that always gives the same sort of speech before a fight, or the dwarf that perpetually argues with the elf, no matter how many years the two of them have spent saving each other's hide?  Players, as a species, love fixed characters.  This is part of their fetish.  Having dreamt up the perfect representation of their character's identity, they will play that identity with unvarying exactitude ... even to where that same identity will float from character to character, as previous incarnations (whatever their skills, class or backgrounds) die away.

    Fixed characters, however, are boring.  They may satisfy the player, but they exhaust everyone else.  They are the furthest sort of being from an actual, real person ... and in a way, for role-playing, that is a positive feature.  For while fixed characters don't change, they also can't be really missed when they die.  Another stock character can be easily made on the same pattern.  Therefore, any personal relationship between the player and the made-up character can be dismissed.  Nothing is lost, because nothing was ever really there.

    Reflexive characters, which might also be thought of as responsive characters, are quite different.  As the narrative continues around the character, the character is forced to adapt, converting themselves to fit the new world they find themselves in.  Reflexive characters are a kind of dynamic character; but in a very particular way.  Intrinsically, they don't change.  I have hundreds of examples to pick from, but I'll choose something from a film that I'm sure 90% of my readers have seen more than once:  the character Henry Hill from the film Goodfellas.

    Throughout the film, Henry is repeatedly forced to deal with the steady, unrelenting changes going on around him, as the mafia/mob lifestyle he lives transforms from the 1950s into the 1960s.  He experiences the lifestyle in multiple ways: as a kid, as an enforcer, as a husband, as a member of a vitriolic set of friends and acquaintances ... then as a struggling drug dealer trying to make it on his own and finally as an informer against the very people he's known all his life.  With each change, he adjusts, he bends his moral framework, he allows himself to participate more fluidly and in an hands-on manner, he submits to the risks he has to take and finally, he submits to the only choice he has left as the walls close around him.

    But he doesn't change.  He doesn't question his infatuation with the goodfellas' lifestyle when his dad beats him, or when he sees a man knifed in the street, or when he watches his friends murder Billy Bats, or when he goes to prison, when people are murdered all around him, or when he's lowered to having to deal in coke or even after he's been forced into retirement as a relocated witness.  At the end of the film, Henry's chief regret is that he isn't able to return to the lifestyle he loves.  And while this makes an interesting movie, and it makes Henry into a very interesting, profoundly unique character, the actual character himself is without regret, without doubt, without remorse, without any rational response to any of the awful, criminal, sociopathic activities with which he's connected.  In that particular way, he's a very flat character ... no more changeable than Dudley Do-Right.

    This is the sort of character than DMs want when running adventure-driven campaigns that steadily move from adventure to adventure.  The characters need to make the best possible use of their resources, adapting themselves to the circumstances, overcoming the problems they face, and never questioning why their character is always ready for another adventure, always ready to risk their lives again, always ready to put it all on the line for treasure or what other motivation they have.  No one wants a character who hesitates at the start of an adventure, who suddenly questions the point of all this; that is not in keeping with the substance of the game.

    Conflicted characters represent much more nearly what we are as human beings.  They, too, are dynamic ~ but not only in the way they respond, but also in the way they recognize that there are multiple choices that they can make regarding any situation.  They're not sure.  They are filled with doubts.  When something startling, unexpected or significant happens, they question themselves, even to where they are ready to separate themselves from the life they're living, and accept the consequences of that decision.  Again, I have many examples I could draw from, going back to the Greeks and Shakespeare ... but none of you want me to explain any of this by pulling out Hamlet, again.  Given that I want an adventure of sorts, and a familiar character, whom most readers have probably seen, I will go with Remy from the film Ratatouille.

    Remy, like Henry, is in love with something: being a cook.  However, Remy is far more conflicted over the relationship between his love of food and his family.  He knows his father is wrong; but at the same time, throughout the film, it is important to Remy that his father understands, because Remy isn't capable of just abandoning his family without hesitation.  As such, he lets himself be pushed into situations (being food-tester, providing stolen food for his brother Emile and friends) ... but he knows its wrong and he experiences angst over it.

    Similarly, he doubts a lot of his actions, even his bold ones.  He hesitates before fixing the soup.  He runs away from Linguini at first before changing his mind.  He throws away his morals in a fit of pique and lets all the rats into the kitchen; and then experiences remorse when he's exposed and he's lost his friend.  Then he returns to the kitchen to help Linguini anyway, even though he is only a rat and may very well be caught and killed (we know he won't be, obviously, he's the star, but that is not Remy's perspective).  He does it because he knows Linguini can't face Anton Ego without him.

    With each change in the story, Remy re-evaluates his belief system.  He's never sure what he wants.  He's never sure how it is going to turn out.  And often, his choices land him in hot water, which he clearly regrets.  It is this conflict that makes Remy compelling: because it is a conflict that we ourselves struggle with every day, as we go to work, as we make plans, as we fight with our families, as we puzzle out the message behind a blog post, as we act like human beings.

