Saturday, August 13, 2022

Deciding on Monsters

Let's take this a little slower.  Using the map from the previous post, republished here, suppose we starting the players in a lesser village, say Vardarac.  From previous work I've done, the type of hex (4) indicates a village with 2 hammers ... thus, a small temple, hostel, day market, bakery, hovels, a windmill and so on.  Nothing really special, but still decently settled.

Incidentally, Vardarac is real, though a Google map search only shows the village has been depressingly modernised.  The image from google maps is reminiscent of the kind of thing we see in small town Saskatchewan or Manitoba, here in Canada.

From here we want to decide on the monsters that will "kill the party."  We don't really want to kill anyone, but let's admit that having dangerous monsters available for the party to contend with remains a big part of D&D.  The chicken shown might be formidable, but it's not exactly what we're looking for.

The above map gives us some good locations: there are numerous swamps up and down the Drava and Danube rivers, which are surely inhabited by something; there are the rivers themselves, offering water beasts; east of Apatin there's a forest nearly seven miles across ... and of course any hex on the map that's even a little green has copses of forest that are anywhere between a mile and three miles wide.  Vardarac is in just such a green hex, so we can envision small forests near the village, with their east and southern edges meeting the swampy areas next to the rivers.

The area is upon the borderland between Hungary on the northeast and Slavonia on the south and west.  In my game, these are both controlled by the Ottomans, and therefore this is only a "provincial" border. The swamp is innundated deciduous forest land, covered with water in flood season (3-4 months after snowmelt), turning to brush & mud flats with autumn and eventually hard, dry dirtpan between trees as the land freezes with winter.  Because of this difficult-to-patrol area between constabularies, we can assume the forests are full of thieves, bandits, even river pirates since the rivers are important traffic routes.  

We might equally assume there are places in the swamp where even the criminals won't go — which grants a potential hook.  Classic D&D would have this be a "rumour," which is a lazy means of exposition.  Since the party is starting in Vardarac, we can assume their locals and they already know where the bad places are.  Don't go into the swamp south of Darda; river pirates dwell on the Danube's offshoot north of Kopa; the old abandoned manor north of Vardarac is haunted ... these are things the party would have heard about all their lives.  Who knows if those are true warnings or not?  They are a place to start.

But "where" isn't the real problem.  Our larger requirement is a sustainable setting, which asks for monsters that make sense in the environment — and by this, I don't just mean that swamp monsters belong in a swamp.  The city of Osijek and the surrounding towns are ALSO part of the environment.  These places are filled with professional soldiers, knights, nobles, wealthy merchants with hundreds of river sailors and guards ... whose livelihood relies upon not being attacked by river pirates and oh, say a dragon turtle, conveniently floating in the middle of the Danube.  Anything truly big, or overtly accessible, should have been found by some non-player professional, and therefore shouldn't be there for the party to find.

Additionally, we should assume that whatever's out there doesn't exist in convenient lame-scale D&D sizes.  Oh, sure, we can have the party kill half a dozen bivouacked goblins or an owl bear that's somehow escaped the net of professional hunters, but that does not make a sustainable campaign.  It makes a session, maybe, if that.  No, what we want is some sort of monster that the party can fight for a while, settled somewhere between the trees and mudflats where it's deliberately kept from being noticed.  Perhaps a small cadre of doppelgangers, though I'm borrowing from my own earlier campaigns with that one.

How about a legion of huge spiders, mysteriously gestating from a source within the swamp?  This has potential, since we could have so many spiders that yes, the various local leaders and hunters are themselves overwhelmed.  Local talk could start along the lines of, "Doesn't it feel like there's more spiders that usual, lately?"  Followed by the burgher of Vardarac calling the villagers together to assemble a hunting party to clear out the infestation of spiders that are harrying the farmers along the eastern woodlands.  A bounty per spider could be offered ... and as the 1st level party engages, they do rather well.  These spiders only have 2 hit dice, and perhaps have a weak poison, or can only deliver one dose a day ... certainly not a poison that outright kills.  Maybe they're wolf spiders and have no poison at all.

But as the party continues to engage, there seem to be a lot more still ... and at last they're forced to withdraw, as all the hunters are.  A call is made for help; local constables arrive and the battle is re-engaged.  Do the players take part?  That's up to them.

Next they learn this spider problem has affected many places throughout the swamps, from Petrijevei to Sonta.  They learn the spiders appeared in such numbers in Apatin that the town was literally under siege, until a grouping of mages were able to reduce the numbers.  Speculation arises that the spiders are coming from some place ... perhaps if that place were identified, the local lords could deal with it directly; if only there were a group of scouts willing to plunge into the swamp and locate the source.

But then, where might that be?  A helpful librarian might know the answer; perhaps some subtle clue exists for the players to witness and upon which to build a theory.  Wouldn't it be interesting if, when the players did enter the wilderness at the guessed at place, suddenly, no spiders.  Hm.  That's ... telling.

The problem with examples is that they derail the real point — that whatever monsters we choose, they must fit the wholistic nature of the environment.  There are swamps here, but none are more than 3-5 miles from human settlement.  An underground setting is impractical because the water table's so high, the sub-surface is porous and impossible to build down into.  A mysterious tower within the swamp makes no sense — the excessive water in the soil denies the growing of any really big trees, which would fall over in a flood, so a high enough tower to be adventured in would be noticed.  And approached, in order to tax the owner and question their appearance within this already-owned swamp.

So we're rather limited to surface, secretive adventure models.  Something which the party is the first to discover, or which represents a problem too big for the area to manage easily.  Very often, good adventures are made from the party stumbling around and finding something that simply hasn't be found before.  Virtually every horror movie follows this trope — and a great many thrillers, also.  For example, the party is walking through the woods and discovers three trolls who have swum their way downstream from the hills to the west ... and there are hills just 40 miles that way, surrounding the upper Drava.  Or perhaps there are three treants who have been here for two hundred years ... and perhaps haven't even moved in all that time.  Heck, a treant could grow to full size in the middle of a town, without anyone suspecting for a moment that it's a treant ... until someone decided to cut it down.

Another interloping sort of design is the "disaster."  A plague ship arrives in Osijek and is forced to moor in quarantine across the river.  It's there for a week, with the crew dying one after another; but any who try to escape the ship are shot full of arrows or obliterated by a mage.

Then, unexpectedly, a fire breaks out aboard ship; there are screams, and burning bodies throwing themselves into the river ... but this isn't the problem.  The problem is that the rats aboard ship abandon it.  Hundreds of rats, streaming out in every direction, soon to infect other rats — and in a different way we've reproduced the spider narrative.

Or perhaps it isn't a plague; perhaps it's a ship full of ghouls.  Upstream, one ghoul got aboard and before anyone could deal with it, a dozen crew members were infected.  Now the ship runs aground outside Apatin, while the former crew of 160 now emerge and stumble into the town.  Of course, many would be killed, but all of them?  And so instead of rats or spiders, it's ghouls, with the party stumbling across them from time to time ... perhaps encountering an isolated hamlet that's been completely transformed ...

None of these possibilities challenge the status quo.  Despite the rats, the spiders or the ghouls, despite what treants or trolls might do before they're dealt with, the wagons continue to roll, the ships continue down the rivers, even as the number of plague victims begin to stack up.  The setting's structure and function is maintained ... and the players are free to find ways to press their advantage, either by meeting these problems head on, or using the distraction to find their way into other activities that might be more difficult if the local lords weren't away fighting ghouls.

Friday, August 12, 2022

The Mapping Goes On


The above image comes from my Google Earth Pro, with each rectangle being 40 mi. by 20, or 64 by 32 km.  In making the map piece by piece, I take it's equivalent from the map above in order to get the right placement of mountains or rivers ... with personal adjustments.  Blue rectangles are places I haven't drawn maps for, but which I've outlined in order to get the coastlines "right."

