Friday, April 29, 2011

Alchemists of Vereizzit

This would be a first.

I started throwing this together in my head a few weeks ago, and I'm ready to put together a first piece.  I'm not sure if the graphic will appear properly on Blogger ... so if it doesn't, you can find it on the wiki, here.

This is intentionally presented with little preamble. The set up is as follows: the players enter any location, such as a tavern, an inn, a shop or any similar location, and find there several casualties, all badly wounded. One will mistake a random player for a friend, and will begin babbling that the players must "stop the invaders" and that they "went through the downstairs door." If the players go downstairs, they will not find any door in the cellar ... but a search for a hidden door will automatically reveal one. This will lead the players into the top left of the map.

Additional information should be something the DM can add - such as how to close the open gate and so on, which can be done by hand or a lever. The dungeon description is intended as a guideline which the DM can elaborate upon.

Updated First Level

For space, the dungeon material is written in 6 pt. font.  It is completely readable on the wiki.

Comment.  It would be a good encouragement for me taking the time to continue with this idea.


There's a flaw on this map.  The heavy reinforced door cannot be "locked and barred" from the inside.  There either has to be a secret door among the library, or the door cannot be locked and barred.

My original idea for what was beyond that door changed; that's why the error happened.  I'm going to leave it as it is ... so I am probably going with the secret door idea.


Upon further reflection, and having had an additional idea, I've decided to change the door so that it is unlocked.  I will repost the image when I have the updated areas (inspiration!) added.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Realistic Magic

I wanted to make two points with yesterday's post: 1) that magic would enable other sciences to leapfrog forward; and 2) there would exist other sciences, because human beings are insanely curious and investigate everything.

Yesterday I mentioned Asimov's story Olympics. Curiously, there's another story in the same compendium of Asimov short stories (Nine Tomorrows), called A Feeling of Power.  Zzarchov needs to read it.  I think I may sum up that tale tomorrow (clever punning there, but you need to read the story to know why).

I think where it comes to the troubles of magic actually existing, we are at an impasse. When one fully considers the implications of magic in any world, given the potential of spells such as wish or permanency, Zzarchov is right about the removal of the laws of physics and the creation of a totally alien world.  Or he would be if it weren't for one rather salient point.  That point being, for every magic, there is anti-magic.  For every individual or god that wishes a thing into existence, there is another individual or god that banishes it.  In short order, the most powerful beings in the universe, topped by the DM - who obviously exists and the most powerful being - would gather together to quickly expunge any force or power that moved against the status quo as agreed upon.  It may seem cheap and convenient, but if the world exists at all, it must exist according to the whim of those most powerful beings who posit its existence.

And therefore, the laws of physics, or anything else, must be in accordance with the laws of the most powerful beings.  It must be in accordance with the DM.  A position I will take when I argue, the DM's world must serve the players, at least with regards to enabling the player's conception of the universe to be one which they can predict the results of their own actions.

Every DM - not just me personally, but every person who wishes to run a world that is practical to play - must run according to familiar principles of causality.  We can propose a world where all the effects stemming from actions in that world are random and whimsical - hammers that spontaneously shoot off in random directions when let go, horses and wagons that leave the ground and fly backwards when a trot is increased to a gallop, drink that is alternately poison or nourishing depending on the hour of the day and so on - but that world and running in it gets awfully boring, awfully fast.  A player soon understands that he or she is being fucked with, and the fucking isn't pleasurable or interesting.  I would argue that 19 worlds of 20 fail miserably because the DM is more interested in supposing things to be fanciful than in worrying about causal relationships.  Players soon learn there's no point in making plans - the DM will screw with plans.  The DM will screw with everything, and everything quickly loses its meaning.

You, me, everyone - we exist in a conditional arrangement where we wish to control everything, but in which we control almost nothing.  And still, we are rewarded with seratonin chemical releases when we successfully control some part of the world ... so we keep trying.  As we gain some skill at some particular process - a videogame, say - we gain experience with the observed cause and effect within that process.  We learn that if we do this, that happens.  And if we don't do this, that doesn't happen.