    A character like Remy would be a disaster in a role-playing game.  Trying to run such a character, inventing the character's inward struggles with each part of the adventure, might be an interesting artistic venture, but it would make a frustrating, undesirable and masturbatory excursion for a group of players ... perhaps more so if every player attempted to do the same, in different ways, according to their personal interpretations of how their conflicted character viewed the world. Admittedly, there might be various drama troupes who found such an activity interesting (though note that when improving, actors always play the scene for laughs, not drama) ... but I don't think a role-playing game would be made better by the experiment.

    That said, we ARE playing this experience in one way. We are actual conflicted humans, playing the game with our own conflicted selves.  But we are not, thankfully, trying to puzzle out how some invented personality deals with conflict; we're quite used to our own conflict and we are quite able to put it on a shelf, if need be, so that we can participate in a social activity, like playing a game.

    Admittedly, some are not.

    When the players struggle with making up their minds about what to do; when they hesitate before fighting a dragon or question if their quest-giver is actually the villain; this is the sort of realistic, pleasant and meaningful conflict that we are seeking from game play.  We don't want this from characters; but we DO want it from players.

    And that is why questing to make role-playing a matter of playing a character is the pursuit of lunacy.  We don't want "characters" ~ we want flat, fixed, reflexive personalities that respond to their situations in a predictable manner, so that the REAL PEOPLE can enjoy the game for the contextual dilemmas it provides.  Any role-player waxing on about the "amazing" qualities of an invented character is in a state of delusion; they've fallen in love with a wooden, two-dimensional robot, and not with any being of the substance of a fellow player.

    We've missed the fact of this.  We've allowed ourselves to be hoodwinked by words used in a particular way, concocting a particular chicanery, which we've bought into because it "sounded good"; but it doesn't stand up to authentic scrutiny.

    It's bullshit.

    Thursday, April 19, 2018

    The Flaw in Role-Playing

    I have lately been thinking that there is a case to be made against "role-playing" ~ in which players take the role of an imaginary character who engages in adventures ~ which I am not seeing elsewhere.  I am seeing the very notion itself as a sort of fraud ... in which an idea, not very well explained or examined, is sold to a group of would-be believers, ready to pay out for something they haven't actually received.

    In my usual way, I'm taking this opportunity to write out some thoughts on the matter, as a method for concretely thinking through the problem.  After a time, pursuing thoughts in one's own head, without making notes, is a fruitless operation.  After a time, it requires an act of communication with others to force one to clarify one's thinking.  That is the purpose of this post.

    To begin with, looking closely, I'm not very happy with the definition of "role-playing" as it is described for the purpose of gaming.  Let's look at the definition as it appears on Wikipedia:
    "... a game in which players assume the role of characters in a fictional setting.  Players take responsibility for acting out these roles within a narrative, either through literal acting or through a process of structured decision-making or character development."

    The WOTC was somewhat disappointing.  I found this on their D&D support page:

    The best definition I could find on their website was this (after twenty minutes of searching):
    "The first Dungeons & Dragons game was played back when Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson chose to personalize the massive battles of their fantasy wargames with the exploits of individual heroes."

    Justin Alexander of The Alexandrian, a blog that's been around longer than me, defines it as:
    "Roleplaying games are self-evidently about playing a role. Playing a role is about making choices as if you were the character. Therefore, in order for a game to be a roleplaying game (and not just a game where you happen to play a role), the mechanics of the game have to be about making and resolving choices as if you were the character. If the mechanics of the game require you to make choices which aren’t associated to the choices made by the character, then the mechanics of the game aren’t about roleplaying and it’s not a roleplaying game."

    And the International Journal of Role-playing points out that, after expressing doubts about the latest attempts at defining role-playing (circa 2009),
    "There are no final definitions for role-playing games, only definitions suited better or worse to a certain historical understanding of role-playing games. However, this does not mean that role-playing games should not be defined, as the definitions given can advance our understanding of what role-playing games are and could be. This paper takes part in the ongoing process of definition."

    I warn the reader at this point that the paper above spends most of its time trying to produce a universal definition of role-playing games ... which, like most academic papers that quibble, sours for me on that issue.