The reader can see the definite curve that's emerging as I steadily add to the map surface.  I have to make adjustments for it ... but these are so small that they can't be seen except by persons who are personally acquainted with the areas I'm mapping.  For me, the adjustments seem huge, because working at the scale of 6.67 mi. per hex really makes them stand out.  The scale for my hex map is 1:422,611, for those who care to know.

With regards to publishing the new map each month, I've decided to adjust my method.  Instead of going around in a 40 mile wide circle, I've decided to make that circle 120 miles wide.  This is why, on the left, you can see that I've jumped out three full rectangles into Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia.  I'm just starting into central Hungary.  I'm not going to reach either Lake Balaton or Budapest with this go around ... but if I maintain this pace, I'm sure to get there in 3-4 months.  It's been fascinating working my way through Serbia and Bosnia; the northern part of Serbia is called Voivodina, which I've just finished in the last few days.

Anyway, I should be able to produce maps of "what's new" more easily, as I'm not going all the way around the map each month.

This is something I tend to do late in the evening, as a relaxation while listening to podcasts, the news or audiobooks.  I can do one or two rectangles a night (it's August 12th and I've finished 22 rectangles this month), with a slow steady gain week by week.  After so many of these now, it's fairly routine, a bit like working on a colouring book, though there are strange places that offer a challenge.  Here's the merging of the Danube and Drava rivers in Slavonia, surrounding the large city of Osijek, where the rivers form a regional swamp:

The land bridge that allows the road to pass from Osijek to Sombor is narrower than the map shows, but does exist in reality.  I like the prospect of players having to arrange to put themselves on two ferries (the rivers are too large for a bridge) in order to get across, surrounded by traders who take this route regularly.  Both Osijek and Sombor are important market cities, acting as transhipment points up and down both the Drava and Danube rivers as well ... since both rivers are navigable at this point.  Squeezing in the details while producing a clear, pretty map is something I did last Thursday, on a day when I did about half a dozen rectangles.

So, I'll return to the main topic again with the next post.  It's brutally hot here today and I think I'll take a shower and cool off.

Wednesday, August 10, 2022

The World Turtle Bears the World

I know my readers have been waiting.  Forgive me for a little preamble first.

Sterling, I got the book.  I picked it up from my mailbox just before heading out today, so I've been able to glance through it and read your kind letter.  My grandmother was also a schoolteacher.

After not driving for 20 years, my partner Tamara has spent the time since the relax of Covid here in Canada chasing all the details that would let her regain her driver's license.  This involved communicating with the Michigan bureaucracy, where her last license was issued, getting Alberta to believe Michigan, retaking her learner's license test, taking driving courses to invigorate her driving habits, taking the test twice and passing, as of Thursday six days ago.  Tamara was anxious to get a car as soon as possible, so the last days have been filled with a visit to the bank, arranging financing, finding a car and then buying one, which we did yesterday, amid a rather ludicrous car price inflation that's ongoing.  We got a good deal on a Ford Edge.  Today, we took it out for a five hour drive around outside the city, visiting a provincial park and regaining some of our skills (driving comfortably in a new car for Tamara, navigating for me).  Once upon a time I had an interest in being a navigator for a rally car, but no opportunity to pursue that ever emerged.

Tomorrow, I'll be getting a full analysis from the lab for my yearly checkup; I've had to wait two months for an appointment.  It's possible I have a hernia; that's added to the list of other old man diseases I might have.  No biggie, but it helps fill up the week.

Then, Sunday, on the 14th, Tamara and I will be getting married.  We've been together continuously since March 30, 2002, so it's going to be a very simple ceremony.  We have the license, there's no need for a blood test and the arrangements have been made.  Just one more thing on my plate.  Otherwise, it's been work, exercise and juggling advice about cars, marriage brokers and other minor details.  This is why I haven't undertaken the post I promised.

Gee.  I hope I remember what I was going to talk about.

Looking around for a neutral example to discuss, to kick off a campaign description, this comes from  the one drive page from the Blue Bard, discussing Geoul.  I plan to discuss it out of context; if you'd like it IN context, read as much as you can.  It's time well spent.

"Bablemum, the great sultanate of the utter south has long been protected from its arch enemy, the Society of the Jaw: this by virtue of powerful leaders and, according to common myth, a seldom spoken of secret organization known as the Esoteric Order of the Twilight Princess.

"You live well, plying your trade and making reasonable money. But recent years have brought unrest to your heart and you begin longing for something more.

"Inquiry and risk draw you south, across the Six Kingdoms, to the quaint, hibiscus shadowed lanes of Geoul. Geoul is an ancient town of vineyards, scholars and painters, and there you receive your initiation into the Esoteric Order of the Twilight Princess -- hopeful that your new title "Secret Master" will begin your path to greater things. But shortly after joining this secret society, the building you were initiated in burns and the man who inducted you, a Master Elect of Nine named Nihs'Lohc, vanishes without trace."

I said with the last post that you'll decide the life the players will live ... here, they're being told that they're an initiate, which brings responsibility and awareness of a JOB the players will have in the campaign.  Succeed, and they're doing what's expected of them.  Fail, and there will be consequences.  If the EOTP works like most like orders, don't expect a lot of gratitude for doing their job.  That's why we're initiating them in the first place.

This sets a powerful tone for the engagement of the players, one utterly different from the one I set in my world, but NOT wrong.  This is important.  When I said that the campaign needed an ethic, I absolutely did not say it had to be my ethic.  Here is an ethic.  Here is a path to greater things (not necessarily known to a mere initiate).  Further, here's personal responsibility.  Their mentor, the guy that got them here, disappears and leaves them to bear up on their own.  "Get with it soldier.  Don't fuck up."

I said that you'll decide the monsters that will try to kill the players, and where they dwell.  What is the "Society of the Jaw"?  Do you think it's solved by one adventure?  By a string of adventures?  This is an arch enemy to a great sultanate.  Whatever The Jaw is, there are members in every village; in every round table; secretly camped near every military post; in elaborate tunnels under every city quarter; attached to every priesthood ... indeed, hiding under a lettuce leaf in the players' garden.  The Jaw are everywhere ... and they are the players' deepest, darkest nightmare of an enemy.  No where is safe, and no one can be trusted.  There are no "adventures."  There is a continuous, fluid power struggle that moves seamlessly from day-to-day.  Victories are as momentary as keeping back the tide; defeats are the smashing apart of age-old institutions and whole cities.  The moment the party finishes off the "big bad" in his lair, which they've spent twenty sessions getting to the bottom of, they must dodge an assassin's knife seconds before they learn that all this effort has been taken to kill a mere lieutenant.  There is no final victory, no final end to some episodic adventure.  NO, there's life.  Theirs, the world's, the battle to defend what's good, and their will to go on.  That is all.

I said that you'll decide what's real and what lies the players will be told.  Do the players really believe that these quaint, hibiscus shadowed lanes are what they appear to be?  Are they so foolish to think that the vineyards, scholars and painters are merely what they look like?  What is this entity they've been drafted into?  Are they truly the enemy of The Jaw?  Or ARE they The Jaw?  Do they know?  They cannot know.  They must decide on the evidence before them, from running to running, whom they really serve ... and what might be the true nature of what these beings pretend to represent.  They're not granted the luxury of absolute knowledge about right and wrong.  No one is.  For all they know, they're serving the enemies of Bablemum, and not it's protectors; for all they know, they're comfortable with that.  Perhaps there's no good reason to defend Bablemum at all.  In any case, it's up to them to decide.  This is THEIR life.  THEIR loyalties and actions.  THEY must choose the best path for themselves ... while always being careful what they trust.

After all, I said that you'll decide why all the things in your world live and what they want and what they'll die to defend — except the players.  The players are hurled into this maelstrom without guides, without assurances ... unless as a DM you're stupid enough to give it to them.  As DM, you hold the key to your setting.  The PLAYERS must find their own key, to unlock how to survive the DM's setting.  This is the game.

Let me draw on another quote from the Blue Bard.