When the effects change without apparent causes, we get angry and unhappy.  We ask, "What the fuck happened?" and we want an answer, right now, explaining it.  From a very early age we learn to hate the answer, "Because I said so," as we realize instinctively that it is not an answer ... or rather, it is a restraint against our control.  If the reason is that I'm not fast enough, or that I'm not strong enough, I can work at being faster and stronger.  But if the reason is that someone else is in control, the answer is no longer self-improvement, it is the elimination of whatever is in control.

The DM and his or her world must not act as a impositional dictator over the player's actions.  The world must be a learning annex, allowing for player improvement and development.  The player must know why things are happening.  The player must be able to apply his or her experience of the real world, and get results back from the fantasy world that make sense.  One can only go so far into the Vale of Weirdness.

However right Zzarchov may be in his arguments about magic and the world, the arguments are immaterial because the world must be THIS world ... it's the only one we're familiar with.  I have no idea the actual effects of magic would be in an actual world - obviously, who does?  But I know what the effects have to be.  The laws of physics must remain intact because ... well, they must.  The game must be playable.  Conjecturing about magic doesn't change that.

I'm satisfied the gods have their reasons to force players to use manual labor where a tidy spell would do.  I'm satisfied that the gods allow only the set standard spells to be in existence, and that the casting of those spells is universal and controlled.  I'm satisfied because I'm not running a simulation here, I'm running a game.

One last point, not really connected to the above.  Why should a player feel somehow that magic missiles and their effects should depend upon the user?  A hammer, a sword, a pitchfork, a car, an airplane or any other tool requires the individual to adapt to the tool's use.  Why should magic be any different?

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Magic And Science

I'm glad to see that I've driven some traffic Anthony's way, and that there's a busy little debate going on there.  You can find the link on my previous post, where other's already have.  I haven't seen a word there yet about the history of science, and I think this is the massive elephant in the room.  That is, the furtherance of Science very depends upon a degree of fabrication that doesn't exist prior to the discovery of this or that.

A very simple example?  Galileo's conception of the heavens depends upon the development of the telescope by Hans Lippershey in 1608.  It must be understood that Lippershey's telescope was not the first attempt of the device, but the first success.  If I incorporate the existence of magic, the telescope comes into being as soon as the telescope is conceived ... ie., prior to 1608.  We have evidence of 'reading stones' being employed as early as the 12th century.  Magic, it is fair to say, would have enabled the invention of the telescope nearly five centuries before Galileo ... which presumes also the invention of spectacles before the 15th century, superior investigations into optics long before Newton, the destruction of the Catholic/Ptolemy earth-centered universe before Copernicus would have had a chance to write his textbooks, etc., etc.

This sort of example can be applied to every science.  Magic would, across the board, change the events of history and the distribution of ordinary technologies in literally thousands of ways.  A simple cantrip replaces Louis Pasteur long before the 19th century; healing spells enable medical surgery on the body long, long before the development of anesthetics and Lister's antiseptics; divination spells clarify early on the existence of guessed-at concepts like air pressure, electricity, atomic structure and the existence of gasses; metal and stone transformative and creation spells allow greater superior mechanical engines, alloys and tools; resurrection spells enable explanations for fossil discoveries; mind control spells increase the likely success of early examinations into anthropology and psychology ... there really is no end.

It is the height of absolute stupidity to claim in any way that the existence of magic would not speed the progress of technology, and therefore the understanding of the universe through experimentation and conclusion (which is science, after all), far beyond our present condition.

And so, to avoid sounding like a complete moron, the argument is almost always, "People would lose interest in science if magic existed."

Bullflops.  Utter, unmitigated bullflops.

In the world of magic as presented in D&D (and I don't give a fuck about arguments that there's some flaw in D&D magic that somehow ruins or wrecks the game - more bullflop, that), human beings are still human beings.  Hearts still pump blood, hands still hold weapons in the same way, the mind retains its human characteristics and we are still born, fall in love, give birth to children, grow old and die.  As such, the fundamental problems of the denizens in a D&D world are the same problems that exist in this non-magical environment.  We must clothe ourselves, we must find shelter, we must feed ourselves and we seek comfort.  We continue, as a creature, to succeed in accomplishing these things through experimentation.  We continue to fashion tools.  We continue to seek a means, and therefore knowledge, about how to fashion better tools.  While it may be true that magic will succeed in fashioning some tools for us, magic must be advanced in the same manner as any other technology.  New magical methods do not come into existence spontaneously.  They must be proposed; they must be developed and tested and they must meet certain criteria in order to be useful.  Magic, like science, requires a fertile mind.  And fertile minds are encouraged by need, not abundance.