    Finally, we come to the definition that the above paper from Finland discusses, the definition by Michael Hitchens and Anders Drachen, which can be found on the same article.  It is quite long; but what the hell, we're not paying for ink here.  Let's have all of it.
    "Game World: A role-playing game is a game set in an imaginary world. Players are free to choose how to explore the game world, in terms of the path through the world they take, and may revisit areas previously explored. The amount of the game world potentially available for exploration is typically large.
    "Participants: The participants in the games are divided between players, who control individual characters, and games masters (who may be represented in software for digital examples) who control the remainder of the game world beyond the player characters. Players affect the evolution of the game world through the action of their characters.
    "Characters: The characters controlled by the players may be defined in quantitative and/or qualitative terms and are defined individuals in the game world, not identified only as roles or functions. These characters can potentially develop, for example in terms skills, abilities or personality, the form of this development is at least partially under player control and the game is capable of reacting to the changes.
    "Game Master: At least one, but not all, of the participants has control over the game world beyond a single character. A term commonly used for this function is 'game master,' although many others exist. The balance of power between players and game masters, and the assignment of these roles, can vary, even within the playing of a single game session. Part of the game master function is typically to adjudicate on the rules of the game, although these rules need not be quantitative in any way or rely on any form of random resolution.
    "Interaction: Players have [a] wide range of configurative options for interacting with the game world through their characters, usually including at least combat, dialogue and object interaction. While the range of options is wide, many are handled in a very abstract fashion. The mode of engagement between player and game can shift relatively freely between configurative and interperative.
    "Narrative: Role-playing games portray some sequence of events within the game world, which gives the game a narrative element. However, given the configurative nature of the players’ involvement, these elements cannot be termed narrative according to traditional narrative theory."

    Excellent.  That is nice and meaty.  I grant it does not define a great many role-playing games, of a kind, but it does better for D&D than anything I've seen.  It gives a sound, roundish definition for role-playing games as a body

    It does not, however, make a good case for "role-playing," per se.  Where it comes down to the principles of "playing a character," we have the same familiar designations:

    • Players can have a personality.
    • Players can participate in a dialogue.  

    I can see that I'm going to get in deep water from here, so I'll ask the reader if they really want to keep reading past this point.  I'll give this warning: if you view "role-playing" within the game with strong sense of nostalgia, personal subjectivity and visceral prejudice, you're not going to understand what comes next ... because you will have missed the point that this post is a deconstruction on what the game allows, not a judgement on how you, as an individual, feel about the game or the sense you have of role-playing in it.  Whatever your personal gut-level instinct about the intuitive thrill you get from pretending to be whomever, most of that is coming from the cathartic soup that is the human construct that defines who and what you are.  All of that is not coming from the game; it is not transferable to any other human; and it is not relevant to this discussion.

    All right.  I'm going to take a moment to explain that the substantive quality that makes a "character" is that it has a set of mental and moral qualities distinctive to that construct.  We can call this a personality.  Exploration, skills, definable traits like how much we can lift, how fast we can run, how much we know about beekeeping, what sequence of events have recently revolved around us and so on ARE NOT elements of our personality.  My personality, your personality, any personality will view exactly similar events, will possess exactly similar skills, see exactly similar places and react to such things in a wholly unique and individual manner.

    Therefore, it must be understood that when we say, "we are role-playing a character," we do not mean someone with a high strength or a breast plate made of bronze or possessing red hair; we do not mean a fighter, a cleric or a thief; we do not mean someone with dead parents or a lot of money or seven reasons to kill the man who killed our father.  These things are outside our mental and moral qualities.  These things are what we have, how we look, what circumstances have occurred and what plans we make.

    The moral quality of a character is NOT defined by the desire to seek revenge.  It is defined by why this particular character, and not a different character, would seek revenge for something that many other characters would happily leave as a problem for the authorities, the gods or pure chance to resolve.  Why in particular is your character built in such a way that your character sees the only possible reaction to murder as the compulsion to commit more murder?  Until you look into the character, and see the motivation ~ which is not, as many believe, the death of the father ~ then you are not, as yet, playing a personality.

    And it is here, I think, that the role-playing game offers absolutely no contribution whatsoever.  Once it is established that the role-played character is going to kill the killer of the father, everything else that follows is a mechanical operation that can as easily be performed by a robot, with little or no evidence to the contrary.  The player must find the killer, the player must trap the killer and the player must kill the killer ... all of which is problem-solving and none of which is in any way captured as the "mental quality distinctive to the individual."  Another character, with a purportedly different personality, would have to solve the puzzles of finding, trapping and killing the target in pretty much the same way.  We are fooling ourselves if we think we are "creating a personality" by defining what the character wants or does.  Such things are superficial materialism, and nothing else.

    Therefore, the "role" that is being played is very definitely not a matter of reproducing a personality.  None of us are remotely capable of understanding any personality except our own, except in the superficial observation of others, whose thoughts we don't possess.  Therefore, if we are killing the killer of our fictional father, at the very best we are playing a part in which we are acting as we think we would, if our real selves lived in such a place, was possessed of such a father, had such and such abilities, had the nerve to carry forward with finding and trapping the enemy, with the understanding that killing is definitely our intention afterwards.

    Unless you are the sort of person whom NO ONE wants at their game table, this isn't even a realistic portrayal of your own personality.  At some point, in order to commit yourself to the deed, you will have to obtain a greater and greater perspective on your character, before the murdering even comes close to happening, so that you can view your actions as one would view the superficial appearance of another person whom we learned to be capable of such a thing.  So again, the role we are playing here is the role of a robot.