"Here, you can see a fleshed version of the Country of Ormolu (formerly known as Wardale) and the city of Sanctuary that abuts the Marches. A good deal of player time has been spent in this vicinity, investigating the ruins of Copper Grove, exploring the Misthalls and Amharc Mountains, braving the crags of Geir Loe (the great peak that overshadows Sanctuary) and striking out on perilous missions into the march land."

I wrote with the last post, you need a place for the player characters to start.  Here it is.  And on the surface, suffering from the mindset with which D&D has poisoned you, you foolishly look at the above description as a series of "adventures."  But is it?  Are there any words in the above that state clearly that there's been an end to any of these activities?  Does "investigating the ruins" state clearly that the ruins have been cleaned out, or that the investigation is closed?  Is there no more exploring of the mountains and crags left to do?  Are "missions" a short hand for "adventures," with a beginning and an end, or are they in fact just temporal raids in an ongoing, potentially life-long operation where a thousand raids would still not clean out every villain, monster and demon from these awful places?

It depends on how you see it.  The "adventure" model is a stupid child-like perception of social realities ... the sort of thing that we watched naively when we believed that once the cops arrested the drug dealers that "closed the book" on drug crimes for good.  Nothing ENDS!  And why should it?  Why shouldn't another visit to the Copper Grove or Misthalls reveal yet one more secret, one further deeper undiscovered place, one other game changing fact that obliterates all our foregoing preconceptions?  Would you care as a player?  Would the ennui of knowing that you'll never kill every last orc, or root out every last evil treant from this forest, or kill the last city rat, sour your desire to play D&D?  Not me.  Not any serious player I've ever encountered.  Imagine bringing out another orc and have the players cry, "But I thought we killed the last one!  This sucks!"  More likely, "O gawddamn, another?  All right, I'll kill it ... you get the next one."

The mountains, the ruins, the halls and the march lands are always there, always ready for another sojourn, as soon as we recoup, attend to a few matters at home, clean out the chicken coops and whatever.  This makes sense in the game world.  The problems don't just go away.  They're not just solved.  At first level, they're surface problems ... but as the players go deeper, they find their original perspectives adjusted; they realise the orcs are just dupes, that the real evil is something worse ... until later on they realise how unsophisticated and artless was their earlier comprehension.  These initial problems are just turtles standing on the backs of turtles ... and it's turtles all the way down.  What really makes the world turn; what really drives the model; that's yet to be known.  But when it is learned, wow.  It'll blow the players' minds.

Yes, I'm saying that if you think you know what the ethic of my game world is, that's only because you've only played or seen the surface.  There are things about my world that I've never told anyone.  And they're BIG.

I said that as a DM, the monsters need to have their own agendas and things they'll die for.  They are alive, too.  And they're just as annoyed at these players that keep returning and making trouble as anyone.  You can't keep going back to the same mountains and ruins forever without someone powerful deciding that's it for you.  Sure, in the beginning you're a pest.  You're a tiny chigger draining your little bit of blood off the immense body whose existence you can't imagine.  But you take enough blood from that body ... you get big enough to get noticed, and felt ... something gargantuan and fast moving is going to slap you so fast and hard you won't know your body is about to be paste across the surface flesh of that being.  That's the game too.  If a DM isn't keeping one arm tied behind his or her back.

Sooner or later, the plundered become the plunderers.

Now.  If you want further explanation, and examples, you'll need to ask a question.  I understand this just fine, down to the bottom turtle.  If you want to understand it also, you'll have to tell me what you don't understand, so I can help you.  And everyone else reading this.

Saturday, August 6, 2022

That on Which You Should Be Working

The reason I succeeded as a dungeon master emerged from my wanting so badly to understand the game.  I wanted to read the books, I wanted to play ... and I did so at every opportunity.  It didn't matter that things about the game were imperfect — it was plainly obvious from the premise that D&D was far too complex a game concept to be achieved in three fairly narrow books, even if they were published in 8 pt. type.  By the age of 15, I'd buried myself in many books relating to war, anatomy, history and science, any of which were as large and as thick as all three D&D books put together.  And any of which were just one of such books that I could find on a shelf stacked together.

Because I read the introduction many times, it was evident that the original designers understood this perfectly.   The game needed testing ... lots and lots of testing.  I was lucky that I had the time to test it, and that I played with groups of highly motivated, academic friends, who weren't hesitant about spending an afternoon at the library reading every book about medieval castles, life, weapons and culture.  That was simply what we did; it was, I remember, what everyone did.  It would be years before I encountered the "casual," uninformed player, who participated but didn't know the rules, didn't care to know the rules and who considered reading to be onerous and unnecessary.  I simply didn't play with that kind.  I didn't meet them until 1984.  I never dreamed that these would one day define what the game would become.

I wanted to talk about D&D.  We all did.  We discussed every rule and every fault.  It was fairly obvious that fighting 10 equipped orcs was much harder than one ogre, and that the ogre gave more experience.  Or that it seemed every time we rolled on an outdoor encounter table, no matter which table, it always ended up being a wolf.  Or that a lot of the spells were, well, pretty obscure in their explanations.  I was lucky, I suppose, that I saw these problems as fixable, and not a turn-off.  At various points in my early experience, I tried to rework the weapons vs. armour class table.  I tried to redesign weapon speeds.  Like everyone, I wrote out my own explanations of the alignments.  I painstakingly copied monsters into lists to make my own encounter tables — I struggled with those for more than twenty-five years.  Eventually I acknowledged that I would have to write my own descriptions for every spell, and for every monster.  I didn't just wait for someone else to fix the rules.  I didn't just throw out a rule before first trying to make it work.  I didn't address any part of the game casually.  I dug in, I worked — with pencil-and-paper, mind — for years and years, to get to the place I'm at now.

Why do I have an answer for every question?  Because I've heard every question before.  I've had decades to contemplate and redesign these things.  I didn't, as some do, just keep playing the same game, as written, for 40+ years.  I don't even play the same game today that I played ten years ago.  There are always changes, always new things.  There's always something that needs fixing.  Which I like doing.  I don't sit around, like some, "Oh woe is me," kvetching about how some part of the game doesn't work.  I make it work.  Or I throw it out.

I don't think this perspective can be taught.  I think if it already exists in a person, it can be encouraged, guided, sustained ... but if you're the sort of person who cannot do-it-yourself, then you must feel endlessly helpless in the face of every edition.  As written, they're all garbage ... in large part because the parts of the AD&D system that really needed fixing weren't.  They were reinvented, with some other broken system put in the place of the first.  The writers designers of the 1980s didn't have the capacity, the ingenuity, to properly conceive of or describe the potential for D&D except as a boardgame-without-a-board.  Having built the frame, they couldn't figure out how to run the pipes or wire the structure in a way that would make it comfortable.  They frittered away millions of hours inventing new character classes, races, monsters, magic items, spells, die modifiers and adventure descriptions which amounted to nothing but lists and more lists.  Nothing was more disheartening than reaching for a "new" book from the designers only to find that one third was more class descriptions, one third was more spells and one third was more magic items.  Ad nauseum.  It's all the designers knew how to do ... and since they were selling to those who were at their mercy, who loved the game but couldn't themselves reason out how to fix the game.

I'm lucky I was not one of them.

Thus, with the last post, when I speak of an "ethic," a set of right and wrong behaviours with regards to the way the world approaches the players, I'm trying to establish a foundation for how the DM should approach BOTH the setting and the game rules.  Those rules have to serve the setting, NOT the players.  In the climate that's evolved these many decades, that's nearly impossible to grasp, with so much boutique-style D&D having been churned out.  But there's no structure in that.  The player's character cannot function only as a personal vehicle for them to take out for spins ... the "fighter," the "mage," the "thief" and so on are templates of behaviour to which the game setting's non-player characters must also adhere.

