Tuesday, June 24, 2008

There Has to Be More

I am, and have always been, crazy. It is this craziness that I brought to D&D, the sort of obsessive preoccupation that one normally associates with people who have to turn the lights on and off five times before bed or replace their keyboards once a week to combat sweat congealment.

As a child I received, as a gift, my first almanac at the age of 7. My parents were well aware of my fascination with atlases and statistics gleaned from the household encyclopedia…and perceived very correctly that I would find the material within an almanac of interest. Thereafter, for the next sixteen years, I received an updated almanac every Christmas. Throughout my school years, that almanac sat in the upper left corner of my desk…a ready source by which every teacher I had was measured. They had better get their national and state capitals right (along with every other statement about geography, history, industry or economics)…because I knew every fact by heart, to date, and I had the book to back me up.

No, I was not well-liked. I was well on the way to my present career of being an arrogant know-it-all with little regard for disinformation.

Yet it may surprise you to know that I was not a “rules lawyer” when I played D&D. I accepted quite readily that the rules in a DM's game were set by the DM and not by the book.

That is because sometimes almanacs are wrong.

My fascination from the beginning was never with the numbers or with the power of the books, but with what they represented. My fascination has been with the planet, the big picture, the manner in which it all fits together and how it relates to itself. No book, not an almanac or a Dungeon Master’s Guide, can completely or effectively relate the whole picture…it takes millions of books and billions of people to do that. For me, the almanac was convenient; it had a great deal of information crammed into a relatively small space—but the thing wasn’t holy in itself.

I suppose that my almanac was replaced by the DMG to some degree when I started playing, but it is has never been the whole game to me. All of the various books together have not been the whole game…if that were all there were, I would have gotten bored sick of the game long ago. What appealed to me about the game most of all was that it left room for me to apply all the other knowledge that I had gathered together through what I had read and studied.

I bluffed my way into a job with Statistics Canada in the 1980s, with no formal schooling and no working experience. I worked through the lead up to the census, which was fascinating for me as I’d spent so much time reading census statistics. It was mind-opening to see how they were gathered and to have a clear representation of how “wrong” they were. However, the application of those statistics, however flawed the data, enables the prediction of a great deal…worlds turn on the political and economic understanding of statistics.

When I left Stats Can in ’86, I entered university after a long period of destitution and zero income. I spent most of that time reworking my world and aligning it with the real world. University gave me plenty of time to go on doing that…even though by ’88 I was married and had a daughter on the way. It was about that time that I conceived of something that would redirect the entire format upon which my world would be based. A format that I have developed and continue to develop until today.

It’s not an easy subject to get into…for one thing, it sounds crazy. And it is. It is the central reason for me wanting to produce this blog, and it is going to take a long time to outline completely; all I want to do today is to outline my thinking process at the outset.

The DMG makes a point under the notes on “The Campaign” that a structure should be created by the DM which gives a reasonable, practical distribution of people, wealth and power…something that will enable the party to get a handle on what is going on. Too much random irrationality will discourage a party’s interest. It is the least read part of the DMG, and in the last 30 years I have seen nothing published which either promotes the argument, or remotely educates a DM on just how this is done.

What is a world, in D&D? It is a collection of described factions and hollowed places in the earth holding treasure and guarded by monsters, a network of roads which connect adventures and a sort of vague “fog” called civilization which settles over everything and impinges on the campaign only in terms of its crop of NPC’s. We’re led to believe that these are the “practical” limits of the game. DMs are forced to find ad hoc answers to player’s questions for lack of any structure to base those answers on.

Let me give an example:

I am a fighter, who has recently established himself as the lord over a 20-mile-diameter hex. Here are some questions I will want answered: I’d like to feed my 200 man army and I’d like it to not cost me any money while I’m not adventuring—how much food can I grow? How much of my land is arable? How much is suitable for the raising of cattle as opposed to sheep? How much meat can I get from a cow? How often will my cows breed? How much milk will they give? How much hay will I need to feed them in the wintertime? Are sheep more practical, considering that the land is similar to Scotland? Do you have other answers prepared if the land is closer to Arabia?

Most DMs will say, the land produces enough that you don’t have to provide for your men.

Does it produce more? How much can I sell? How much will the wool of 75 sheep provide for my coffers? Can I take some of that wool and make clothing, perhaps establishing a weaving mill? Will that make me more money? How much will I need to pay a weaver? How many herders does it take to look after 100 sheep? What does a herder cost?

Most DMs will give numbers, off the top of their head. The weaver costs a g.p. a month. The herder much less. The sheep will give such-and-such lbs. of wool per sheep.

Whereupon I’ll produce charts and evidence to show that now the DM has provided figures so out of whack that I’m able to turn my whole 300 square miles of arable land into sheep country, have it watched by 500 herders for 1 c.p. each and make a total of 7,500 g.p. every month. Why adventure?

Most DMs will recant, pull different figures out of their ass, and argue that I can only make 200 g.p. a month from my sheep. And we’re back to punishing players for thinking outside of the box. Again.

And if I point out that I have 40,000 sheep on my land and that I’m only making 1 c.p. per head because of upkeep, what if I ask to get into the business of feeding sheep, because that’s obviously more lucrative?

The game just doesn’t cover this crap. Because, it is argued, no one wants it to.

I disagree. I believe that the emphasis for the last thirty years by the gaming companies on “character” and “weaponry” has been because they CAN’T solve the problem. They have to push the player out of the real world and into the box because the box has clear, concise defining borders which they actually can address. I doubt that anyone working at Wizards of the Coast has any experience whatsoever with politics, economics, geography or demographics. They obviously think that none of those things, in terms of their existence in the world, are very complicated or at all inspiring in giving humans a motive.

D&D is often judged a children’s activity because all-too-often it resembles one of those games where you roll a die to move along a two-dimensional strip, marked with things like “lose a turn” or “jump forward two spaces.” The words have just been replaced with “lose a character” or “gain a +2 sword.”

I’ve never been satisfied with that. The campaign problem can be solved, and the questions I asked above can be answered without anyone’s butt being involved. I believe I have the way, which corresponds to the title of this blog.

1 comment:

  1. That's actually quite inspirational, you know: D&D not only as adventure game, but also as strategy - something which has always naturally followed but never been properly developed. I'm very interested to read more.


If you wish to leave a comment on this blog, contact alexiss1@telus.net with a direct message. Comments, agreed upon by reader and author, are published every Saturday.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.