Thursday, June 8, 2023

Intriguing Things

Going from the last post in the ersatz game, as the DM we have three general scenarios to offer: (a) to have them encounter something unintelligent that's been living in the caves, that's unable to comprehend anything beyond it's searching for food; (b) for the party to encounter the first wave of minions approaching from below; and (c) for the party to find something intriguing yet benign, that lends a clue to their situation. None of these are the "right" option; nor are they the only options — they're merely a set of tried and true situations for the party. I've never gone wrong with these; and because they're so varied in type and presentation, our imagination is the only limitation. As such, in three posts, beginning with this one, I'll talk about each, starting with (c).

This is no different than inserting something interesting that happens along the road back and forth from town, or the establishment of clues that draws the players deeper into the adventure.  A vast amount of running D&D is the use of exposition to continuously insert information within the narrative about the setting.  Exposition is best given in drips and drabs ... in as small amount as possible at a time.  The worst kind of exposition is the "infodump," in which the DM or writer gives all the information about something up front, in as thorough a manner as possible.

I assume most people understand what's wrong with this, but if I might provide an example of bad exposition and good, we can get on with the rest of this post.

Let's suppose that for some reason, as the DM we've invented an NPC who happens to know everything about the cavern the players are entering.  We've done this specifically because we knew eventually the players would get to this point, and we've thought to ourselves, "You know what would be great?  If there was someone who could conveniently explain everything to the players at the right time, in full!  Wow, what a terrific idea."

This is bad.  Not only is it boring as hell to shove this NPC's lecture (that is, our lecture) into the player's ears, it also kills the player's sense of mystery and yen to discover.  If the players stumbling across a helmet, they don't puzzle out it's existence, or discuss it, no!  They turn to the NPC, who conveniently provides all the information the players need.  Ugh.  Don't do this.  Just assume that any method that gives exposition "conveniently" sucks the dog.

As the DM, we need to know, but withholding most of this information, for as long as possible, is critical.  As an example, imagine that above the dungeon, within the mountain the dungeon is under, there are a collection of hot springs.  These dribble down through the mountain's interior along channels and chutes, where they provide hydrothermic heat for molds, bioluminescent plants and all sorts of small beasties ... but as it happens, this alternate biome is 99.5% hidden from the bare rock caverns the players can see.  The existing biome perhaps created these caverns a million years ago, but they've been cut off from the original source of water ... except in a few places where the hidden biome bleeds through.

We mustn't say any of this to the players.  On a macro-scale, we want to use this information to divide the dungeon into two parts that are "warm" and "cold."  The lake hag below despises the warmer areas, with her and her mooks preferring the deeper, lifeless areas ... and this acts as a clue to how she can be found.  On a micro-scale, we can use the hidden biome to add spice to the player's experience, without them initially being able to discern the source for what they find.

For example, not long after entering, they encounter a small cloud of fifty large moths, an inch across, turning and swirling around the party, whether or not they're carrying light.  We know these have emerged from some small vent, perhaps an inch wide, too cool to show up with infravision.  Yet the moths themselves carry their own heat, and remain with the party (unless the party can think of a way to obliterate every one).  Then, if the party moves, by chance, towards the hag, the moths turn back and disappear.  But if they move in another direction, they encounter some new strange side effect of the biome.  Say, a trickle of warm water falling from the top of the cavern into a bowl on the floor, where it disappears through cracks.

These things seem incidental, and would be if they were disconnected ideas.  But they're not here.  Deeper down in the warm parts, the players may find themselves blocked by warm pools occupied by miniature, luminescent ochre jelly, just a few hit points each ... but clustered dangerously like clouds of jelly fish.  They may find a small mushroom glade, occupied by a few violet fungi.  They may discover a part of the biome that they can climb down through, only to vacate when they find the bottom is filled with bloodsucking plants.

And later, after more exploration, they may find that getting past those plants is a back door into the lake hag's lair.

Slowly, as we introduce various elements of the biome's influence on the dungeon's "warm side," they may start to put things together.  They may not ... especially if we carefully interweave the warm and cold parts together.

We have to remember throughout, however, that we're describing, not explaining.  Explaining is an easy, bad habit to fall into.  Let the party do the explaining, as they collect evidence.  That's not our job.

Wednesday, June 7, 2023

Music Library

This post has nothing whatsoever to do with D&D.  It's about popular music, and how my relationship to music has evolved over the last thirty some years.  And it's about how music fits into my creative process, which may be of value to someone.

Coming of age in the 1970s, my first conscious memory of a popular song came in the summer of 1973.  I connect the song with standing in the sun on the flooring of cabin my father built himself, from scratch; the previous summer, the raised deck had been built and in 1973, the walls were going up.  The radio played all day when he worked, and a funny song that played twice a day was very popular here in Canada, though it only reached #9 in America.  The memorable lyric went, "... long haired hippy type pinko fags ..." which is an odd lyric for a 9-y.o., as I was; but of course, living in the television and brick-phone era, I had no idea what the last word meant.

It would be years and years before I would identify what the song was, or who sang it.  No one ever seemed to remember it; and no radio station ever played it, perhaps because the lyrics grew increasingly obtuse in a post 1975 world.

Thoughout my teens and 20s, as I worked on D&D, university or anything, really, radio music was always an important part of my ethic.  Until reaching my mid-40s, I found it difficult to work in a silent room, though I do not when I'm writing something new, such as this blog post.  But when I'm working on the wiki, or maps, or researching, or copyreading, or crunching numbers, music plays pretty much constantly.  The most valuable aspect of music, for me, is that it's ongoing.  As each song picks up from the last, it evokes a steady sound that appeals to my sense of creative flow.  When I'm deeply engaged, I don't hear the music at all; and when I'm more relaxed, I hear something I like and begin to sing along.  Most of all, because there are no interruptions in the sound, I don't have to interrupt my thoughts to find something new.

I started collecting music around 1977.  Obviously, there were albums, and my parents had many from the 1950s and 60s, but I had only a few.  Mostly, I worked with 8-track tapes.  We had a player, and 8-tracks let me copy music without ambient noise ... though of course the quality wasn't great and it degraded over time.  Still, at 88 minutes a tape, I slowly accumulated some 20 tapes of individual songs, about 1760 minutes.

With the 1980s, I moved onto VHS recordings of music videos and cassette tapes, which would play in my, yes you guessed it, walk-man.  I bought albums on casette and accumulated about 4,000 minutes of individual songs, much of it downloaded from public library resources.  The height of my cassette library came around 1999, when I would play mixed tapes (illegally) for the coffee shop I ran, astounding a lot of my older-than-40 patrons with music they hadn't heard in decades.  See, my tastes in music are very eclectic.

In 1999, I was given the volume shown by a friend at the time, who knew about my pursuit of music.  I couldn't find a copy of this specific edition online (though there are other editions), so its my own photo.  The book is very beat up; the spine is broken, and yes that is duct tape along the binding.  I've been carrying the book around for more than 20 years now, using it as a source for finding music, learning more about music and ... well, I'll explain.

The book includes every song that ever made Billboard's Top 40 between January 1st, 1955 and December 24th, 1988 ... even if the song made it for just one week.  The number of pages runs 444, organised by performer.

Coincidentally, the book arrived in my possession somewhere around August of '99, when in October of that year I took a room in a house occupied by three others; one of those was a hard-core computer techie, who built his own computers for fun ... and that is how I came to be introduced to Napster.

I'm sure everyone knows, but Napster was the first media sharing platform that would allow individuals to download music without playing for it.  You know, piracy.  When I started using the program, songs being uploaded consisted of a dozen individual files, which had to be stored in separate folders; thankfully, that was soon overcome.  

As I was working as a cook in the evening, and most everyone else worked during the day, I had the run of my roommate's computer and napster for about 4 hours a day.  And during those four hours, I conceived of a gargantuan task.  Let me show you by posting the pages 112-113 from the Billboard volume above:

This gives a sense of the book's layout.  As I say, there are 444 pages of the kind of content shown above.  Intentionally, these pages include the song that I mentioned at the post's start: it's Uneasy Rider, by the Charlie Daniel's Band.