Magic or science, we would still be the same creative creatures we are now.  The fact that we would be solving problems this way - with magic - would not change our habits in solving problems in any other way.  Let's have it clear that not everyone is able to DO magic ... are people without the necessary wisdom and intelligence supposed to sit around in caves?  And are we to assume that just because people with intelligence were capable of doing magic, they automatically would?  Ridiculous.  I'm not an engineer now, am I?  I refer to the flagrantly stupid argument - that I've heard before, but not with regards to Anthony's site - that people would be compelled do to magic and therefore would not investigate science.  Oh my god that is a fucking dumbass thing to argue!  Just pile up all the parents in the world who want their children to blindly follow in their own religion and see how high a mountain you build.  People can no more force their children to obediently follow the rules than they can force themselves to cease their own stupid assumptions.  Children will grow up and do whatever they please ... it has been true in every era.  It will always be true.

I feel a need to redress the argument from two paragraphs prior by suggesting the gentle reader get off his or her ass and read the short story Olympics by Isaac Asimov.  I should have said so before.

The reality is that magic and science would progress in tandem, just as religion and science progress.  One might as well argue that the existence of science precludes the existence of art, or that the existence of religion precludes the existence of hedonism.  Human beings are plentiful and spectacularly varied.  There is room enough in the world for every kind of behavior.  Practitioners of magic, no matter how many of them there were, would not stop the observation of natural phenomenon.  I have not heard anyone suggest that invention would become impossible.  How then would it become obsolete?

Now, there was one point that richard at Anthony's site touched upon (richard is one of those heightened souls who has explained that I am undeserving of his comments), which was the research of magic.  And there lies an important, and rarely pursued question.  If magic exists, when is it discovered?  I have sat and written numerous posts about the development of technology - which technology inspires the first sentient creature to have the first flash of inspiration that enables the onset of magic?  When does this occur?  Before Christ?  Before the Romans?  Before Ramses and the supposed freeing of the Jews?  Before Abraham?  Precisely when does this occur?

And if this is your world, and the history is one of your own making, how long has magic been in existence?  And how long has it existed at the level it is at now?  Has fireball existed since the very beginning?  Was every spell invented at approximately the same time?  Or has it been only fifty years or so that the really powerful spells have come into continuous use?  Remember, we live in an age where change and development has been mindboggling.  Could not magic have come into existence only fifty, perhaps seventy years ago, like computers ... and could not spells have been developed like the Internet, only to become widespread only 12 or 14 years ago?

Food for thought.  I will consider, and perhaps write further on this tomorrow.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Ayn Randian Me

Well, I just had a delicious four days off ... and except for playing D&D on Saturday, I didn't do nuthin'.

Truth is, I work just about all the time.  When I am not working at the place that pays me, I work at keeping my partner happy, which is enormously pleasant; I work at D&D of course; I work at writing; and recently, I have been working at the headache of getting into business.  And when I get the opportunity, I do freelance work - which used to be a heavy part of my life, but since the recession, not so much.  But of course, there's the blog here, and writing for this is working too ... a sort of freelance I don't get paid for, but which gives me sincere and abundant compensation.

All of this means that I usually get home and surrender my evening if She wants it, or I move directly to the computer in my room.  My job requires my sitting at a computer for 8 hours, so most days I spend between 11 and 14 hours on the computer all together.

This is the way I like it.  I like working all the time.  I like having something to do, and I like going to bed at night thinking that I have done something.  Usually, if I haven't done something, I feel dissatisfied and depressed, a feeling that lasts until I do something.  And what is 'something' you may ask?  Well, either a thing has been brought into existence, or some kind of maintenance has been done which moves a project forward so that in the nearer future a thing can be brought into existence:  research gathered, numbers crunched, lists organized, etc.  Sometimes, just laying back and thinking for three or four hours and having a clear idea what to do next is a meaningful accomplishment.