    And that is the definition of role-playing we find when we don't attach "game" to the search:
    "The unconscious acting out of a particular role in accordance with the perceived expectations of society."

    Role-playing is a delusion.  It is a chance for the participants to speak in funny voices, to ham up a performance, to present a thoroughly sketchy, slapdash, artificial representation, more or less as well as we might expect a sophisticated robot to present, without any real interest in subjectively examining the fundamental reasons why our character became a fighter, how being a fighter fails to meet our expectations, how neurotic we are about our ability to fight, how guilt-ridden we feel once we've acted in accordance with our abilities or how possessed we are by the general sense of inadequacy, doubt, a need for denial in the face of horror or any of the other uncomfortable, unspoken of things that we are careful not to speak of in mixed company.

    Once that is grasped ~ and I expect very, very few to reach that awareness ~ then we can see that all attribution to "role-playing" as a superior functionality in role-playing games, versus "roll-playing," as is often cried, is nothing more than a superficial desire to enact a superficial narrative in a superficially controlled manner, in such a way that no element remotely emblematic of game-play can circumvent our intentions.

    Which is atrocious.


    Here’s what I don’t understand. 90% of the world does not pronounce “Canada” the way that I do, a resident of Canada. And we’re fine with that. Why exactly should I alter the fifty year Canadian habit of pronouncing “Kuh-TAR” because that isn’t the way that people of Qatar pronounce it? I don’t pronounce “Russia” the way that Russians pronounce the name of their country. I don’t pronounce “Germany” the way that Germans pronounce the name of their country. And the same goes for France, Spain, China and most of the world.

    So in reality, this is all just pedantic crap. Which, incidentally, Fowler’s Modern English Usage dictionary also argues.

    Every couple of years, some group of pedants decide among themselves, usually because they've spent years serving in the foreign service of a foreign country, where their job is to suck up to foreigners, that we all have to change the way we pronounce some country, fruit, locally worshipped god or other such thing, out of "respect" for people who really don't give a damn themselves how we pronounce whatever, in our tongue.

    Start with this.  Japan has no letter "J" ... tell me the movement that is ongoing right now telling us to correct the pronunciation of that country.

    Drives me crazy.

    I will leave you this excellent point by the immortal Stephen Fry.

    Wednesday, April 18, 2018

    The Decision Quandary

    The following sequence rose from events played between May 2 and May 3, 2012

    Prior to these events, the party had just fought a 31-round battle against an excessive number of kobalds (I've forgotten exactly, I believe more than 80), with the help of 21 dwarves and a non-player hireling, Klaas.  As shown in the image below, made when my art abilities were somewhat less than what they are now, this led them to a storage room, filled with sacks of grain, barrels of beer and buckets of pitch.

    Image indicates positions after investigating the orange colored storeroom, upper left.

    Following the usual after-combat discussions about searching bodies, collecting weapons, splitting loot, designating search groups, setting up watches, the party descends into the storeroom with an eye to searching it.  Throughout this time, the party is asking questions, describing their actions and at the same time, "role-playing."  This last describes the pattern of expressing how they feel about the last fight, their emotions about finding loot and treasure, supporting each other's participation and various other elements that any DM will recognize from having run a few games.  At some point I should write a commentary on this sort of thing, but the example here is fairly confusing due to a lot of other references and so it is a situation I can discuss at another time.

    So instead, let's pick up the story as Andrej the Cleric casts a detect malevolence spell, then ventures towards the cavern that is shown in blue, to the left of the storeroom:
    DM: From 2605 you can't see much - There is some kind of large cavern between where 2303 and 2305 slopes down. And just for a moment Andrej catches sight of a ... wing. It extends out into Andrej's line of vision and then disappears again. The wing appeared to be about the size of a bedroll.
    Andrej: Bat-like? Bird-like? ::gulp:: Dragon-like?
    DM: Correct answer ~ ::gulp::

    Normally, the correct manner in which such a disclosure should be managed is not to blatantly state the case; this builds up tension and intrigue, while maintaining the strict access to information that the character should have.  In order to learn more about what the wing belongs to, the players should have to actually enter the cavern, letting their imaginations feed their fear.

    However, here we are talking about a dragon.  My personal feeling is that, given the name, a full-grown dragon should be the scariest, most powerful monster in the game, short of a demi-god.  I've written rules for that purpose.  The practical and terrifying aspect of meeting such a creature is, therefore, more than sufficient to establish all the fear and stress that we could possibly want.  As a DM, because the players are only 3rd or 4th level here (Lukas is 1st, but realizes he is 2nd after the Kobald's experience is passed around), I'm not anxious to force them into the cavern, as though they are fighting another group of mere kobalds.  I created the description of the wing specifically to serve as a warning, to give the players foreknowledge ~ and it worked because the player jumped on the detail perfectly.  Letting the player be right in this instance serves to give them a little confidence; knowing what's in front of them, they can prepare and plan to face it.