When we do something silly like replace the thief with a "rogue," or remove the assassin, what do we say about all the game world's criminals?  What are their skill sets based upon now?  How do they progress through their lives?  When we argue that the game's setting exists to provide adventures for the players, what does that say for the setting in which the non-player characters function every day, without adventuring?  They have money.  They have levels.  Were they all achieved through adventure?  And if not, then why are players automatically exempt from the sort of wealth and experience that are available to NPCs?

I accept the argument that D&D is about "peril" — but I'm baffled as to why people insist that this peril is only obtainable through the transitory artificial construct of the "adventure."  Why are we eternally locked in this episodic approach?  Can we not see that the setting itself is the structure in which the players play, providing a continuous set of events that need not be broken up.  The players simply "are."

To return to the point, if we accept that the advancement of the game's structure is not more "sports cars" for the players to drive, then what is it?  What does the DM do with his or her time, if that time is not applied to building better character vehicles, or even special "hot wheel tracks" for the characters to run those vehicles upon?

First and foremost, stop doing any work intended to expand the player's choice about their characters.  Whatever you've created so far on those lines, or adopted from books, keep it as you like, but stop committing further time to those projects.  Most likely, you're doing it because a large part of you gets excited about a new character class or race, much more so than the players will ever be.  Chances are, the vast supply of these things has never found real use in your game world, or has been anything more than a disappointment, only to be discovered when the cool new character class or race was undertaken by a player.  You're ruining your game's continuity, you're wasting your precious time, you're adding no valuable aspect to ACTUAL game play and you're risking the decline of your credibility and reputation every time you put forth some design that falls on its face.  Stop doing it.

Chances are, you can't.  Most likely, you've convinced yourself that creating this endless parade of vehicles IS preparing your campaign as a DM.  You've fooled yourself into thinking it's "important."  You've become addicted ... and in large part because the character creation process is something you understand best of all, because you've spent so much of your DM's experience doing exactly this.  But it is an addiction.  And a useless one.  Put it down and apply yourself to something more game effective.

This same argument applies to the creation of monsters.  Stop it.  Monsters are very easy to understand and to create.  You're not adding to the value of your campaign by reinventing an existing humanoid, beast, elemental, god or whatever.  You're using your time to prepare as a way to assuage your ego, as if to hold up something as easy to create as a new monster is in any way an indication of your ability as a designer or a DM.  It's not the size of your monster.  It's how you use it.

Stripping you of the choice of making character classes, monsters, spells, equipment, magic items, weapons or even new adventures or NPC cultures leaves you with ... what?  Exactly the position that the writers of the Dragon magazine found themselves in the 1980s, or the splat book writers have found themselves in since the 1990s, when they had to fill pages with something.  To play D&D, you need exactly one character class, one character race, one weapon and one monster.  That's the cake.  Adding more types of these things only adds icing.  As of today, there's so much icing we can't find the cake, much less eat it.  All we have are mouthfuls of icing.

The reason why writers fell back on that list-making content was because they couldn't think of anything better to write ... just as you most likely can't think of any better way to spend your time than drawing out another dungeon, creating new NPCs or pre-generated player characters, and so on.  But now it's time to move on.

Are you afraid?  

You decide the kind of life the players will live.  You decide the monsters that will try to kill them, and where these monsters dwell.  You decide what's real and what lies the players will be told.  You decide why all the things in your world live, what they want and what they'll die to defend.  You hold that key.  You have all the resources you need.

You need a reason why your world exists ... and not the sort of glossy, fabricated reason that might start the beginning of a novel, that needs only tell one story, but something more substantial, along the lines of why does the Earth exist.  Then you need a culture in which your players were born; one that cares nothing for who they are or what they want, because the players are just a few more persons in a place filled with hundreds of thousands, or millions of others.  Essentially, you need a culture with which the players will have to contend.

Finally, you need a place for them to start.  A place that reflects the aforementioned culture in a hundred ways.  A place that makes sense inside the game world.  A place surrounded by monsters who have their own agendas and "things they will die for."

And then you will need to figure out how to explain all of this to the players, one sentence at a time, in a way that makes them have reason to feel confident and able, while at the same time also gives them reason to fear.

Don't worry.  We'll talk about all this.

Thursday, August 4, 2022


Let's move on and talk about the DM's running of characters at the table.  This is a next-to-impossible subject to undertake, given that situations of so many kinds can arise, it's hard to organise them all.  I'd like to eventually address answering questions, giving descriptions, adjudicating disagreements and awarding treasure, along with other things that may occur in the future, but today I'd like to discuss the matter of the DM bringing satisfaction to the players.

I don't want to get bogged down in the argument that it's the DM's role to ensure that the game is fun for the players, or that the player's enjoyment of the game is the DM's responsibility.  I've discussed these subjects before and on the whole, I think most people reading my blog are already of my mind where these things are concerned.

It's not possible for me to accomplish this task anyway.  I don't know the minds of my players sufficiently well to be spot on in creating moments and situations that are guaranteed to delight.  Often, something I've written off as a passing incident becomes enormously important to the players, while some moment I was sure would astound ended up fizzling.  Players are unpredictable ... and they are not of the same mind.  It's not practical to take the approach that creating the "right" sequence of events is going to create a good game.

The players must be allowed the freedom to pursue their own happiness.  They must learn to interact with one another and come to agreements about what they'd like to do collectively, without one or two members of the group being allowed to bully the others.  The DM has to wade in to settle disputes whether or not being asked to do so ... and the DM must take a position on who in the party is behaving positively vs. negatively.  Like it or not, the DM is defacto that authority in the room, and should embrace this responsibility with patience, tact and a firm ethical perspective.

Examples of positive behaviour occur when everyone in the party is fluidly discussing a situation, with each person interjecting their ideas spontaneously, without order or constant interruption.  Depending on the campaign, this may be common, rare or unseen.  Often, the possibility of such parlance occurring is thwarted by the DM imposing order as formalities and etiquette, intended to "fairly" distribute the right of speech to everyone.  While this can work to bring a chaotic party into line, it also squeezes the life out of genuine, excited discourse, where everyone wants to listen because they're more keen on what's being planned than on waiting for their turn to speak.

Negative behaviour includes players self-importantly speaking over other players, dictating the actions of other players or failing to take the wellbeing of other players into account when designing their actions.  More to the point, the real issue is not how the player plays, but rather the personality the player has ... a personality that would demonstrate itself regardless of the activity.  Thus, the DM's role is not to address the player's method of play, but to address the player's belief system.  This takes courage, a willingness to speak of things that might ordinarily be glossed over and the fortitude to take a position on matters of right and wrong behaviour.

This is something we can delve into further when discussing the settling of disputes.  I include the definitions here to explain what I mean by players pursuing their own happiness.  The game's play must include moments where the players are left to their own judgement on what to do and what they want.  They must be allowed to choose the best course of action.  Once that action is chosen, the DM must be of a mind that allows the best possibility of that action succeeding, while changing none of the precepts inherent in the situation.

Let's take two examples.  In both examples, the players have trapped an assassin, Garth, whom they have apparently at their mercy ... that is, the assassin is placed in the corner of a cellar, with four player characters between the assassin and the exit.  With the situation in place, the players are deciding whether to kill the assassin or to parley with him.

In the first example, Garth is armed with a dagger, is young, has little experience and that he's unassociated with any group or belief.  In this case, parley might be a practical alternative to killing.  Garth would likely view the circumstance as untenable, that he's lost the opportunity to assassinate the intended target and that his best chance is to negotiate and deal with the consequences thereafter.  Cave, and live to fight another day.

In the second example, Garth is armed with a dagger, is young, is a fanatic believer in the assassin's cult to which he belongs and is prepared to die rather than surrender.  To the party, this second Garth looks exactly the same as the first Garth.  The only difference is what we, as DM, have predetermined Garth's character and intent.  While listening to the players discuss the matter, we'd like to give some possibility of success if the players choose to parley, but in fact, we've already made parley an impossibility given this second Garth's outlook on the world.