The rubbed out marks are a legacy from those Napster days, when I decided that I'd listen to every song from the book, and decide afterwards if it was a song I wanted to keep.  As might be expected, the task itself took longer than Napster survived as a platform, so the work continued steadily throughout the 2000s, right into the time when this blog was started.  Slowly, I accumulated a total of 1,200 songs, which mixed in with another 700 from the time since 1988.  That's about 6,500 minutes.  It takes about a month to run through my library, if I'm working full time and I'm able to listen to music while working.  Which is mostly anywhere I've worked.

I haven't listened to a radio for any meaningful period since 2006.  And since 2017, my general interest in reviewing music online that's just come out has faded.  But the last decade of listening to my own music, and to my partner's music as well, has awakened me in ways I never expected.

First, I could tell that what I had wasn't enough.  It was lots, and I wasn't getting tired of it, but the eclecticism offered didn't satisfy.

Secondly, the overall list failed to reproduce what radio used to offer.  Most of what I'd here in the era of radio was stuff that wasn't particularly special to me ... and though I didn't realise it at the time, that lack of specialness tended to highlight the content that was special.  The good stuff stood out better because it wasn't all good stuff.

And so, during Covid, I began an experiment.  I decided to obtain every song that had reached a top ten position, regardless of my personal feelings about the group or their music.  I'd ignore my "taste."  I'd treat it as though taste didn't matter.  I began the process in February 2021, doing as much as I felt like doing, at the speed I felt like working at.  At the same time, I'd obtain anything else that looked moderately interesting, as I went along.

I noticed the effect right away, as the first few hundred songs were mixed into my rotation.  And as that number grew and grew, I found myself feeling better about how the background music was influencing my attention.  At first, there were songs that definitely sounded like nails on a blackboard (and you'll notice that I've been deliberate about not explaining my general taste in music) ... but I forced myself to ignore that, and let the familiarity of those songs sink into my consciousness.

I may be very different from the rest of the world, but I'm increasingly learning that the difference between a "good" song and a "bad" song is how familiar I am with it.  There are numerous songs in my list now that I'd have considered "bad" in 2021; but which now, two years later, I'm quite indifferent to.  Some I've completely changed about.  It's somewhat interesting.

I'm writing this post because the book is very nearly complete.  I'm just 12 pages from the end (at the band "War"), which I should have wrapped up some time after the weekend.  My list is now 4,700 songs (more than 15,000 minutes), and I have my work cut out for me going forward.

Billboard magazine has finally seen the light and has chosen to admit the internet exists ... and so in the last two years, they've made their week-by-week top 100 song lists available.  I'm starting to create documents that organise these lists so that when I'm ready to move on, through 1989 and into the '90s, I can go on collecting anything that's reached the top 10.  I don't see any reason not to continue that pursuit up to the present day, though I do tend to think modern music is a somewhat, shall we say, derivative.  But what does that matter?  I don't have to like it.

Nor is that the end.  I've been considering that the "top 10" may be a bit limiting.  Why not the top 20?  That's good for at least another hundred songs per year.  I'm quite curious about what a music library of 20,000 songs would be like ...

To work to, that is.  A list so large that it never bores me, no matter how long I leave it on.

Monday, June 5, 2023

Out of the Box

I suppose I just don't have the confidence to walk that road, as I'm afraid it will lead me to a style of play akin to "illusionism" or "story gaming," neither of which I'm interested in.

JB knows perfectly well that I'm not interested in "story gaming" either.

This is the third post in a series that have all been written today, starting here and continuing here.  You're not required to read them in order.  But it won't matter, because they all end up at the same place.

"Story gaming" is a narrative in which the players are required to follow a pre-specified scenario within a narrowly defined setting.  For example, a one-dimensional dungeon that begins with the slaughtering of a kobald lair, followed by getting past a locked door, then heading down into a series of caverns, fighting mooks, winning over the mooks and eventually facing a terrible "big bad" at the bottom, followed by the acquisition of a lot of treasure.

Kind of like the scenario I've been describing for a couple of months now.  Anybody reading this feeling like I'm railroading players into a "narrowly defined" setting?  No?  That's probably because I've repeatedly pointed out that at each stage of the journey, the players have had to will themselves forward to the next step.  A "story game" holds the players hostage because they can't back out.  The DM has nothing else prepared.

This is especially true with the diamond-standard of official role-play, the "tournament game," which wholly depends on the narrow setting.  This, take note, is THE most societally visible part of Dungeons & Dragons.  Correct me if I'm wrong, dear JB.  Have you not indulged?  Within, say, the last couple of years?  Please reassure me that this is the reason for your lack of interest in this style of play.

My experience has been that once the players have the bit between their teeth, it's not hard to keep them moving forward.  It's where they want to go.  This is part of why story gaming has thrived for such a long time; I'll remind the readers that I participated in such events in the early 1980s.  And if the players are keen on it, then what am I to do as a DM?  Tell them the dungeon's closed?

"Oh no, sorry fellas, I don't want to get the reputation of running a one-dimensional narrowly defined setting game.  Whatta ya say you forget this dungeon adventure thing and find a nice bunch of river pirates to kill?"

If the players choose to be bloody minded about finishing something, the best thing to do is ride that pony to its end.  Nothing wrong with that.  It's hardly something to be feared.  What matters is that the players aren't forced into that setting.  They're not required to go there because as a DM, I've got nothing else to offer.  We are duty bound to make it perfectly clear that if they decide they're not going to rush the dungeon, it just seems like a bad idea, then something else is going to be made available within the hour.

And not because the players are given a nonsense choice, like which of the Cabin in the Wood's object you choose, but because we're fluid enough in our creativity that when they pick out a direction to follow, we have something interesting for them to find along the way.

Like, say, an ogre.  Standing on the road.  Not because this road is more special than the other road, but because it can be interesting.  Especially if the ogre's first act is not to behave like a stupid, dumb traditional ogre.

I just cannot seem to get this across to DMs, but I keep trying.  It does not matter that the party takes the high road or the low road.  No matter how you paint them, these are not "meaningful" game choices ... unless we take it for granted that the high road will get you to Aberdeen and the low road to Sterling.  No, no, no.  What matters is that when the players meet the ogre, it lifts its right hand in the air, showing that it's somehow gotten its thumb stuck in an iron cauldron.  "Can you help me get this off?" asks the ogre.

What we meet behind doors on along roads or in what damned narrow setting isn't what matters.  What matters is what the thing we meet wants.

Abandon All Hope, Ye Who Enter Here

Another name for the problem described in the previous post is "illusionism."

"Eventually, every game master winds up guilty of illusionism: You offer the players a choice that seems to matter, and then rearrange the game world so all the options lead to the same outcome.

"An illusionist GM prepares an encounter that pits the characters against an ogre on the road. Then, whether the players take the low road or the high road, they face that same ogre. If they opt to stay home for tea and cakes, the ogre fancies a bite."

This takes the two-door problem one extra step (I suggest reading the previous post).  Instead of the players going through the door, the door comes after the players.  Is this fair?

Let's be clear.  In my game's preparation of the party encountering an ogre, no choice of which road they took ever occurred.  D&D is a game in which players come to adventure.  As they walk along roads through various topographies and biological ranges, they're going to encounter intelligent beings, authorities, criminals and monsters.  As the DM, it's my role to service that expectation.  I've never had a player who turned on me and said, "What's this ogre doing on this road?  Did we even have a chance of taking a different road and not meeting it?"

And how stupid does that question sound?

I pick what's on the road.  The legitimacy of this ogre being here is that the road is reasonably "wild" enough that the appearance of an ogre seems fitting.  If it were the road between Ealing and Harrow, not so much.