    Even though it is a very small dragon, they need confidence.  Note the immediate reaction from the other two players:
    Ahmet the Fighter [upstairs and quite a long way away]: Ahmet resolutely guards the door. Good luck down there fellas!
    Lukas the Mage [in the storeroom]: I guess dragons are one way to keep the beer cold. And they would probably do a fair job of keeping kobolds in line. Tell you what, Andrej you distract it while I thaw out this pitch ...
    Andrej: Yeah, I'll get right on that.

    When you're DMing, keep conscious of this sort of exchange.  It gives a lot of information.  Some parties might respond with something like "oh, shit," and a DM might be tempted to think the above is exactly the opposite of that.  In fact, it's the party has probably reacted just like you expect only they feel compelled to make a joke, cover up their concern and emotionally separate themselves from what's happening.  They've been hit hard by the information and they're "dealing with it."

    Of course, that can go too far.  A party that starts with a joke or two can quickly fall into a massive derailment of the game for several minutes, which can manifest as a) more jokes; b) mockery of the DM, or c) actual anger.  It's important with these things to understand what is going on in the mind of the player.

    continued elsewhere ...

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

    To see the rest of this post, you must pledge at least $3 to my Patreon account. This will enable you to see all material to date on the Master Class, but it will require that you wait until May 1st to see the content.  Because it is difficult to keep track of who is donating $3 to me each month, I am no longer accepting small direct donations for the Master Class blog.

    Sunday, April 15, 2018

    Technical Difficulties

    I have an update on the podcast that was supposed to be ready last night/this morning.  The original file from which the export was made has been corrupted.  This must be why the export from the file didn't work and why youtube wouldn't accept it.  Most of the work done on the podcast, to make it ready, has been irrevocably lost.

    I'm sorry, there won't be a podcast this week.  I will edit the file from the start, which will take many hours, and see what I can do to take steps so this doesn't happen again.

    I'm somewhat disheartened; I will have the masterclass post ready for Wednesday, as originally planned.

    A Quick Notice

    Just wanted to write a quick note before sorting out the last details on this week's podcast.  Some readers will have realized that it is the 15th of April, and that a masterclass post was meant to be published today.  That is true; I have agreed to write two such posts per month, in exchange for a $3 donation to Patreon ... and so I shall.  However, since the 15th happens to converge on the same day that the podcast is going up, I did not want the one to trounce on the other.  Therefore, I've decided to publish the masterclass post on the 18th, to give the podcast time to breathe.  I shall still write two such posts in this month of April, never you worry.

    I'll have the podcast up within the hour, hopefully, as I wish to get myself off to bed.  Be very well ~ and for those in the Midwest, sorry about all the snow we sent you this weekend.

    Thursday, April 12, 2018

    Core Principles

    Fair's fair ... I can accept that I'm an old grognard and that where it comes to the game of Dungeons and Dragons, I'm conservative.  I'm ready to change the combat and experience rules, throw out a lot of the peripheral material designed to support character design, rebuild monsters, consider mechanics that standardize role-playing and such ... but where it comes to "the core principles of the game," I'm utterly inflexible.

    I made mention of those principles in the last post and was not called out on them.  I find that reassuring.  It suggests to me that the reader has a good idea of what I mean ... at least the gentle readers who still visit this blog.  But I feel that the subject needs to be reviewed now and again: particularly when I make outlandish claims that stupid shit being done by the WOTC is going to kill the game.

    Being inflexible, I don't believe I'm writing an "opinion" about those core principles.  Rather, I'm writing about what the core principles ARE, whether or not I write anything.

    The game, as we know, started as a battle game invented by a group of university students.  Without mentioning names, this group created a series of rules to dictate how armed, armored figures could fight each other to the death in colosseum framework, for the pure pleasure of rolling dice to determine if my armed figure could beat your armed figure in a fight.

    That establishes the first two core principles of what became D&D.  D&D is about fighting.  And D&D is about resolving issues by throwing dice.

    Now, we live in a world where a plethora of players would argue that the game has "evolved," so that it is no longer about those two things. In fact, role-playing doesn't even need those two things, so both can be discarded without anything whatsoever being lost.  I strongly disagree.  Both fighting and die rolling have been discarded by a particular kind of player because these are both things that are outside the player's direct control.  Fights are not necessarily won.  They might be lost.  And dice, rolled openly, fairly, cannot be made to favor any individual, no matter how earnestly that individual feels about the importance of being personally stroked by the game's play.

    Fighting and Dice are threats.  Threatened people despise both.  And it is very, very clear from the rhetoric gushing forth on the internet, that most of the present adjustments to the game revolve around the removal of game threats.  Specifically, anything that gives the emotional feel of losing.

    Let's go back to the beginning. The originators of the game began to notice themselves growing emotionally attached to their own battle figures, particularly when those battle figures succeeded in a string of battles, due to the odd nature of random number generation.  Talking about it among themselves, it eventually happened that they began to make unique and specific rules surrounding the persona of long-term survivors ... which eventually morphed into the creation of drama-fed mechanics: charisma, intelligence, wisdom, alignment [for good or ill] ... and ultimately motivation, ambition and character.