This is what I mean by maintaining those precepts already in place.  The players' choice to negotiate does not automatically alter the fundamental details of the setting as they existed before the situation did.  The second Garth was always ready to die, and will attempt a last slash at the party before he goes down.  The first Garth was always ready to negotiate.  The DM's role is in fixedly deciding the game's conditions, so that these will be in place when the party steps up.  The party's role is to guess, for themselves, what their best action is.

Incidentally, the concept of alignment exists to take this agency from the players.  The players are told, long before Garth is ever encountered, the player's choices are decided.  The "good" player must parley, regardless; the "evil" player must sacrifice Garth in his or her own best interest.  This places the party members in conflict with one another, forcing one of them to invent some bullshit or another to explain why the good player can kill or why the evil player shouldn't.  Thus, the game becomes about the clever invention of bullshit explanations and not merely decisions made by players who simply do what they want to do.

Now suppose that we haven't decided, ahead of time what Garth's character is.  This happens.  Regularly, we create situations without considering every consequence.  Let's look at the statement above, again: 

"They [the players] must be allowed to choose the best course of action.  Once that action is chosen, the DM must be of a mind that allows the best possibility of that action succeeding, while changing none of the precepts inherent in the situation."

As I've said in this alternate case, we have no precepts.  We haven't previously considered what Garth would do.  Therefore, in following the rule, the player's action dictates our responsibility as DM.  WE must allows Garth's personality to be such that allows the players "the best possibility."  Having been asked, Garth willingly agrees to parley in good faith.

By following this rule of thumb, the DM is sure to create better situations and possibilities for the players.  Further, it places an onus on the DM to create as many precepts as possible — especially universal defaults that are always true unless we've chosen to make this situation unusual.  For example, one of my defaults is that guards are trained professionals and cannot be bribed by total strangers, or talked out of doing their jobs, no matter how much money a player offers or how much talking a player does.  Of course there are exceptions.  But I choose when the exception occurs, ahead of time; if I haven't done so, then the default is that the guard is inflexible, and will call for aid if offered a bribe.

Unless the character offering the bribe has a special sage ability enabling them to successfully circumvent the default.

I have hundreds of like defaults, perhaps more than a thousand.  Very slowly I am writing these out on my wiki, one page at a time.  They stem from a perception of what my game setting should be like, as a means to provide the players the best possible experience.  It's too easy to simply bribe one's way past a guard.  Guards should be an imposing obstacle.  Otherwise, why do they exist?

If the players hired a guard, what kind of guard would they want?  This dichotomy is an important part of choosing the precepts underlying one's game.  On the one hand, I'm making the character's situation more difficult by imposing harsh, often levelled guards between them and their goals.  On the other hand, I'm making the character's situation easier by making available reliable, strong guards to protect the players' stuff.

Formally, "precepts" are general rules intended to regulate setting behaviour and design.  We can call them principles, doctrines, guidelines and so on, but they amount to the same thing.  A DM should sit and think about each aspect of the game setting down to the micromanagement of how things in the setting behave, from guards to rats to mind flayers, and also with regards to little girls, buttercups and clowns.  Rivers, lakes, land, skies, towns, mountains and so on also require varying precepts regarding how these things work, interact with the players and incorporate themselves into the setting.  For the most part, the default on these things ought to be easy.  What's a little girl like?  Well, what are little girls usually like, in your opinion?  How do mountains usually respond?  What's the usual situation that follows entering a town?  Is that situation good enough for us?  If it is, then we should adopt that precept and move to the next ... and if it is not, then we should either produce a new precept, or invent exceptions to specific little girls, mountains and towns.  These things are up to us, after all.

But what about more volatile situations, where things change rapidly and unpredictably, such as general situations where the players are surrounded by scores of people ... like the aforementioned town, for instance.  Here, we have many possible things interacting at once, each with their own purpose and direction, moving round the players, bumping into them, offering to sell the players things and so on.  In the larger sense, the whole setting is like this, with millions swirling around, both near and far from the players, affecting one another, putting schemes into motion, producing waves of actions like political and religious struggles, wars and ideas — each with the potential to threaten the players unexpectedly in some manner.  How are these things dealt with from the DM's perspective.  We can't build a precept for everything.

Here, we have to build an "ethic" for the game world.  By definition, this is a set of right and wrong behaviours relating to or affirming a specified group, field or form of conduct.  Essentially, how does the world "act" for or against the players?  What is the "law" of nature specifically as it addresses the party's existence and place in the game setting?  Is the world against the party?  Some of the world?  And if some, which parts are for, and which parts are against, what the party wants to do?

Understand, here I am not expressing the game's setting as being aware of the party, but rather that when the DM uses the world to act for or against the party, upon what ethic does the DM act?  Is it okay for the DM to ensure the player characters always live?  Is it okay for the DM to purposefully hurt the players?  If so, to what degree?  And if it's not okay for the DM to cause hurt and unhappiness, then what is the role of the DM in ensuring the players always ultimately get what they want?  These are essential metaphysical questions surrounding the nature of the campaign setting ... and for the most part, while they can be ignored, if they're addressed successfully, the effect this thinking has on game play is tremendously enhanced.

Unless you're nodding your head at this point, it's hard to make to make the reader understand.  These are, after all, questions that humans have been asking themselves for millennia.  But, for the sake of an attempt to explain, let me bring you back to where we started in this post.

Consider again the ethic that the DM's role is to make the game fun for the players, and that if the DM isn't doing this, somehow the DM is not running the game right.  This is a commonly held approach, though rarely examined ... and again, this post won't devolve into a discussion of whether or not this is true.

Instead, let's approach the question from the player's pursuit of happiness, that I've already argued must be done by the players.  How does the DM make the game fun, while enabling the players to pursue happiness?

Have to go around the barn for this one, I'm afraid.

A few years ago, I watched the movie Hector & the Search for Happiness.  This recently emerged on Netflix, so if you have that service, I recommend watching the film.  It will help you and your perspective as a DM providing a game setting for others who are essentially pursuing Hector's search (though admittedly, with weapons and the collection of treasure).  The film addresses the following point:

Avoiding unhappiness is not the road to happiness.

Your happiness as a person is directly related to your perspective, your experiences and most importantly, what you've overcome.  It seems counter-intuitive, but the less you've had to overcome in your life, the fewer unpleasant experiences you've been forced to acquire.  This has narrowed your perspective to things that are effectively pleasant, but it has also removed most comparisons you might make between that which is pleasant and that which is unpleasant.

Where you've been says a lot about where you are now.  What you've escaped from is more relevant to how free you feel, than is how free you are.  Your ability to face death well depends greatly upon how many times you've faced death before ... or, in fact, what you've faced that is perhaps worse.  If you've never faced anything, if every part of your life up to date has been beautific, then you're absolutely not ready to face most anything dreadful.

Consider that D&D is often first played by children.  This might lead you to think that the death of a character would be a difficult experience for them, because compared to an adult, a child's life is relatively easy ... especially if we're speaking of the sort of lifestyle that allows the time, space and education that's needed to play D&D at all.  That is, a largely middle-class lifestyle.  Such children take things like a bed to sleep in, food to eat, a roof to sleep under, a loving family and so on for granted.  And so, having their character killed, a thing the child has become attached to, is surely a considerable blow.

But it's not.  Children do not grasp loss as adults do; they haven't the context to view anything as permanent.  If I were to tell you that every year, without exception, you're going to be removed from your place of work and put somewhere else, with a different boss, higher expectations, constant training and only some familiar faces around you — while disallowing you the option of quitting this new job — you'd go insane in about three years.  Children view this shake-up as normal.  They may sleep in the same bed, but that bed may be in five different cities in the space of five years, depending on the parent's work record.  We hand children off casually to grandparents, aunts and uncles, sometimes for two or more weeks, never asking the child's permission.  Moreover, children grow up hearing endless stories of divorces, with friends suddenly vanishing forever from their lives because those parents have moved away or placed their child into a different private or religious school.  Children grow up realising that nothing is permanent.  The loss of a character is disappointing, but after so much disappointment, it doesn't take long to get over.