Yet somehow, my honesty or fairness has rarely been questioned.  Some years ago, within the online campaign, I was questioned when I posted a 7th level fighter as the sole guard at a gate defending the castle of a 16th level cleric.  The justification for this questioning was that I put the guard in perfectly ordinary clothing.  I didn't deck him out in the finery that "a fighter of that level would wear," or so I was told.  Words were said and the player quit the campaign.

I've known numerous gentlemen in my past who could break my wrist with their thumb and forefinger, without needing to move their arm.  Many dressed in finery when on parade.  NONE of them did when they were on the job.

Excessively incredulous players should not play role-playing games.

As a DM, I am obligated to ensure that "player choice is meaningful," just as DM David quotes John Arendt as saying ... yet I'm NOT obligated to always give the players a choice.  Sometimes, they don't get one.  Sometimes, as I've said, there's only one door.

Now, I'm on record an excessive number of times regarding the importance of player agency in D&D.  These days, I'm seeing more old timers climbing aboard that boat, and that's good, but I've been piloting this ship for a long time — and so it should be obvious that I'm a believer in players having lots and lots of choices.  But the worst way to do this is to obolish the elaboration of meaningless, frivolous details such as two doors into "important" choices.  Let's not polish turds.  If we're going to give the players meaningful choices, these cannot be, Which door do you open?  They have to be, What does your character want to do with his or her life?

Then, once the players HAVE made a choice, such as, say, to enter the dungeon, they need to climb on board with the sentiment that the choice has been made ... and too bad, so sad, it's too fucking late to pull out now.  YOU went into the Ogre's House.  You can't cry now that you've found an Ogre in it.

As such, there is no "illusionism" in my campaign.  It's the cold, bitter, blatant, intractable reality is right there, plain as the blood on your cheek.

Cue Title Drop.

The Two-Door Problem

Having a dynamic encounter system determined by DM fiat feels a bit like moving the goalposts on the players (or pulling the rug out from under them or some such analogy). It runs the risk of being like the old "quantum ogre;" no matter what the party does or where they go, they encounter the ogre (or whatever specific encounter the DM decided was necessary to making a "good game").

Most of us are familiar with the thought experiment in role-playing that supposes the players are standing in front of two doors, one on the left and one on the right.  It's supposed that a morally responsible DM already knows what is behind each door, having determined this in advance of the party's arrival.  Let's say that behind one door is a tiger, and behind the other, a lady.

The concern is that the DM has the power to say which it is, once a door is opened, by fiat ... and there is a presupposition that if the dungeon is designed before the fact, being drawn out in great detail, then proof can be offered that the tiger is absolutely placed behind the right door, and the lady is absolutely placed behind the left.  Otherwise, if the result is a tiger, the DM cannot be trusted.  The DM can only be trusted if the result is a lady.

This goes far, far beyond doors.  If the player faces two combatants, similarly armed, and one is a 5th level with 35 hit points, and the other is a non-level with 6 hit points, then it matters which combatant the player chooses to attack.  There are many who would argue, vociferously, that the 5th level should be obviously 5th level, by virtue of the combat ability a 5th level would have.  I do and I don't agree.  Yes, over time, the 5th level's superiority ought to be evident, but if this is the first round?  No.  In any case, what if they're both 5th level, and one has 47 hit points and the other 26?  And as you attack the one with 26, I switch them, just as in the example above I can switch the doors.  How would you know?

We can take this further.  At a crossroads is a sign for two towns.  The one towards the west is in the midst of a plague ... and if they players go there, they might catch the plague and die.  Whereas the town to the east is presently under siege ... and if the players go there, they might be seen as the enemy and be killed.  Whichever way the players choose, how can they ever know I didn't decide for them?

This is the fundamental error in nearly all existing dungeon design.  It presupposes that the players are faced with a smorgasboard of possibilities, and that by supping a little from door #1, and then from door #2, and finally from all the doorish episodes up to door #76, they can somehow luck their way through the dungeon and get their fill.  But a non-episodic dungeon only has ONE door.  The door forward.  And of course it has a tiger behind it, because there's no other reason for a door to exist.

Look at it this way.  If you barge into the Ogre's House, you're going to meet the ogre.  There's no "quantum" about it.  If you're so stupid not to realise this, then you have no business going forward.  It does not matter if you enter it's house from the back door, the side door or the front door.  You may see the living room before the kitchen, or the bedroom before the bathroom, but one way or the other, the ogre is in front of you.

The door is the goal post.

I've never met a party who didn't want to meet the ogre.  It's the reason they're here.


There's always another door.  The one back the way they came.

Wednesday, May 31, 2023

The Non-episodic Dungeon

The last post addresses the narrative of a wholistic dungeon, in which the entire space is in play continuously ... and not just when the players open a particular door.  Rather than a series of set pieces, in which various monsters and scenes sit waiting to be discovered by the players, these same monsters move towards the players aggressively, as soon as the players enter their space. 

The more traditional form is passive, being laid out as a series of numbered rooms — we're all familiar with the format.  In structure, the dungeon is a series of "if/then" statements.  The players act and the dungeon reacts.  This may produce a spontaneous interplay, such as a kobald running off the warn other kobalds, who then arrive to turn out the interlopers — but these events are rarely spontaneous.  They're written into the dungeon's description ahead of time, so that "if" the players go here, "then" this happens.

For some years now, I've run my dungeons more loosely than this.  In effect, I've ceased to make a distinction between the interior of a dungeon and the outdoor wilderness.  In the wilderness, as the players travel, they either stumble into events or have events that stumble into them.  A group of wolves spontaneously surround the player's camp, regardless of what the players have done.  They crest a hill and see a large non-human encampment below, just a few hundred yards off.  There's no intention on the player's part ... they're thrown into the situation and forced to grapple with it.

Whereas a dungeon is usually in the form that when the players want to stop, they just can.  Each door and hall form a bubble that, if not popped, remains in perpetuity.  This lets the dungeon function episodically, with each room having its own character, disconnected from other rooms.  In the extreme, these rooms work like the Dungeon! game, created in 1975 by TSR and updated in later years.

I ran in this style for decades, even as I made my own games ... but over the last ten years I've moved progressively towards a battle-campaign style format, in which the characters move through waves of minions directed by a powerful being, who is fully aware of the players throughout.  This being might rush the players early, and then withdraw, or the players might succeed in an early kill.  I tend to avoid the motif of saving "the Big Bad" for the very end.  Rather, an attempt is made on my part to have the central being's perspective, then decide what it would do as the party's actions play out.

There might be pockets of innocent monsters, stuck off in corners of the dungeon — non-intelligent monsters that rush forward to feed, or intelligent monsters who can provide exposition about the Big Bad.  These latter may be too scared to help, or they might throw in with the party if they see that as an opportunity — and this too depends on what the party says, or what entreaties they make.

The flexibility of this format allows the introduction of new ideas from session to session, just as I might do with the wilderness if the players remained in a given valley over a long period of time.  Because the dungeon isn't a carefully fitted-together jigsaw, the removal of some obstacle might reveal an altogether different part of the subterranean milieu that wasn't there or even conceived of last week.  If the party finds cave-in, and takes time to dig through the rubble, they can expose a small hole that can be squeezed through ... and this unburies some other lair that's been divorced from the Big Bad and everything that's come before by perhaps 30 or more years.  It's a part of the tunnels the Big Bad didn't know about, because it's only been here for, say, a decade.

By having the flexibility to add such "side quests" from session to session, I'm freed from the process of building a whole dungeon, top-to-bottom, before I can start running.  I can start with a general idea — kobalds at the front door, a watery lair deep down, waves of amphibian and insect minions rushing the party as they descend — and then lay out the dungeon during the game itself, which I can do with a few minutes of graphic design on my computer.  As the players can see my desktop as I design the room (I used to do this on a whiteboard), they have something to think about and talk about while I'm designing.  Their attention is at a peak, wondering what the final image will be, and I'm not forced to draw rooms in the stale quiet of my room when players aren't there.  This works for both me and the party, as it builds tension and invests both me and the players in the design process.