But not this weekend.  This weekend I screwed the pooch and let the world go to hell.  My sole contribution to the blogosphere this weekend were two comments on Anthony's blog Of Pedantry, one of which inspired him to write this godawful post.  Off and on for two days I made plans to sit down today and write a scathing attack on the thing, but now that I'm here I don't think I'm going to.  It's a sad world when the principles of science, and the motivations of scientists, have to be explained to a bunch of nerds.  I must assume that either A) the world has come around to where D&D is not being played by nerds; or B) nerds have ceased to read books.  Anyway, read his post and agree with it if you must, and then rush right back here and tell me the subject on this earth that scientists don't investigate, and right after that tell me the tool or the strategy that scientists don't employ in accomplishing their goals.  If magic really existed in the world, do you really think we wouldn't use it to satisfy our curiousity?

For the present my mind is clear and clean and unfilled with the detritus of working on projects all the time.  There comes a point when one is reading so many different texts, and working on so many problems at one time, and chasing so many mental rabbits, everything has to be dumped into a sink and made to swirl down the drain.  This last four days I've done that by reading junk (old Stephen King novellas), watching two complete seasons of Mad Men (3 & 4), having a lot of sex and playing far too much Civilization.  I always wind up playing far too much Civilization, since sincerely two more hours of that game is two hours wasted.  I don't play it to be challenged ... I usually play it on one level lower than would be a challenge (that would be Noble), so I can be assured of winning.  I just like the mental deadness of exploring the land, building up the civilization and the logistics of war.  It's best when the effort is a gentle brain massage.

A while ago ckutalik of Hill Cantons asked 'Why Blog?'  I've been musing about that since.  The bigger question is why write at all ... but asking why write here, specifically, is a reasonable compartmentalization.  The answer for me is, I'm afraid, terribly self-serving ... even Ayn Randian.  I'm not trying to take over the world or anything, or establish a free market (gawd forbid), but this process is a deep, relentless selfish pursuit.

Last week I learned something about this blog that surprised me.  People actually visit here in much larger numbers than I suspected.  A couple of years ago I had a counter on the blog that did not register that much interest, and I took it off because it was becoming an obsession.  But recently Blogger added a counter to their apps and I put it back on.  And the surprising result has been that in the last six days I've had more than 2,000 hits.

And all the more surprising since in the last six days I've had 3 comments.

What a scary motherfucker I must be.  Or, perhaps, what an amazing dancing monkey I am.  See, look at the funny monkey dance.

The reader cannot see, but I have a smile on my face.

One way or the other, it doesn't much matter.  I write to communicate, and I write because I believe (and here's where Ayn Rand fits in) I have things to communicate that are worth hearing.  Nothing brings me more pleasure than seeing that there are many, many people listening ... mass communication is a much bigger rush than communicating person-to-person - with the rare exception of that deeply intense intimate communication that can't be done on a blog.  But I said I had sex twice, so I'm set there.

When the numbers didn't run down with my not posting, I realized that a rant against another blog was not what I should be writing about today.  I realized I had a responsibility to write something personal.  Something about myself.  After all, if people are going to read me, in spite of my being a truly consistent asshole, they might as well have the whole picture.  They might as well have offered to them a bit of the psychology behind the monkey, so they know why the monkey writes, and why the monkey isn't going to stop.

Years and years before I played D&D, I grew up in a house where there were many, many books.  Thousands of books.  And from the beginning, there was one I fell in love with, in one of those 'I-have-no-idea-why' relationships that goes back before memory begins.  That book was 18 x 24 inches in size, dark red in color and weighed about three or four pounds.  That book was a Colliers' Atlas, which my parents had received in 1959 along with their set of Colliers' encyclopedias.  As I grew to be seven years old, I steadfastly memorized every map of that atlas, and the statistics at the front, and the statistics at the back.  I located all the highest waterfalls, and the longest rivers, and the largest lakes and the highest mountains.  I learned all the names of the countries, and the cities, and the states and provinces, and the counties of the United States - as there was a map for every state in the Union.  It was an American atlas, so in spite of my being Canadian I learned the most about American geography.