It's only when the child begins to settle down, gains control over his or her life, begins to make all the decisions and feels "free" from imposed authority that one more loss feels unacceptable.  Sometimes, children experience far, far worse that adults, and have to live with those experiences all their lives; sometimes, the child emerges from the home so pampered and safe that they've experienced nothing.  Point in fact, however, neither of these groups are likely to have played D&D as children.  The first usually has a family so toxic that cruelty and want are so pervasive that there's no opportunity to play a regular game of any kind.  The second has parents that won't let their child out of the house to play anything that sounds as "toxic" as D&D.  No, it's the middle group that has D&D players among their number.  And this middle group is fairly comfortable with the death of a character.  They play many kinds of games, unlike adults; and all games have winners and losers.

A lesson that, strangely, many adults seem to forget.

All right, all right, heading on around the barn.

The age of the player when they come to D&D matters, as does how much experience that player has with life, games and loss.  A DM running a group of softly raised older players who have recently come to the game will experience much more push-back than someone running players who have lost many characters already.

As a DM, it's part of the role to provide the players with unhappiness.  Unhappiness upsets, brings complaint, threatens the player's comfort level and potentially gives them a reason to quit the game, or that campaign ... but it also raises the game's stakes and relevance.  The best game occurs when the players have been unhappy — and have now extricated themselves from their previous situation.  The comparison is what matters.  Death, loss, misery, despair ... these things have threatened and these things have been overcome.

Difficulty is not sufficient.  Puzzles and problem solving are not sufficient.  These are intellectual exercises and have as much emotional impact as what you feel if you're unable to finish a crossword puzzle.  We're not speaking of disappointment.  We're speaking specifically of the character's being sincerely unsatisfied and unpleased with the situation at hand, potentially because it seems impossible to resolve.

It's not the DM's right to impose unhappiness ... it's the DM's imperative.  If unhappiness is not imposed, the players will never fully engage in the game.  More to the point, they won't be able to, because they've been taught by life that anything easy is not necessary or worth bothering about.  

Course, this creates a problem.  People quit when things are too hard ... and they quit when things are too easy.  Creating unhappiness is a fine art.  Too much, and people will find the campaign too hard.  Create none at all, and people will grow bored.  We want to slip in as much unhappiness as the players can possibly withstand ... while simultaneously maintaining some glimmer of hope that there's a way to emerge from this misery with success and treasure.  Getting the measure right takes practice ... and at the beginning, it's wise to incorporate unhappiness in small doses.

That said, the more unhappiness the players have overcome, the more experience they have with it.  Like Pavlov's dog, once they've gotten used to the unhappiness bell, they'll think of the success first and the misery after.  After awhile, no matter how unhappy you make the players, they'll be so focused on their "inevitable" success that they'll tolerate blocks of misery high enough to blot out the sun.

Takes time.  Does work though.

Tuesday, August 2, 2022

State of Equipment

With regards to what a character has, I wish to write a few sidenotes.  DMs ought to be warned away from things like "journeybread," a magic bread that eliminates the need to buy food, and other such items that proliferate now through the 5e system, but this is only a symptom of the wider misunderstanding of what equipment is and how it fits into the game.

The Gygaxian model, evident from early lists, is that equipment is there to manage dungeoneering, which to the voices of the time is essentially like camping.  Yet there's enough conscious awareness in Gygax and others that the players might want to buy things like cows, chickens and ships, though no rules whatsoever exist for the management or layout for such things.  Presumedly, the game's designers assumed that if players wanted to know how much a ship could carry, how fast it could move under various winds and what the arrangement of rooms and cargo space looked like, a library was available.  Which is just how we approached such things at the time.  Self-sustaining and all that.  It gave us something to do while walking miles to school, uphill both ways.

Later, as equipment lists grew through the Dragon magazine and other role-playing games, DMs realised that buying things was perhaps the best way to get rid of a player's vast income, in a way that seemed far less contrived than paying out ludicrous amounts for "training" and "research."  It does work this way, but this alone is not an especially valuable reason to provide characters with better equipment lists.

As an interesting sidenote, assuming 1 g.p. contains approximately 7 grams of gold (which complies with typical Middle Eastern coins from the Romans forward), then the cost for a 1st level to train to be a 2nd level equals 1,500 grams of gold for one week; divided into troy ounces, or 31.103 grams per ounce, this is 337.6 ounces, or 21.1 pounds of pure gold.  Compared against the price of gold in 1979, when the DMG was published — $459 USD per ounce — this is the equivalent of $154,953.  Converting this into 2022 dollars equals $632,428.  

Moreover, this is per level to be risen from.  A 2nd level moving to 3rd requires twice the amount, while from 3rd to 4th requires three times as much.  To put this into context, it costs nine times as much in equivalent money to be trained as a 2nd level fighter for one week as it does to go to Harvard University for a year.  And if the DM, according to Gygax, thinks you weren't good enough in your 1st play, he or she can multiply this amount by 2-4.  By fiat.  When I say ridiculous, I mean ridiculous.

Coming back to the point.  Throughout the game's development, there have been two suppositions that cut the importance of equipment off at the knees.  I know of no exception, counting every version of D&D and every other role-playing game I've seen, including those set in the present and the future.  Those two suppositions are:

1. Pieces of equipment are complete units onto themselves; they are not formed of other things, and therefore no information need be given as to how much wood is needed to make a wagon, or how much meat a chicken supplies, or what ingredients, amount included, are necessary to make a bottle of beer.  Furthermore, for the most part, very little effort is made to include raw materials on an equipment list — except for perhaps one or two dozen commodities.  Certainly, a concerted effort to include ALL the things that ordinary human beings can buy locally are never included.

2. Players have next-to-no knowledge of how anything is made, or how it works, and therefore zero information needs to be supplied as to the pieces, fixtures, parts, materials used, or any other aspect of the piece of equipment being bought.  We're buying a "rope."  Because as players we are universally ignorant, there's no need to describe the rope's breakweight, it's thickness, the manner of its weaving or even the materials from which it's made.  All rope, we are meant to understand, is exactly the same.  This same rationale applies to every object in the game universe.

As a result, if a character wishes to transform bars of nickle, manganese and iron into a sword, there is no price for the bar, no manufacturing time, no detail of the tools needed or what space is required ... so that even if the player has done this personally, and knows the answer to many of these questions, the DM has to invent the price of tools, materials and space out of thin air, since no game equivalent has ever been offered.  And if there is some version of the game that includes a price for a "blacksmithy shop" (I've never seen it, but there have been a hundred splatbooks, so it's sure to be out there), then it's a single-type all-purpose cookie-cutter blacksmithy shop, with minimal details and the assumption that every blacksmithy everywhere in the world is exactly the same, like waking up in a Howard Johnson's.

D&D has had 40 years to address this problem and it has done ... nothing.  Because it's perceived that nothing needs to be done.  Players don't want details.  They don't want to buy raw materials.  They want things they can march into a dungeon.  They certainly don't care what their rope is made of, or what food tastes like, or how to actually make armour in game.  "It costs such-and-such an amount of money per week to make a sword."  So you pay the money and "buy" the sword that you made, exactly in the way that you would have if you'd gone to the market.  What you've done is buy the right to say you made the sword yourself ... except that you didn't.  In any sense.

This minimalisation forces the players into a conformative, passive mindset where it comes to purchasing equipment and deciding how to spend their money.  The overall result is a total lack of interest in buying things past what's immediately needed to play the adventure ... which in turn causes the piling up of player money, making it possible for them to pay for the adventure's necessities, whatever they are, because no other enticement exists for which to spend their money.  That causes DMs to lament the inexhaustible supply of player money, producing the DM's feeling that somehow this money needs to be drained in some other manner, by theft or by irrational training costs, which matters not a whit anyway because players don't care about money.  Not in the system the game has built.