    These, then, became the next two core principles.  Character we know well.  Attachment, however, is often overlooked, misunderstood or frankly made meaningless by the present-day rhetoric.  But the core purpose to making a character grew out of the attachment the player had for the character.

    The character mechanic was designed to feed this attachment.  And because dice rolling was a key structure of the originator's design, one that they liked, and because it was clearly understood that what made the character's likable was that they survived fights, the character-building rules that followed employed dice and the acceptance that not all characters would be equal!

    In the arena, some characters deserved to die. Other characters deserved to live, ALWAYS through luck, either luck of the attack die or luck of the character stat.  That was the thrill, the core principle: to throw characters into an arena and SEE which characters would die and which characters would live.  Because seeing, without knowing ahead of time, was exciting.

    From this, role-playing evolved from an attachment into a powerful desire to make those characters more and more real in the players' minds.  The passion to speak for the character, to sketch the character, to devise habits and aspirations, weaknesses, prejudices, dispositions ... these things were naturally evolving things within the framework of dice-rolls that went against all our plans, that favored or disfavored our designs, the results of which we had to overcome by our wits and risks, in a way that did not seek to break the fourth wall by insisting that the DM solve those problems for us!

    It is all about the love.

    But of course, not everyone felt that way.  With the rush of players who flooded into the game in the early 1980s, thousands and thousands of players recognized at once that the DM could break the fourth wall, any time; and because of this, there developed a particular kind of recognizable player who missed the whole damned point of the game. 

    This player hated failure; hated the very idea of failure for the sake of failure.  For this player, any altenative to failure was better than failing ... even in a game where the probability, nay the certainty, of eventually failing was very much the point.  This player, then, turn to gamesmanship: the use of dubious, not technically illegal, obtaining of advantage, by turning the screws on the DM, by means of rules lawyering, bemoaning a lack of balance, coercion, whatever was necessary to turn the game in their favor.

    We recognized these players.  We recognized when these players had gotten a hold of an existing group.  We walked away from such groups.   It is quite possible to read dozens of articles written at the time, in the Dragon magazine and elsewhere, about this type of player.  We understood the player was a threat, yes ... but we assumed, if we kept this player out of our games, we were fine.

    THEN the company, the fucking company, made it clear with the release of second edition, that the company could be played.  And steadily, through the 1990s, and the 2000s, the fucking gamesmanship fuckers have been gameplaying the company, en masse, driving the company to make more and more ridiculous concessions, pissing all over the core principles of the game, until fights are seen as boring, and dice as unnecessary or changeable at will, where character creation is regulated and processed to guarantee the utter greyness of balance, where role-playing is GOD in an Olympus where the mechanics have been cast out and made lame ... and where attachment to character is a bloody joke, because really, who cares?
    "I stopped playing him because, well, I got tired of playing a healer, jeez, it's so boring; I'm playing a tiefling now; her parents were killed when half the planet was destroyed; I really like her because she has green hair ..."

    It is this distance from the character that is killing the game; a distance that is increasingly encouraged by every official position taken on what the game is about.  And yes, I would expect a lot of people to just not get that ... because they are children of the way the game has been fucked over these last 30 years.

    That moment when the originators began to realize they were identifying with their cardboard chits, playing the combat game of Chain Mail, was the result of a human biological habit, one that we are utterly unable to resist, called anthropormorphism.  It is what enables us to make characters of anything and everything, from toasters to moons.  We can't help ourselves.  When we see a drawing like that in the text above, we give human traits, emotions and intentions to completely impossible things, because we are built this way.

    However, when we seek to hold things more and more at arm's length, insisting that everything can be controlled, that it has to be controlled, denying uncertainty, denying failure, building superficial constructs where those things can't occur, in order to make ourselves feel safe and comfortable, we increasingly divorce ourselves from everything that makes something pleasurable, exciting, surprising or spontaneous.  With statistics, and cheats, and parity ... we drain the blood out of things.  We make them less human.  Less tactile.  Less lovable.

    Less alive.

    Tuesday, April 10, 2018

    You Won't Believe this Shit

    Okay, I'm going to say it.  This sort of crap could kill D&D.

    It just takes one generation of too many young children being led down the garden path of this completely bogus version of role-playing, to snap the chain between teaching DMs and learning Players.  The very fact that the video maker simultaneously realizes that there will be push-back against what he's saying ("I'm just reading off the current rule-set ...) while failing to express serious misgivings about what he's saying is telling evidence that there is a growing army of cheerful, gormless drones who have already lost touch with the core principles of the game.