I recognise this is, for many, simply "wrong."  For others, it seems impractical.  It works for me because I've had so much practice drawing wiggly lines on a computer program that I can do it very quickly ... but in truth I've always disliked the pre-planned dungeon layout, mostly because I'm never sure it's all going to get used, as my parties, freed from the expectation of necessarily finishing a dungeon, often don't.  Thus, I only need to make as many rooms as I'm actually going to use.

Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Dungeon Foolishness

When last we saw the players, they had been wrestling with their doubts about going back to the dungeon; and here we'll assume that yes, they go back.  As players almost always will.  This once again allows us to insert a little macro-narrative into the player's experience as they travel through the wilderness ... though I don't want to focus on that here, as we've discussed the matter already.  But as we'll come back round to the subject again, in the future, I'll keep this short.

Simply, as the party are heading back for the dungeon, we push the narrative of a future insurrection in the area just a little bit.  As the party travels, they see ahead of them a patrol of thirteen soldiers violently searching an enclosed wagon, or vardo, throwing things out on the road, where the litter of broken pots and furniture can be seen.  A family stands to the side, mother, father, two boys, with one of the boys holding an infant girl; three soldiers with spears pointed at their breasts stand ready.  The soldiers are laughing.  The soldiers are plainly wearing heraldry that give them official status, a point that has to be made clear to the players: get involved and risk crossing the law.  Whether the players intervene and are told to "push off" by the soldiers, or just continue, it should stick in their minds.  As DM, we want to stress the scene as uncommon.  If the players are so foolish as to actually fight the soldiers, be sure that the soldiers scatter if the players kill just three or four of them.  The concern of what might be waiting for the party if they get back should loom large in the players' heads.

Remember: the players have just established a good connection with the town.  They have the ear of a noble; someone they can turn to, someone they have a chance to impress by returning knowledge of the noble's father.  It would be damn stupid for the party to ruin all that for the sake of a few pots and bits of furniture, and the humiliation of one family.  Still, parties DO overreact in such situations.  It makes the game interesting.

With that on their minds, however the scene shapes up, the party gets back to the dungeon.  They return to the place where they suspended their investigations.  Because we need an example for this, let's suppose the players are standing before a large reinforced door that's been barred on this side, and furthermore spiked all around, to ensure the portal is effectively shut against whatever's below.

I've DMed for many years.  It's good to remember that players dwell in a modern technological environment, one in which most of them have never experienced any extensive time underground.  Moreover, they've not experienced a world where electric light is unavailable, or where silence might permeate so intensely as to thicken the air.  Living in a city, like me, there's always some kind of light; there's always some kind of noise.  A rural setting is both darker and quieter, but I've dwelt in such places from time to time and I can reassure the reader that even in a farmyard, there's nearly always some kind of light, as it's needed to locate the outdoor latrine.  It can be very, very quiet, but even in the woods it's possible to lay in one's tent and hear a stream babbling a quarter mile away.

Underground is absolutely devoid of both.  And this has repercussions beyond remembering to employ a torch.  Imagine the acoustic bell that a stone dungeon forms, when cavern walls are replaced with hand-made tunnels and shafts.  As the party deliberates how to get through the door before them, I promise, one thing they won't consider is how much noise it makes for whatever's on the other side.

In such a place, any abrupt noise sounds like a gunshot, even from a great distance.  It's possible that when deliberating on this side of the door, the party could be mistaken for the kobalds that formerly lived here, before the party slaughtered them.  But once that door is touched; once it's adjusted; anything with the slightest intelligence on the other side will know that something's changed; that someone up above is coming.

Yet, to this, the party is certain to be oblivious.  Without hesitation, they'll decide to bash through the door, pulling out sledges they've bought for the purpose ... and for two or three minutes they'll pound on the drum the door makes with abandon.  Imagine the effect.  A mile below, where the snaking tunnels from above meet, some evil entity feels the first blow as though it landed upon it's skin.  It lifts itself, listening, and there comes another blow, and another.  No, the pattern is clearly intelligent in origin.  It can't be mistaken.  Whatever creatures intrude above, they're clearly unafraid.  And foolish.  And so the entity beckons its army of minions — not to investigate, no, as the nature of the invader is made obvious by the sound it makes.  The minions are gathered in a goodly large number.  "Follow the sound," the order is given.  "Kill all you find."  And so tromp a mass of monsters up through the labyrinth, nearly mindless and bloodthirsty, more fearful of the evil entity than of death itself.

None of which the party knows a thing about, of course.  All they've done is knock in a door.  And once they can see past it into a wide, empty, silent cave, the party relaxes.  "Nothing here," they say to themselves, making a joke or two before trudging forward.  Not for a moment do they think anyone knows they're here.

Tuesday, May 23, 2023

Why is Alexis Leaving D&D?

As of now, although I'm not officially announcing that I'm leaving Dungeons & Dragons, I'm open to exploring new ways to tell stories and new systems.

There are a few reasons I'm interested in moving away from D&D.  Firstly, D&D can be a complex system, which poses challenges for new players.  Secondly, as D&D is owned by Wizards of the Coast, I've decided I may want to maintain my creative freedom without being tied to a specific publisher.  Thirdly, as I've already devised many parts of my own game system, I have a desire to focus on that moving forward.

While yes, as D&D remains the most popular tabletop roleplaying game globally, I might choose to continue using D&D to reach a broad audience and leverage the game's popularity.

This non-announcement is in no way intended to drum up meaningless controversy in the hopes of my getting more attention, or telling people more about my game world or my dependence on fan support, in the face of my growing irrelevancy as a commercial venture.

Saturday, May 20, 2023

Return to Form

I've written less posts this year, but I've written a lot.  Quite a few of the posts these last few months have been the length of two or three posts all at once.  In general, I've felt more restored as a person than in many years past; more creative; and more conscious of the good of that creativity.

I apologise for the last post.  Social conditions build up in me over time and need an outlet, and ViP's comment set the light.  That's going to happen from time to time.  It's better than a blog where the writer doesn't post often.

My D&D running was last night.  Previously, one of my players had sketched out an idea for his character's monastery, which I'd said didn't need to be especially details, so long as he provided the basic shape.  This is his sketch on the right.

This is good enough.  I encourage players to dream big, to give shape to something they'd really like to have in a property.  It's an opportunity to express oneself in the manner that the Sims made easily possible.  Your character has reached a certain level, they have a considerable pile of money and they're nearing name level.  In this case, the monk is close to getting his pile of lesser monk followers, so naturally he wants a place to put them.

The space doesn't need much detail.  I've been building up a visual library of objects, spaces and textures for years, so I can steal from other buildings — from the player, all I need is for them to commit to the idea itself.  It's awful to ask a DM to "just make me a castle;" there's nothing expressive in that.  A player needs to step out of his or her comfort zone, taking their first steps into something new.  If they contribute to the design of the space, they're more likely to grow attached to it; to perceive themselves adding to the basic model over a period of years.  I've had players arrive at my game announcing they've found the perfect curtains for the castle's throne room — and yes, I'm talking about a cis male character here.  As immersion goes, these things are important.

I spent an hour on the above, scanning the image and putting it on my desktop.  As I said, all I really need to do is pirate pre-existing features; and I don't want to get too details either, because my sketch is going to be reworked by the player in turn, as he realises he was thinking too small, and what else he might want to add to the general plan. 

He saw what I added, and we discussed some changes, moving buildings around ... and he's going to do more designing, as there ended up being no room for the main house.  The stable and smithy shown are the minimum size for these buildings, much bigger than the player's original sketch.  Here's the version we ended with last night; first, with his sketch in the background.

Then without his sketch:

Remember ... every time you draw one door on a computer, you're drawing an infinite number of doors.  Or beds.  Or walls.  Or full-sized rooms.  It's extraordinarily convenient.  And with very little work, it makes a strong impression on the player, while at some future time down the road a reworked version of the above becomes the site of a battle or a raid.

If the last post was anti-D&D, this is as D&D as it gets.