Most of all, I became enamoured with the largest or the highest or the longest of everything.  Geographical statistics are very - or were very - competitive oriented.  The highest point of elevation was carefully noted in every state.  The largest cities were carefully highlighted.  And at my very young age of seven and eight I painstakingly wrote out lists of these largest things, making lists that weren't in the atlas for my own satisfaction.  It always made me tremendously happy to see a list of the largest cities in Europe, or the longest rivers in Africa.  I have no idea why.  But putting these lists together gave me a sense of accomplishment that I can't explain.

Sadly, however, the atlas, and even the set of encyclopedias that came with it, did not have enough statistics for me.  I found myself always looking for new ones, always unsatisfied with the detail I wasn't able to obtain.

My father was an engineer and worldly enough to know exactly what I wanted.  He didn't worry that I was a young boy in Grade 2.  That Christmas, the Christmas of 1972, and every Christmas thereafter until I was able to start buying my own, I received a World Almanac and Book of Facts.  And oh my god did I love that thing.

I hope the gentle reader knows what it is.  For my own satisfaction, I'll describe is as an incredible block of solid statistics about mostly everything, eight inches by five inches, more than 1000 pages and written mostly in 8-point font.  This book became my bible.  This book went everywhere with me.  I memorized this book ... and for the first three months of every year, my pure and simple joy was to go through the new book covering the new year and find what had changed in the world.  I became fascinated with politics because of the changing national entries; and with science because of new discoveries; and with cities and buildings because of changes there; and with what the census was; and with winners of prizes and awards; and with names of sports figures and statistics surrounding teams and winners; and with flags and with corporations and with death and birth statistics.  I became fascinated with everything.

The almanac wasn't enough, obviously.  There had to be explanations behind everything in the almanac, and I went looking for those.  I was very lucky to be in an elementary school that was possessed of an unusual number of books that were honestly too heavy for an elementary school.  But I learned years later that the school was named after a man who had been a mover and shaker in the educational field, and the school had been given his personal library after his death.  So I had access to these heavy books about human anatomy and geology and astronomy.  And I knew what these things were, and how they related to the real world, through my almanac.

At the beginning of grade four, my mother was asked to come see the principal of my elementary school because my odd behavior had been noted and educators were worried.  They were worried that I never read anything in the library that was fictional.  They were worried that at 10 years old I was reading books which were way over my head.  Apparently, as was told to me by my mother years later, they were worried that somehow reading all this fact-heavy material was going to damage me.  My mother - who I must tell you was no great shakes in the non-fictional department - told the principal that if I was able and willing to read the books they had, then they could shut up about it.  And so they did.  And I went on merrily reading.

But in January of that year, that school burnt down, and the library with it.  There are children in this world who dream about their school burning down as a fantasy, but I had it happen and it was no fantasy for me.  I could have cheerfully had the perpetrators hung on meathooks, ala Valkyrie.  It was learned later that two boys, one from the elementary school and one from the junior high school down the street, started the fire with a blowtorch in the utility room next to the principal's office.  Why?  Oh, for fun.  For revenge too, probably.  The younger boy was my age, and I remember him, but we didn't see him afterwards.  He was the sort of fellow who would think that was fun.  I remember my parents not thinking the boys had done it for fun, but that they were sick - and not in the sympathetic way.

But perhaps upon reading this, the reader can get the mildest sense of my interpretation of people who make arguments about things being 'fun.'  Yes, I understand that they don't mean fun in the sense of burning down schools, but I have a little too much experience with 'fun' trumping just about everything that's good in the world.  I've seen girls tortured for the sake of fun, and friends beat up and beautiful things destroyed.  I'm not an advocate against fun or anything, but neither am I a cheerleader for the glory and self-perpetuating justice of fun either.  People will commit the worst sort of atrocities citing fun as an excuse.  Perhaps to the discomfort of people who read me, I've been scarred in a particular way that connects people who argue the social benefits of fun with the same assholes and fucks that used to play dodgeball viciously and who used to throw empty beer bottles at pedestrians from cars.  I am sorry if you, the gentle reader, dislikes being painted with that brush.  I'm being honest about the gut feeling here, and I can't help it.  I've learned that people who take 'fun' as their god are capable of anything.  I've learned not to trust them.