To a DM, this feels off ... because it seems evident that money should matter, since that is the human experience.  It doesn't equate, however, because we view money most romantically as something that obtains emotional highs and lows, new experiences, security and power ... whereas none of these things exist in the game's structure as designed by the originators.  In D&D, money is a number that's piled up until it's exchanged for something meaningless, that brings no special benefit to my character's personality, status or ability.  Unless it does so through rules that make no sense, that are obviously invented for the sole purpose of reducing my money.

There is a solution, but it requires a complete turnaround of the game's design.  JB likes to say that "D&D is about adventure."  Adventure is exciting.  It is certainly an intrinsic part of the player's experience.  But saying that D&D is about adventure makes as much sense as saying that life is about sex, or that childhood is about Halloween.  It is not necessary to adventure in order to play D&D.  I have run a year's worth of sessions as a party established and organised their colony, cleared and planted land, interacted both peaceably and threateningly with local tribes, helped supply a war effort, freed slaves, planned for the future, began personal relationships, attended a coronation, infiltrated spies into an enemy outpost and traded goods they had mined, raised and acquired through diplomacy.  None of this falls under the heading of "adventure" in any traditional sense, yet none of the players were the least bored, they were operating entirely according to their own agency, doing what they wanted to do ... and at no time would any of them believed they weren't playing D&D.

D&D is about playing a character that makes choices in a game world regarding their ambitions and intentions to accumulate varying measurable products: money, experience, notariety, the expansion of their belief system or anything they can invent.  I once ran a character whose sole desire was to acquire books, with the intention of building an Alexandria-sized library.  My tactic was to join the siege army surrounding a city, aid in the city's fall and then rush in to pillage the libraries within.  Is this "adventure?"  As a genre, I'd call it "criminality" or "war."  Just because it's exciting doesn't make it adventure.

The frustrating two-dimensionality of the adventure-arrangement for D&D is perpetrated by the system's total inability to support any other framework of play.  The books were of no help to the DM or me in describing how to wage war against a city, or how to be a small contingent of players operating inside an army.  The DM had to invent this on his own.  The books provided me no help in helping the players develop their colony and trading intentions.  I had to invent this on my own.  This led to the development of my trade tables, my massive equipment list and ultimately the menu I launched last year.  All things that my players, and many others who have experienced these things through other DMs, to realise that "adventure" alone is an extremely shallow approach to what the game offers.

I'm stumped, at present, on how to explain any of this to a new DM, with shiny copies of 5th edition spread out before them.  Some things just don't seem possible.

Monday, August 1, 2022

Further Notes on Creating the Character

The player's character is essentially made of four parts.  We have a loose perception of the character's personal nature, represented by the ability stats, telling us a little of what the individual is like.  Then there's the character's resilience, represented by hit points, number of levels and armour class.  This tells us the likelihood of the character surviving a conflict.  Next, we have what the character can do, represented varyingly by spells, proficiencies, special abilities, powers and feats, depending on the system version.  Finally, there's what the character owns, the list of personal equipment, tools, even property and emblems of status.

These things influence each other.  For example, the character's title (a thing that's "had") offers something the character can "do" (order soldiers into battle) or what the character is like (responsible or tyrannical).  A character's charisma gives a sense of the character's nature while also possibly defining actions the character can take, such as impressing others, or dare not take, lest they repel others.  What a character has, such as weapons, armour and magic items, can increase his or her resiliency.  It's not that any of this is new to the reader — but I wish to stress that there's a deep-seated interconnection between these different elements that makes the character a remarkably FLUID game invention.  Nothing like it has ever existed before; as a model, it's vastly more complex than those things it's often compared with, like the role an actor plays or a persona one takes to confuse an enemy.

An actor's role possesses NO fluidity at all, except in the exact way the performance is given.  As an actor, my location on a stage or before the camera is determined by the director, the camera operator, the limitations of the theatre space and the need to place me where other actors can be seen communicating and emoting with me.  In a rehearsal, an enormous amount of time is spent in a process called "blocking," in which the actor's movement is strictly defined — even to where the moment I lift my hand to brush my hair is defined by a specific word in the script.  In a good production, no movement is left to the actor.  The actor's role is to take someone else's words and directions and give it the ring of truth — to make all the artifice and fakery of the stage look as though a real person stands before you, actually going through something for the first time that he or she has actually performed hundreds of times before, in rehearsals and previous runs of the play.  NOTHING whatsoever in this bears ANY similarity to playing a character in D&D.  Those who wallow around for the actor as an example plainly know nothing of which they speak, either of role-playing games or of performance.  They're morons who have seen a play or movie and have been utterly duped into believing there aren't fifty people involved in the actor's performance.

The confidence artist hits closer to the mark, as the role requires considerable flexibility and nuance to fleece the mark.  However, the practice of playing a character in D&D has similarity to this sort of presentation when the player's character chooses to be a con artist within the framework of the game.  A con artist is a momentary effort; it's not designed to be sustained over a long period and ultimately depends on no one knowing the artist is really a different person.  Whereas in D&D, everyone knows what the character is.  There's no "con."  The character's actions are legitimate; even when the character sets out to dupe an NPC, those actions are still legitimate, because we all know what's happening.  In no way does the con artist's role reflect what a D&D character is.

We weaken the invention every time we try to define the game character as "like" something else.  It's like nothing else.  It's its own thing.  We only turn to a simile in desperation, because the character is SO absurdly different from anything in our experience, we don't know how to properly describe it.  But we cheapen the concept when we make comparisons.

The character is a mechanism.  It is not a represention of the player's thoughts, beliefs, desires or personality.  It is a machine that translates what the player wants to do into a game system purposed to determine if that want is possible.  Any rule, therefore, which is not directly affected by some metric of the character's design, is an effort to bypass the "character" in order to empower the PLAYER.

For example, the so-called "rule of cool."  The player says, "My character climbs the giant's leg and stabs him in the chest."  Within the character's design, there's no ability for this.  There's no combat rule that covers this.  There are no rules at all for climbing a giant's body ... though there are rules that suggest this would take much longer than the player imagines, and that climbing a surface actually moving and in combat would make the move impossible.

However, the new interpretation urges the DM to "overlook the rules" whenever the player shows efforts at innovation and "being cool."  In other words, skip the character entirely and let the player's "thoughts" fight the giant.  This approach allows the player to change the physical laws of the universe.  If the DM thinks this has been done cleverly enough, he or she gives the player permission to do so.

Those who play this way might just as well admit that the character, and all that makes up the character, is merely a prop.  Which is not the game.  It is some other game that pretends to be D&D.  The game is to accept limitations the setting and the player's own character places on the player's actions, so that the player must work within the boundaries of what he or she has — no matter how cool the alternative is.  The game is not based on the player's ability to invent anything that might pop into the player's head, but to invent approaches within boundaries put outside the player's control.

The best case scenario for game play is, then, for the player to enable success from things that seem utterly inadequate to produce success.  To take a single, desperate action and turn around a combat.  To astutely turn a usually dismissable object, or ability, into a powerful if momentary weapon.  To bank on the lowest stat the character possesses and swing for the fences ... and have it pan out.  Such moments always produce wild cheers and pounding of the table, not to mention incidents that are remembered.

Of course, this also means that often such efforts are disastrously inadequate, ending in failure.  Which means, as has been stated on this blog, failure is also an intrinsic part of the game.

It means the players must accept failure as a possibility — even as a probable outcome, if they bite off more than they can chew.  It means they must accept that failure with dignity, if they wish to continue participating.  It means holding players who can't accept failure accountable, even when set out to change the rules loudly, or pound the table with demands, or sit and sulk until they get their way, by turning them out from the game until their behaviour improves.  Being a DM in some degree calls for defending the game against those who would dismantle it for their own ends.  Not the "DM's Game," in the selfish context that many DMs righteously defend, but THE game, the one that is defined by the rules and structure that everyone present has agreed to play by.