Wednesday, May 17, 2023

The Terrible, Awful, Bad Internet

Apologies as I hijack this blog for a post not about D&D.  The below does not fit into the series I'm writing.  It addresses a mutually good-spirited conversation between ViP and myself that begins on the last post and ends up here, so I can stretch out.  You'll need the previous post for context.  Feel free to 
comment below if you have something meaningful to add.

Here are the points I'm addressing:

  1. Humans need group dynamics.
  2. Once upon a time, people had to deal with disparate opinions; they were not able to live in a bubble. The "social reality" of time and place.
  3. The widespread validation of thought, obsession, what have you, is self-harming and — going out on a limb — harmful to others ... and the internet empowers this.
  4. The physical instrument of the internet, and the device that connects to it, encourages dark impulses.

Please understand ViP; none of this is directed at you, but at various points you make, that I hear all the time, especially from folks like Jonathan Haidt. I'm extremely not right wing; if anything, I'm left of Haidt; but every once in awhile, to support some point he's made — and this is common throughout the species — some notion is dredged up from the past that qualifies as make-believe.  Contrary to what some believe, it's possible to disagree with someone's premises while completely agreeing with someone's conclusions.  That is my position on Haidt, and generally on the points being addressed here.

Furthermore, I had to paraphrase your statement first, because it's SO easy to be called out on misunderstanding something. So let me make something else clear: I don't think any of your arguments are strawmen, or specious. I've heard every one of these in the last 15 years, so I understand where you're getting them from and why they appear to explain what's happening.

1. Do humans need other humans?  Yes, 100% agree.  Only it must be understood that biologically, psychologically, anthropologically, I need about 30 to 40 humans who think and act exactly like I do ... and that's all I'll ever "need" for the rest of my life.  This is the size of group in which human and pre-sapiens species lived in for millions of years; this is what my brain patterns are designed to recognise; and this is what I actually need to be happy.

I hear this saw dragged out all the time by psychologists who want to short cut through the actual reason we need other humans — to ensure our immediate safety, help find food, keep each other clean, do for each other in times of crisis, etcetera, as FAMILY — straight to an argument that says I should put down my phone and step away from my computer, so that I can step out into the local environment and buy a coffee from a fucking stranger who doesn't give a good gawddamn if I live or die.  I need my partner, my daughter, my friends, the people I have carefully vetted these last thirty years.  If these are not the people at the nearby park, then no, I have no reason to go to the park.  At no time in history or prehistory have human beings obtained a "recalibration" from strangers.  Right from the get-go, strangers are competitors for our food and territory, and are a THREAT.  My lizard brain is built to automatically identify them as such, and warily discount them as persons not of my tribe.

Any notion that strangers exist to "remind me of how other people think and feel" is something barely a century old, and for all of that century has absolutely been ignored as an ideology.

Again, please understand.  I only disparage the argument being made ... that we "need" other people.  No, no in fact we really don't.  And that is the bloody problem.  The tribalism we see is an outpouring of small groups of people acting according to their biological dictates in the highest extreme.  They're sheltering with "their own kind" comfortably because their own kind are the only people they can trust.  If we are going to make this argument, please, let's not argue "communality" for anything other that what it actually is: a dangerous social behaviour that encourages groups of the same mindset to act violently when their den is threatened.

As such, let's ditch this ridiculous notion that the internet invented this behaviour!  The behaviour of violently striking out at humans not of my family and immediate association has been around for literally (using the term accurated) millions of years.  What the internet does is enable these fuckers to speak to the whole world at the same time, and by chance hit upon some other similar group of fuckers to find them, so that something that could never have happened a million years ago can happen now.  We can actually pile up a random tribe of 20,000 like-minded people because we've invented a way for them to find each other and communicate.  Therefore we ought to be very, VERY careful about encouraging potentially psychotic loners to emerge from their bedrooms into the real world, as we don't know what sort they are.

2. Did we ever have to deal with disparate opinions?  No.  Not really.  Maybe it's because I came of age in an upper-middle class suburb in the late 1970s, and this gives me a different perspective on what a "bubble" is ... I don't know.  The reader is free to identify my take on this as a part of my background.

I hear pundits argue all the time, even on the mainstream news, that the internet has made it possible for everyone to choose the media they want to consume, so that today they all live in a bubble where they never have to hear anything they don't want to hear.

This is completely garbage.  If it were true, the present siege mentality wouldn't exist.  But it does exist — because we simply can't isolate ourselves from things we don't believe.  No matter how hard we try.

Examples are a weak argument, but I'm forced to try a few.  For each of these, I'll compare the world of 1955 with the present day, despite my having been born in 1964.  Therefore, I'll have to rely on my Father's personal life, coupled with everything I was told as a youngster was the "way the world worked."

In 1955, owning a gun wasn't seen as a dividing social matter.  People didn't like them, but they existed as a normal, common, everyday thing.  Shooting clubs — my father was part of one until I was 18 — were responsible, public organisations that operated according to what every member believed: guns were dangerous, using a gun had a place, common discussion of guns in social gatherings was unacceptable, if you owned a gun, it was a personal responsibility you undertook.  Those who behaved irresponsibly were ostracised.  Criminals had guns, but no one hesitated to shoot a criminal with a gun in 1955.  Cops were not held accountable for doing so.

Okay, okay, save your opinion a moment.  I'm not arguing this should be the case, or even that it was the universal case.  It's what I witnessed personally as I grew up; and later, when I used to hunt with my father, between the age of 16 and 25, when I gave it up, talking about guns was something that happened all day, especially as we met other hunters, Canadian mounted police, fish and wildlife inspectors on many occasions, in what may be fairly describes as an Mayberry R.F.D. sort of culture.

Second example ... in case the above doesn't sink it.  In 1955, no one way gay.  Of course they were; of course all the choices and motivations that exist today existed then, but as far as the culture went, no, no one was gay.  Homosexuality didn't exist on the media, it wasn't discussed, in the world I grew up it did not appear in books, it was not mentioned in school classrooms and so on.  The only place the matter of homosexuality obtained attention was that every boy constantly accused every other boy of being gay, as a joke, as a vindictive way to hurt, as a means to prove that one was not gay.  By accusing others, one vouchsafed one's own innocence.  The more violently one attacks a potentially gay other, the more assertively one can argue that "I am not gay."

Oh, and the word used wasn't "gay."  It was faggot.

I apologise if that term is offensive.  Once upon a time, I heard it aimed at me hourly ... and what was hard to accept later, as I emerged into my twenties, was that every boy did.  That's not how it seemed at the time; however, by sharing notes with the grown-up versions of childhood enemies, we learned things.

THESE are bubbles.  These are bubbles on a scale incomprehensible in the present day.  I find it strange that the same evils that we fight every day, those into which the mid-20th century invested themselves, all began as social cultures without disparate opinions, of any kind.  There are thousands of books written in the period specifically addressing the lack of society's disparate opinions, yet here and now I regularly encounter university professors and perfectly intelligent people talk about today's "bubbles" as something new and unique brought on by the internet.

Take my favourite: the argument is nearly always applied to those who choose to watch Fox News, as evidence of their unwillingness to consider alternate new sources.  In 1955, there were NO alternate news sources.  Even mentioning an alternative point of view was a jailable offense in many, many cases.  Mention it too hard and you might find yourself shot down in the street.  No matter what colour you were.

People once upon a time weren't forced to deal with a disparate bunch of random people.  Random people were forced NOT to be disparate.  And if you were, gawd help you.  That's what "normality" was.

ViP, you say that once upon a time, "we all had to define ourselves in relation with the actual social reality of our time and place."  This is nostalgic and, I'm sorry, also nonsense.  Thank the internet, and every other media advance that's been made in the last 40 years, that we DON'T have to define ourselves by what other people think.

3. Is the widespread validation of thought and obsession self-harming?  This relates to this video that began these thoughts.  I have to be careful here.  It's so easy to be misunderstood as a monster — which I am, but if the reader thinks so too certainly, you'll stop reading and miss the point.