    Consider this:

    "Starting off, they do not use variant rules; the only exceptions are the variant race options and the variant point buy in the Player's Handbook.  You are not allowed to start with a 1st level character that has fly ... so no aarakocras.  When making the character and levelling up, the rule is, PHB plus 1, which means you're allowed the Player's Handbook plus one other supplemental book.  One extra book.  Also, you're not allowed to roll for anything that mechanically affects your character or character creation, or when you're levelling, so you don't roll for stats, don't roll for health and you don't roll for wealth.  You can roll for fluff like personality traits ..."

    Looking at this, we're not describing a broken game. We're describing the spectacularly broken social construct that surrounds the game, that consists of the community that plays the game.  The rules above, all the rules, are specifically designed to cripple, restrain or emasculate the asshole munchkin who uses splatbooks, die rolls and circumstantial character enhancements in order to fuck with the campaign, fuck with the other players, and fuck with the DM.

    And why do those splatbooks and character enhancements exist?  Because the company needed money, because no logical thought was put into the universe being built, because for two decades the company responsible for fucking up magic cards, the game, with new cards that would destroy whole packs of old cards, thought this would be a good idea with Dungeons and Dragons, too.

    Characters that fly?  That sounds cool.  Fifty supplemental books that enable all sorts of shit for people who were willing to buy those books, dig through all the badly written paragraphs and engineer what was said diligently, excitedly, expensively and without mercy?  That sounds really cool.  Variant rules?  Hey, what the hell.  It will be great!

    And now here we are.  Hamstringing players so that they have to play mediocre replicants rather than humans, who are encouraged to roll for "fluff" but must obey the marching orders of Mein Kampf, with thousands of participants all over the world playing a whole year at ONE adventure, that everyone else is also playing, with DMs reading out of the same book, like some badly written episode of fourth season Lost that takes 200 hours to see.

    This is potentially the death of this game.  Not because this shit won't be played ~ it will be played. It is being played, and it is very popular.  No, the death is going to come because one day you're going to hold out dice to a player in your world and the question will come back,
    "What are those?"

    Sunday, April 8, 2018

    Authentic RPG Podcast, with Erich Schmidt

    The third episode in the first series.  Erich and I talk mostly about engagement and difficulties of mastering games, with some dialogue about how to handle being a DM.

    As every, I ask the reader to please thank Erich for taking a part in this.  None of us are professional speakers; it's an act of great bravery to step forward and speak one's part on any subject ... so kindly take a moment and acknowledge him for it.

    And yes, please share the file.  Steal it, pass it around, get as many people as you can to listen to it.  I think the genius here is that these podcasts are people talking about their worlds, their philosophies and their ideas, without expecting those ideas to be universally upheld.  Yet there is a common theme rising in the three podcasts I've posted, one that I'm very proud of.  So share it around, help me to reach people who may want to hear from voices who are not trying to sell products.

    That's not me, of course, but it is Erich.  And in this, like the other podcasts, I am definitely putting myself in the background.  These podcasts are not about me.

    In kind for the listening experience, consider giving a donation, using the easy-to-use donate button on the sidebar, or through Patreon (you won't be billed until May!)

    Thank you.

    Friday, April 6, 2018

    Sometimes Players Just Deserve to Die

    Most of the time, I am convinced that most D&D players are exactly stupid enough to fall for something like this ... [as most males would be in real life, too].

    Sometimes as a DM, there's no way to protect against players ignoring all the signs and just going ahead with something, no matter what.  Unless, of course, it becomes necessary to have a neon light flashing just outside the door, stating, "Several hundred somethings, you will die if you enter."

    Nah.  That probably wouldn't work either.

    Monday, April 2, 2018

    Conflict is not Dead

    So.  Taking some time to reflect upon an old bugbear.  I proposed the idea of cards to resolve conflicts a little more than seven years ago.  Strange to think how enthusiastic I was about the idea at the time ... and how soon it was after starting this blog. The concept did not survive the online campaign; yet I shall try to paraphrase the idea, as I think of it now.

    The plan was to provide the characters with different methods of changing an NPC's mind, with the concomitant idea that the NPC would be able to similarly lock down the player's decision making process, precisely in the way that combat functioned.  Just as a player could force an NPC to adopt an action or opinion, the NPC could do likewise to the player.

    The "methods" were based upon the speaker's class, background, previous successes, means and ability stats.  Characters could therefore "reason" if they were intelligent enough, "torture" if they were an assassin, "seduce" if they had a high enough charisma and so on.  Logically, as more methods for changing minds were imagined, the system could be expanded.

    Resisting this, a speaker would have various resistances to having their minds changed; wisdom imposed fortitude against arguments, while stupidity defeated arguments by lack of comprehension.  Thus, as the first speaker imposed a method for changing the second speaker's mind, the second speaker had a means of being bullheaded and stuck in their ways.

    Fair enough.  Where the system failed ... and continues to fail in my thoughts, revolved around this problem: what change of mind was permissible?

    Could I, for example, impose upon an NPC to force them to give me all his property?  His daughter?  His life?  What, exactly, kept the "convince person A to change his mind" from becoming, "mindfuck person A into being my mental slave"?