If you are a new DM, you must get this agreement in place before you can play.  The best time to do that is in rolling up the player characters.  As each part of the character is generated, make it perfectly clear to all the players what the boundaries are that these metrics and numbers define.  Your strength is this; it allows this; it does not allow that.  This is how many hit points you have.  If you lose them all, you die.  No special contingent last-minute reprieve will be provided; so cherish your hit points and spend them wisely.  This die that we roll determines if you hit or miss ... and no clever mixing of words or proposed inventive creativity will turn this "7" into a "17."  So plan to fail.  PLAN for it.  Because it will happen.  And when it does, make plans, now, to accept that you've failed.  Plan to laugh it off, plan to make little of it, even if your heart is breaking, even if you doubt your future interest in the game.  Be strong.  Remember there are others here, who feel your pain ... who worry that they will be next.  So plan.  Decide that you're ready to accept the game's consequences, NOW, while we're rolling your character.  Or don't play.

This is the message you have to send.  You'll need to be strong yourself; you'll need to possess an evident composed, serious manner and style as you gently describe each part of the character's limitations.  You'll need to be fair ... and so your tone and words must convince the players that you'll not inconsiderately spend their character's lives on some whim.  You care for their characters just as you care for them as people.  Promise that if anyone dies, you'll know the rule that killed them backwards and forwards.  Promise that if there's a means to reverse a disastrous situation, you, the DM, will be the first to bring the players' attention to it.  You are not their enemy.  But you will uphold the agreed-upon rules, because someone has to.

As DM, you've accepted that responsibility.

Sunday, July 31, 2022

Map, July 31, 2022

So, six months work:

This is the full map so far, at 43% zoom.  Just gets bigger and bigger.  There's quite a bit more above than I had the end of June.  I rather like the effect of colour as the hexes begin to shrink and disappear, with the brighter patches being various shades of orange to tan.  That large light splash in the middle left is Transylvania; the orange arc north of the big river, the Danube, is Wallachia; south of the river it's Silistra in Bulgaria.  The light patch on the far left, just below centre, is Serbia; the light patch on the bottom right, along the sea, is Dobruja.

You can see from this that "nations" are less about boundaries and more about patches of density separated from elsewhere by forests and mountains.  Intensely populated centres are important militarily and economically; small patches, like the two orange groups in the upper right that represent Bukovina and Moldavia, matter locally but are mere satellites.

I have begun to place additional labels on rivers and mountains, but I'm still playing with colours for these things.  The map is so dense that there's little room to draw in large letters defining "Serbia" or "Transylvania."  I'm also beginning to feel that the boundaries need darkening, to a colour that's a deeper yellowish-brown or orange, that offer a better definition.  Not sure yet which way I'll go.

Posting the map in 100% of it's zoom now requires six plates.  Moving from west to east across the top of the map, and then from west to east across the bottom, this is Plate 1.  Moving clockwise from the top, Ruthenia, West Transylvania, Bidin in Bulgaria, the Banat. 

Plate 2.  Clockwise, northern Moldavia, eastern Carpathians, east Transylvania, Lower Banat.

Plate 3.  Southern Bug valley, the Dneiper-Bug estuary, the Black Sea, Ismailia, central Moldavia.  Incidentally, the Tulchin Forest is the site of a little-known (in the west) Jewish holocaust event.  I'd never heard of it until researching the map.

Plate 4.  Southwest Transylvania, Bidin, upper and lower Serbia, the Banat.

Plate 5.  Southeast Transylvania, Wallachia, Silistra, Oltenia.

Plate 6.  Ismailia, Black Sea and the Lower Danube, Dobruja, Silistra and east Wallachia.

By virtue of the method I'm using of going round and round the outside rim, I find myself reposting content that's already been posted.  I suppose this is somewhat boring for the reader.  I'm hearing less and less interest in these maps and if the reader likes, I can centre on one corner a month rather than posting the whole thing each time.  The map spreads out over eleven working sheets at this point and it would be easier for me to post the sheets as they're finished rather than trying to match them up.  Still, it looks remarkable to me.  I find myself gazing at parts from time to time as I'm working, startled by the slow, tremendous growth.  The chaotic terrain of southern Serbia was, this month, both a trial and something of a revelation, as I've never viewed this part of the world in such deep detail.  I can't imagine how difficult it was to invade and hold, for NATO forces, for the WW2 Germans or for the WW1 Austrians.  The mountains roll every which way and have no continuity.

Please let me know if you're still anxious to see what next month's generation produces.

Friday, July 29, 2022


I feel that I wrote a good post about story today.  I made the argument that the word story is an enticement, a gimmick that writers and business people use to fool listeners into thinking they're getting something good ... when in fact they're getting a moral of little value.  The post argues that we rush towards stories nonetheless, because we're biologically programmed to think we're going to find something when we search for it.  Even when we come up empty.

I love to write.  It's what I wanted to do for a living ... and now I do.  Whereas many times in the last seven years I've been in earnest where money was concerned, things seem to have sorted themselves out.  I have steady work, I'm appreciated, I'm ribbed almost daily for having the luck to go to Montreal in just 61 days ... and my partner Tamara and I have been able to enjoy our emergence from Covid (if that's what this is) with more comfort than we could have hoped.

Throughout the changes we've experienced, Patreon has been an important part.  Supporters made it possible for me to get a new computer when my old one failed.  Supporters made it possible for Tamara, an American citizen, to achieve permanent status in Canada.  We've filled out a form to become married in the next month, without a ceremony (as she wants) on a day that's yet unspecified ... though it'll be prior to Montreal.  On two occasions, Patreon stood between us and the street.

I want those who have decided, or had to abandon my Patreon, to know that I understand completely and wish you the very best.  Inflation is rampant, there are many reasons not to continue funding an old D&D horse like myself ... and self-care must be first and foremost.  I don't know for a fact why you've chosen to go.  I may be repeating myself and you've become bored.  You may be on your last financial legs.  Possibly, you believe that since I'm no longer down and out in Calgary, I don't need your support.  I almost never learn the real reason.  It doesn't matter.  You've given what you can, or would, and I thank you.  I thank you from the bottom of my heart.

Once upon a time, if I spoke of Patreon, it was to tell what dire straits I was in.  No longer, thank everything.  There are, today, only two reasons to give to my Patreon.  The first is that you feel I've earned it.  That I've written something that you would have paid some amount of money to buy, if it were stuffed in a book published by the WOTC, that you found on your gamestore bookshelf.  Something you read and thought, "Wow, that was really worth the money."  If I've written something on those lines, and you were moved by the value, then it makes sense to pay me.

The other reason is that you have enough money that you can indulge in frivolities like "making the world a better place."  And that you feel, perhaps delusionally, that I'm the right pitbull for you to back.  That you feel my work here, and on my wiki, and in the books I've written (and pretend to write), are the right place for your money.  If you believe that there is a better D&D culture and community that might exist out there, and you feel that my scribblings are helping make that possible, then it makes sense for you to contribute to my Patreon.

But if you're still giving me money to support me, to help me pay my rent, to ensure that I'm not so broke that I'll stop writing because I've been thrown out of my residence, then you're free at last.  It's a full year since I hit on my present writing job; if it lasts just five years, Tamara and I will be set for life.  I've had two other offers connected to the work I'm doing, so I have other places to go.  I'm comfortable.  I'm happy.  If you like, pat yourself on the back and know that you kept an artist from going down for the count.  YOU did it.  YOU supported me until I got here.  You've done your job.  Thank you.  Please feel free to withdraw your support now, and help some other poor down and out writer.  There are lots of us.

Felt I had to write this.  I don't want any of my supporters going away unhappy, or unappreciated, or feeling like I don't care.  I do care.  A lot.  I want all of you to be happy and I want to keep on writing, here and elsewhere, whether I'm paid or not.

It's all I ever wanted.