Present society is founded on the belief that all persons are inherently valuable to the same degree.  The premise began to be incrementally advanced in western culture as early as the 12th century, and found traction progressively with books like Thomas More's Utopia and political units such as that of Switzerland, parts of Italy, certain religious groups and the Netherlands.  Americans like to claim the title, but the reason Jefferson uses the phrase, "by their Creator with certain unalienable rights," is because in his day, he wasn't inventing this idea, he was expressing an idea that already predated him by a few centuries.

It has to be understood, however, that equal inherent value is a philosophy, not an evidentiary fact.  We choose to view it as a fact, because to do otherwise would be, as I say, monstrous ... but nonetheless in discussing anything about human nature and character, we're forced to view ourselves intelligently and plainly, and not as a matter of religious faith.  If your particular take on equality makes it impossible for you to distinguish between something we WANT and something we HAVE, then I suggest you stop reading right now.  You won't like where this is going.

As a matter of society, we are faced with two salient realities.  The first, and most obvious, as it's here on the internet everyday as the mainstream media's raison d'etre, is that many, many people simply refuse to accept inherent value as a philosophy.  I shouldn't have to recount the details here.  Twitter is doing a fine job of proving the point.

The second, and without a doubt the less comfortable, as no one ever addresses it, is that for most of history any single human being, whose name or work we do not know, has been, unpleasantly and for the most part, irrelevant.  I won't say entirely irrelevant.  As an example, there must have been several persons in the 12th century, say, who raised persons whose descendents survived well enough to eventually beget my family and, of course, me.  I can make the same argument about a group of humans living 150,000 years ago.  And two million years ago.  I can even make the argument that some group of precursor primate 60 million years ago accomplished their survival well enough for me to be born.

In short, since this was done often enough to produce all of us today, on the scale of "relevant," it has a number, but that number is very, very, very low.

Beyond this, I know nothing about my ancestors in the 12th century.  I know even less about the others.  On the whole, whether they were bastards, or good people, or kept themselves clean, or burned witches, or acted as whatever counts for the worst behaviour by our standards, doesn't mean a good gawddamn, since none of those things has anything to do with my thinking today.

You, dear reader, may be ready to endure this line of thinking, but it requires one more step.

Nine centuries from now, most everything that's going on right now will have next to no relevance to the people living then.

I make this argument because as a culture, we tend to give monumental IMPORTANCE to every facet of every human being's life, and there's just no logic in that.  In the linked video above, the first six words are, "He'll do great things, that boy."  The implication being that "doing great things" matters on some level ... and as the story continues, we find the boy progressively choosing a path not to do great things.  And we're left with the moral at the end, paraphrased, "Well he could have done great things, if only he'd applied himself."

The premise, right from the outset, throws the human being's inherent value into the trash.  The message is, you're only inherently valuable if you do great things; and if you don't do great things, you're self-harming.  If you let yourself behave experientially, you'll never reach your potential — which, of course, is not defined by you, but by the other members of your village.  What ought to matter to you is that which matters to the people of the town, to the girls, to whomever, who have decided that anything that doesn't live up to their expectation, is self-harm.

Not to put too light a buff on this shine, but this is the toxic bullshit that powered the world of 1955, described above.

If I'm equal as a person to anyone else, then what I choose to do with my time is my fucking business.  If I want to spend that time writing a 4,000 word essay on internet culture, that's my choice.  If I don't, I'm the only judge of that behaviour that I need consider.  None of us here are self-harming by choosing to do something which some tiny segment of society thinks we ought to give a royal shit about.

But ...

We're hyper-aware of the whirlpool sucking a selection of human beings, especially young human beings, into a culture of cutting, suicide, excessive celebrations of violence and the encouragement of causing harm to others.  Psychologically, the path between harming oneself and harming others is very clear.  And so, the mandate for addressing self-harming behaviour is arguably critical as a means of circumventing the darker influences of internet culture.  Earlier I mentioned twitter.  All of us here should be very concerned about the substantially diseased corners of the internet ... and we should be concerned about people, especially young people, finding those corners.   As Dan Olson of Folding Ideas put it on a recent podcast, the internet has industrialised grift.  And young people are not mature enough to understand how a grift works.  Hell, many adults aren't either.

But if we're going to name a culprit here, it's "free speech," not the internet.  Most of those "dark corners" of the internet could have been legislated out of existence 20 years ago, and should have been.  Most of the grifters should have been identified and isolated years ago.  Facebook, Twitter and TikTok have no business being the unregulated grift merchants we've allowed them to be.  Any argument that says, "for the good of an individual, we must encourage them not to self-harm on the internet," has to include an element that says, "Emotional abuse on the internet cannot be allowed to exist."

The problem is not the internet itself.  Radio was regulated.  Television was regulated.  Both were regulated in a manner for decades that held fast to that vicious bubble of 1955 (or any like year that applies).

The internet blew that bubble all to shit.  It gave a voice to millions of people whose existence was ignored and persecuted, and that was a good thing.  Unfortunately, the force of that liberation was applied indescriminately to everything and every person, regardless of their agenda.  And so here we are.  You can have one without the other; but you can't raise freedom of expression if you're not willing to legislate against freedom of persecution, cruelty, grift and hate.

It doesn't work.  Either you crush the personal freedoms pre-internet, pre-cable television, pre-free radio, video recording and every other media advancement post-1955, or you crush the personal freedom of every person today who wants to use the internet to spread lies and social corruption.

Until that's sorted, however, my personal contact with the internet — and that of my anthropological clan — is a matter of my personal responsibility.  But I'll leave how that works for another post, on another day.

I contend that the linked video about the failed young man does nothing to discourage self-harm.  It's not nearly as sophisticated as arguments and techniques being used against it (which, point in fact, even a frank discussion of which must be placed behind a content warning).  We have no hope of educating, or changing the direction of vulnerable persons if we can't even steal ourselves to discuss the subject!  The dark side is much, much better at validating the thoughts of such persons because that's all it cares about.  It couldn't give a damn about making anyone feel valuable or ambitious.  Whereas the so-called positive forces are apparently more interested in making fairy tale stories where young boys grow up to be "great" ... which is exactly the sort of pressure that sends them into the open arms of the dark web, which assigns zero expectation.

I'd agree, yes, validation of thought and obsession is harmful ... but not because the internet as a force supplies these things.  The internet is a tool.  If you use a hammer to bash my brains in, that's not an inherent problem with the hammer.  The internet could just as easily be the tool that rescues such people ... but it won't so long as grift exists, on both the left and the right.  As I see it, every faction, regardless of their agenda, or their self-assessment, is more interested in bucks and support than they are in making any difference in the world.  This is what free speech gets us.

4.  Does the internet encourage dark impulses?  Of course it does.  It also encourages good impulses.  It encourages every kind of impulse.  But it really depends on what you consider a "dark" impulse as compared to another.  I've no doubt that I pursue many so-called dark impulses on the net.  There are things I can read today that I couldn't have 20 years ago; there are experiences I can have here that I couldn't have.

Right now, I work as one of 40 persons for an international corporation whose head office is not in my country.  I've met two of my bosses, once.  I sometimes talk with other people who do what I do; they're located in different countries, with different language skills.  None of us will ever meet in person, I expect.  I've made a very good living from this company.  Hell, they sent me on their dime, for free, to Montreal for a week.  I can't say anything definitive about the company, ever, for the rest of my life, but I don't care.

So I'm quite at odds about anyone describing the "internet," as opposed to a percentage of people on it, as a bad thing.  One might just as well say the PLANET is a bad thing.  And guess what — living on the planet Earth encourages dark impulses.  Much, much worse impulses than can be found on the darkest corner of the internet.  Don't go to Burma, Zaire or Equatorial Guinea, ever.  Just don't.  On a lesser scale, I can also point out alleyways in Calgary that you don't want to walk down.  Seriously.  Those are places you just don't go.