    Players bent on getting the most out of the system saw it as a kind of suggestion spell.  This was never the intention.  My ideal was a system that the players could use to inveigle information out of a suspect, or subvert the loyalty of a person against their employer.  Players viewed it as a way to get free drinks out of a bartender, "just because."

    Do understand. We need to draw a line.  But that line is very pernicious.  There's no reason in the world why a bartender would give free drinks to strangers; particularly when we consider everyone in the world would have this power to convince every other person, since no interactive mechanic can be built to serve the players alone.  Logically, a bartender, and a lot of other vendors beside, ought to have a get-out-of-jail-free card for such attempted abuses.

    But say a character, charismatic, stumbles out of the woods and produces a monumentally believable reason for why they must have your horse, and right now?  They show a rolled up bit of paper bound with a ribbon, they're wearing the King's livery, they're carrying a saddle to the horse that has just been killed from under them and the message must be taken to the King immediately!  "And no, you can't take it, you're not an official messenger.  So I'll have your horse now, sir, if you please."  A die is rolled; the player makes an argument; the messenger counter-argues ... and the player loses, handing over their horse.

    Could happen.  But what if it is all a scam?

    As I say, it is a difficult line to draw.  Clearly, the problem here is not the method by which we ask [as I built the system to answer], but what we're allowed to ask FOR.

    I think, maybe, that is the answer: a list of potential asks, which can expand as ideas for requests are realized, that characters are allowed to request ~ once again, dependent upon their level, status, specific reputations, ability stats and such ~ ranked from somewhat miserable requests to outlandish demands.

    A character might, for example, be allowed to ask for a discount on anything, in their home town or in their home county ~ 10% off, say ~ at first level, because they are a cleric or because they have a high charisma.  Or because they have a particular ability [or feat, whichever system you play].  A low-level character might be able to intercede in fights; or distract a guard; or buy their way into a card game ... but they couldn't just ask to talk to the king.  They couldn't ask that a guardhouse be opened up so they could free a prisoner.  They couldn't just demand any damned thing they pleased, as if they were lords of the earth.

    This would firmly confine the expectations of the players to specific possibilities ... and then, the possibilities would have to be gambled for, in the way the cards were supposed to work originally.  That is, just because your gambler thief could buy his way into a card game, doesn't mean he does.  It only means that he can try for it.

    Now, some readers will be a step or two ahead of others at this point ... just as I am building to the key point here.  Some will realize that I've already been building up a system that guarantees the player can do a large variety of small, skill-based things, which I call my sage system.  I might have already created a "gambling" ability that included "being able to buy into a game."

    Suppose that the varying sage abilities (and I find, from moving them to the new wiki, that there are 182 sage abilities so far) serve as a template for what a character ~ any character ~ can ask for.  Studies like Sure-footedness, which gives a lot of benefits to sneaking around and into things, wouldn't bring much in the way of, "What can I ask for?"  But a study like Politics, which offers nothing in the way of physically empowering a character, would bring lots and lots of potential things that could be asked for.

    As ever, it could be a lot of work ... but it IS a solution to something that has denied reason for a long time.  An ordinary character couldn't go into a guard room and demand a room for the night, but many different kinds of functionary could.  And many more things besides.  An ordinary character couldn't demand a free beer, but many bards with a Performance ability could talk a bartender into one.  It is simply a matter of assigning potential asks to existing abilities, as the player or DM invents the process by precedent.

    The player looks at their sage abilities, and asks, "Could my player ..."

    The DM answers, I think that's rational, given you have an ability that fits that request, of that particular NPC.

    Then someone writes down the request so that it can be looked up later.  Easy peasy.

    The reason I never came up with this before is that I didn't have the sage abilities conceived of, in this form, when I was making the conflict system.  And the only reason why I put the two of them together now, is that I'm moving the whole damn wiki.  Ideas, being jumbled, tend to bump against one another.

    Sunday, April 1, 2018

    Authentic RPG Podcast, with Tristan Johnson

    The second episode in the first series. Tristan and I talk mostly about the perspective of new DMs on the role-playing experience. There are some sound troubles; turns out, I was able to improve them considerably over the original playback, but there are a few issues. The dialogue is easily understood, so no big deal.

    I would ask the reader, Again, to please thank Tristan for taking part!  To hell with me in the podcast, I sound like a bloody idiot (I think).  Tristan definitely carries this one.  So give him some words of praise and visit his site at, to see videos on history every Thursday.

    And share.  Share, share, share!  The first episode has 235 page views, 11 likes and no hates.  Though I could use some subscribers.

    Please, help this second podcast do just a little bit better.

    Too, please be generous if you can, and donate a dollar or two to the coffers for this podcast; I'd like to actually buy the mic I'm borrowing to make this.

    I will have another podcast ready in one week's time, plus or minus the hours between ten o'clock Sunday and sometime Monday morning, Mountain Time.