It's a big bad scary world.  Stop blaming the internet.  The only thing the internet has done is to make more people aware of it.  Which is also scary.

It's so much easier to pretend something doesn't exist if there aren't webpages for it.

Sunday, May 14, 2023

Playing Pretend

 The greatest weakness of Dungeons and Dragons, and of all role-playing games, is that they're seen as "playing pretend."  This disparages the game in the eyes of every individual whose heard of the game and never played it, and in the eyes of thousands who have played it and come away with a feeling that they'd rather do something more "grown up."

It is fun to play pretend, even for adults.  It's fun to dress up and act all heroic, waving a pretend sword around or even a plastic copy, while crying out in a pretend voice that we're storming a pretend fortress.  Yet given the simplicity of such pretensions — their lack of mature themes, the presense of fairy tale races and monsters, the wavering voices of those who speak glowingly of "returning to their childhood" or "holding onto their youth" — D&D and other like properties appear infantile and silly.

Some voices push by with arguments that redefine the activity with key phrases like "problem solving" and "resource management."  Some extremely foolish people have even connected D&D with "artistic expression" and other such tripe.  And while admittedly these aspects bear some importance to the game, they hardly raise the legitimacy of the activity.  It's still make-believe when the problems are pretend problems and the resources are pretend resources.  Artistic it may be, but so is children's theatre.  Child-based programs must embrace "education" to give themselves legitimacy.  We may think, for a moment, that D&D could have a piece of that pie, but there are very few out there who want to put D&D play into our schools.

Does it matter if this validity exists?  By far, most in the hobby — an appellation I disdain — do not care.  They wear their silliness and pretense on their sleeves, stiffening their lips sullenly should anyone suggest childish pursuits are something of which an adult should be ashamed ... which, on the grounds that adults are free to do as they like, is well enough.  Nonetheless, the puerile chip on the collective shoulders on the hobbyists cripples the game in two important ways.  First, it's come to mean that no outsider takes the game seriously, or should.  And second, the attitude arrests any forward movement in the activity's evolution.  Institutional infantilism denies the possibility of the game ever growing up.

What is it that makes the game, for some of us, really thrum?  I think we get past the races and the monsters, and past the heroism, and past the pretense that we're accomplishing something great when we foil an imaginative enemy.  These things remain relevant as trappings go, but are they really what digs down into the soul and revs our engines?  I don't think so.  The trappings of any activity, at their core, are pertinent only as conduits to a more satisfying return on our investment of time and thought.

As ever, I turn to baseball because it's universal and it remains something that people do respect as an activity.  What is this "core" I speak of?  Is it hitting a ball with the bat?  Is it catching a ball?  Is it throwing a strike?  No, of course not.  These are the trappings.  It's the arrangement of these trappings; the dramatic process of the ball being thrown, hit, recovered, thrown, with the challenge at the base or plate.  It's the uncertainly of multiple humans performing skilled activities according to their limitations that lifts the simple trappings into something higher.  It's not that I hit a ball, it's that I do it against another trying to stop me from hitting that ball.  Hitting the ball is incidental ... it's hitting a ball that you throw against me that matters.  Beating you.  And then having to beat the fielder who recovers the ball and throws it to first base, where another person waits to beat me.  It's a rapid series of contests, happening seconds apart, that excites the emotions ... not only of the players, but even of the spectators, who can identify with the raw passion taking place.

Where is that passion in D&D?

In the last post of this DMing series, I noted that in my game, when the players are truly uncertain about what to do next, the debate doesn't arise between factions, picking one side or the other, but within the players themselves.  Our fictional player Mick wants to go to the dungeon, but then again he's hesitant to go.  Thus he wrestles with his own conscience — not because he feels anxiety, but because he senses a need within himself to have courage ... which he is surprised to find he doesn't have automatically.

This is very different from the D&D player who pretentiously declares in a heroic voice, "We'll return your father to you, good sire!  For we are stalwart and true, and unafraid of death!"

That's not a brave player.  That's a player who has nothing to lose ... because the character, the game, the dungeon, the result and everything else they're playing is just make-believe.  Whatever happens doesn't mean a good gawd-damn because to that person, the game has no real consequence.  Like a child on a school yard, pretending to be Darth Vader dying at the thrust of Luke's sword, death doesn't mean anything.  He or she can just roll up another character.

From any self-conscious point of view, this is awful.  It's a mockery.  And any participant in D&D that embraces this style of play shouldn't be respected — not by people in or outside the game.  From their perspective, of course the rules are meaningless.  Of course they have no reason to concern themselves with feeling anything, except the sham of pretending they're brave when in fact they're so cowardly that the tiniest constraint on their make-believe spirals them into a temper-tantrum.  They don't take the game seriously because they can't; they haven't the wherewithal, the maturity, the emotional capacity, to take anything "seriously."  That's why they've drifted into the game as a fantasy in the first place.

They need the game to be a fantasy like they need air.

Mick, above, doesn't want to lose another character.  He's lost four already, vis-à-vis the last post, and he's concious of how it will look if he tanks again.  Already the other players around the table are ribbing him, like they would if he were a left fielder who'd dropped four fly-balls.  He knows the others are beginning to doubt his ability to play.  He's conscious that he has to do better, especially as he realises the DM is getting tired of his lack of skill and commitment.  The combination of these factors adds up.  It puts pressure on Mick to change his behaviour, if he wants to continue participating in this activity, with these people.

Mick's problem is self-respect.  He has some.  He wants to measure up to what he thinks he should be capable of doing: in this case, playing well enough that his character survives.

In the alternate example above, our hero-fanatic has retreated into nihilism.  Survival doesn't matter; and if the argument is made that it should matter, or that our hero's commitment might be judged at all — by, say, holding him or her accountable for actions taken — then we can expect pouting, huffiness, outbursts and an inevitable hissy-fit, complete with arguments like, "I'm allowed to do whatever I want!" ... the argument a child makes.

There's no point in trying to manage or educate, or appeal to persons of this sort.  They've already started down a path that they're not going to come back from any time soon, so it's best to quietly inform them that they need to do what they want somewhere else.

The intrinsic value of D&D and RPGs is that, as games, they allow us to explore emotions we wouldn't normally contend with: fear, loss, self-doubt, social responsibility, competence, self-sacrifice and so on.  These are respectable emotions.  These are ideals that children ought to experience and come to grips with.  Not only do they provide young people with the opportunity to deal with adult themes and ideals, they allow adults to immerse themselves into those things that are so easily lost in the day-to-day compromises that we must do if we want to pay the bills and keep our families together.  Nothing in this world is so "adult" as compromise ... the ability to place everything we deal with on a scale of importance, with games and childish behaviour at the bottom and competence and self-respect at the top.  Everything else has to be flexible, if we're to survive and do well.

So if a game comes to take up a lot of our time, it better have elements of those things we view as important in it — or else we're wasting our time.  Mick's conundrum of trying to find the courage to go back to the dungeon is a thinking process that serves him in real world situations ... because it's the same.  The courage to head back to the dungeon is the same sort he needs to step up to his manager and ask for a raise; or step up to the neighbour and ask to have that tree's branches pruned back.  It's facing the business at hand ... and it's ALSO facing the consequences.

D&D is not "playing pretend."  It's weakness is that it's seen that way, because so many people flock to the game as an escape, and not for what the game has the potential to offer.  As a DM, we have to decide which kind of game we're playing.  Yes, the players can have another character when theirs dies.  But we need to ask ourselves: does that automatically come without strings?  Are we, the other players around the table, expected to wipe our memories of the old character, and how it died, also?  And are you, the player, absolved from learning anything about what you've done wrong, or absolved from having to accept responsibility for your previous actions, just because you're getting a new character?

No.  No you're not.

Saturday, May 13, 2023

Deadly but Fair

Forgive me if I cover old ground with this post, but I wish the point to be included in contest with this series' last post.  If you're a new reader, I suggest picking up this post.

Assuming we've done everything right — as I define it — the characters have every reason not to head back to the dungeon, as it's full of very bad demons and whatever's there has already taken down a full-on noble lord.  Personally, I'd make sure the party knew it meant, yes, a 9th level.

... except that the party, probably, wants to go back.  It's not sensible, but nevertheless it's predictable.  They've already collected a nice surface treasure.  They'll be sure that there must be a sub-surface treasure, and that means more.  And if they go back, let me add, we won't disappoint them.

In the best cases, these conflicting agendas puts the party on a knife edge, with some players being cautious and some not.  If none of your players are cautious, then clearly as a DM, generally, you're not:  a) hurting them enough; and b) humiliating them enough.

Sorry, but I've never had that strange phenomenon of players who have so little regard for their characters that they'll cast one after another into the cauldron of death without restraint.  Perhaps it's because I insist on the character being rolled in great detail, while the table watches.  On that score, I've been reassured by my players many times that they adore the character rolling process, because it involves random generation on a scale large enough that they're fascinated to see what results turn up.  This is how they explain it.  My generation system used to take much less time; but even at the very start of my career, I insisted that rolling a character meant a total stoppage of the game.  When I was but 15, playing with adults over 30, that's how they did it.  No one EVER drew back from the table and rolled their character in private, while the game went on.  Personally, perhaps because I'd been sheltered, or because I read the Dragon Magazine casually, I'd never heard of such a thing until seeing it in The Gamers.  And later, when I discovered that was normal ... let's just say it's rant fuel for me.

Putting the character-generation process centre stage, or in the centre ring if you prefer a circus analogy, makes rolling a memorable, group experience — one that's going to draw ribbing and a reputation if it's something our player does a lot.  Especially in my game.  Once Mick has rolled his fourth character in five runnings, sacrificing each stupidly one after another, he'll suffer a little, shall we say, social medicine in the bargain.  First off, his mistakes and failures are going to get picked apart by others — and for quite a while, at least as three times as many runnings as he's lost characters.  This is something I'm not going to discourage, because in social activities, shame works.  Usually.  If it doesn't then I'll wait until the next time Mick chooses to do something stupid and I'll stop the game myself, and ask a difficult question:  "Mick, why do you want to play D&D?"

See, I'm not of the opinion — as many are, who seem to boast about the slaughterfest going on in their campaigns — that people die in D&D because the rule set is harsh.  Not to disparage, but because it's a good example of someone clearly wrestling with the problem, JB brings up this element a lot.  As an adult in 1984, mass character murder was clearly being pushed, and pushed HARD, by the publishing wing of TSR.  This may have been a lack of creative juice or because for them the game consisted mostly of one-off events (given their schedules and the need for public appearances).  It may be that the many of the group were frustrated sadists — I have no better explanation for Tomb of Horrors — who were using D&D as a way to get their metaphorical buzz.

In any case, I played under multiple DMs between 1979 and 1986, and total party kills were NOT emblematic of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons in any degree.  JB, and others, seem to feel it's an inherent quality of the game system:

"... mainly it's just that 1E isn't a cakewalk game to play. Characters die...and with SMALL parties (less than six or seven characters), any single loss can lead to cascade failure and disaster."

I honestly don't see it.  I don't know what JB is doing, or how he interprets the rules, but in four decades of running my own game, I've had maybe three TPKs, period.  90% of the time, it doesn't come remotely close, as I won't even have a single character die.  And this includes the 15 year period before I used negative hit points, and the 25 year period before I added a few more hit points to my characters due to body mass.

Now, as I pointed out with the kobald lair, the plethora of enemy hit points and attacks given in most game modules is simply moronic.  And that no doubt accounts for the party death ratio that many experience.  I ran KotB back in 1981, when I still hadn't cracked the code for how to make a game setting.  It took the party a long time to kill everything, but at no time did the whole party ever die at one time.  There were casualties; the end party that finished off the last room brings to mind the Ship of Theseus.  But the whole party didn't die because, again and again, they approached, fought the enemy, didn't let themselves get stupidly trapped behind the lines so that they could withdraw before it was too late.  They played CAREFULLY.  They measured their steps.  They went at the mobs with boiling oil and traps of their own and didn't mind that the whole adventure took six months to play.  We had six months.  We were still in high school.

Sorry to go all this way around a barn, but this is the only way I can make a point about players not assuming that just because there's a dungeon in my game world, it's easy to take on.  And that's been my experience with most players.  In both the Senex and the Juvenis campaigns I ran online, the players approached the world with the mindset that yes, it was dangerous.  They'd read me, they took me at my word ... and they did not have a TPK.  I don't know what other evidence I can give.  Both off and online, that's the result from the campaigns I run.  Getting a high level party is inevitable, though admittedly it that takes seven or eight years of gaming.

Getting back to it then.  Hopefully, the party IS on a knife edge.  And that sets them to deliberating the matter of going back, with this new information in hand.  In my experience, most of the time, the party doesn't split up and take sides.  Wisely, everyone wants to hold off.  Bravely, everyone wants to go forward.  The battle is inside themselves, not between one another.  Each player has their concern; and each player is there to discuss how their take on the matter might alleviate another player's concern.  And as the concerns are put forward, one by one, they're discussed.  Plans are made.  Ideas are trotted out for things that need to be purchased, to implement strategies.  Not magic potions or scrolls, but oil, holy water, more twine to make traps and snares, caltrops, iron spikes, poles, enough beets ...

[Beets?  I pointed out to a party, and maybe on this blog, some years ago that when encountering a long, dark hallway, the best thing to throw forward into the darkness is a round, firm, goodly-ripened beet.  It bounces, goes around corners, draws attention of whatever might be down there — so we can fight it here as it comes on and not down there — and what's more, leaves a series of bright red spots as it skips left and right, on dirt as well as stone.  If nothing else, its a trail we can use to find our way out, once we've gone in]

These are conversations I enjoy a lot as a dungeon master.  I can sit back, let the party chew the fat between them for as long as it takes — now and then, the entire rest of the running, if I've really got them going — and enjoy the fact that I'm a spectator.  My view of DMing is that it takes a lot of time and energy; that I'm responsible for making the game interesting for five or six hours at a time.  If 90 minutes of that is spent with the party in a state of moderate consternation about making the right decision, that's a load off my responsibility.

In no way is the party "bored."  On the contrary, agitation has a marvelous way of denying boredom.  Nor do I urge them to "make a decision" so we can "get going."  That's pretty stupid.  Not to mention selfish.  After, it's not my character deciding if it wants to put it's head on the block.

On the other hand, if a TPK so rarely happens in my game, why are the players worried at all?

Well, they've all watched a new player, sometimes an "experienced" one and some time a noob, who simply ignored this whole "Let's be careful and not die" agenda.  Result?  They die.  Pretty quickly, too.  Case in point, the Juvenis campaign when they first entered the dungeon with the fire beetles, and three out of five characters died in 10 rounds.  Not ALL of them, though ... because they had a way out and two survived.  After that object lesson, the players all got a lot more careful, all at once.

If the game rules are applied consistently and fairly, and the numbers of enemy are not too great, and a way is possible to get in and out again without the DM arbitrarily trapping the players in a dungeon, in a way that the players have little or no control over, such as a random die roll ... then a group of intelligent, cautious, innovative players can survive any situation, even ones where they're punching way above their weight.  It means not touching anything just to see what happens.  It means staying close and tight and ready to protect one another if a combat occurs.  It means doing your due diligence with reconnaissance.  It means admitting that yeah, it's time to go.  It means accepting that a dangerous situation CAN'T be overcome by clever role-playing, any more than the Viet Minh might have been.  Because the non-intelligent creatures down there are hungry and voracious; and the intelligent creatures down there really, really, really, really HATE surface people.  They've met too many surface people.

If a DM and party can get these things straight, and a few others besides, they can survive.  And it does not matter a fuck what the AD&D rules say, or how few hit points they have.  Don't squander hit points and you'll have plenty.