That's cruel and harsh and I know it's unfair.  But I am a nerd and I will tell you straight up, I have been scarred.  The scars are all healed now and I don't flinch any more ... but the lessons die harder than the scars do.  But let me put that down and get back to what I was saying.

The library disappeared and for quite awhile I and my classmates were shipped around the city to different schools, where they could make room for us.  For the last five months of my Grade Four year, I went to High School.  Literally.  Five rooms were sectioned off the in the same high school where five years later I would actually go to high school, and it was an experience.  At 10 years old I was blessed with seeing kids - big kids - high on drugs, drunk, stupid and making out, on a relatively daily basis.  This was 1974.  It was a little scary.  It was more than a little interesting.  But what I hated the most was that we weren't allowed unbridled access to the high school library, because we weren't supposed to mix with the bigger kids.

Finding a good library was harder than you'd expect.  The public library was very far away - a new one in my neighborhood wouldn't be built for five more years - and when I went to Junior High I found the library there pretty pathetic.  I began reading more fiction, simply because that's what there was ... and so began the infatuation that would make me a fiction writer myself.

I was 12 when I decided to write my own book.  I had been working on things for school and I liked writing little stories, but the change that came around my 13th birthday was when I realized I liked writing more than I liked geography.  I was always certain I'd be a cartographer or something like that ... which my father was disappointed with, since to him cartographers were glorified draftsmen, and both were far beneath the worthy profession of engineer.  He was convinced that with my fascination and ability to understand things, my being an engineer like him was a done deal.

He was not happy when I told him I was going to be a writer.  It took him 30 years to accept it, in fact ... and ultimately he only did when I started to earn more than a passing income.  I think now he's beginning to realize I'm too old to go back to school and become an engineer.  But I don't speak to my father that much anyway.

For the three years of Junior High School I worked painstakingly at the one book I wanted to write, fighting uphill against the fact that I had no ability to write whatsoever.  I will tell the reader honestly, I could not write a decent sentence, much less a paragraph.  That didn't matter much.  What mattered was not how I was conveying the material, but the material itself.  The communicated idea.  But of course I had to learn how to master the technique to succeed in the communication.  I felt I would, eventually.  That was not how my teachers, my parents or pretty much anyone else saw it.  I had no talent at writing, therefore I should stop doing it.

So again, perhaps the reader can understand from that from overcoming a one-time universal sentiment, how I feel when someone tells me a thing can't be, or shouldn't be done.  When I was 13, I could not turn around to my father and say 'fuck you.'  There's little joy in getting the shit beaten out of you every day, as George Carlin used to say.  But I thought the words, every time.  And because I thought the words, and because I lived by them, I'm writing this now.

I could not go to my teachers for advice.  I could not go to my parents.  But I could go to books.  I already had hundreds of examples of scientists and sports figures who had been told they couldn't or shouldn't do things, so I knew what a pile of shit that argument was - and is.  I have always known that.  And that is why you have before you this resistant fucking monkey who just doesn't care what people say can't or shouldn't be done.  That's why you hear fuck you, and that's why you hear bullshit.  Because it CAN be done.  It can all be done.  Everything.  And if you're not doing it, or won't do it, or can't do it, well ...

All this stuff above, then, is what I was and what my brain was doing the day some fool introduced D&D to me.  The composite of extreme granulated examination of the world and a sense of entitlement in the creation of unrestrained fictional storytelling - and I mean unrestrained (I was writing violence and sexual porn as a young boy).  Imagine that released upon a game system that had no stated rules, and which had as a potential the creation of an entire world.

My gawd.  How could I ever run out of things to say?

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Sorting Algorithm of Evil

"Local Control Rule:Although the boss monster terrorizing the first city in the game is less powerful than the non-boss monsters that are only casual nuisances to cities later in the game, nobody from the first city every thinks of hiring a few mercenaries from the later cities to kill the monster (unless it's you).

Sometimes these posts are like macing toads in a beer stein.  Every long-term player is perfectly familiar with class and level-based monster assignment ... some DMs spend months or even years carefully working out with an eyedropper just how many monsters to throw at a party whatever their given level, number, distribution of magic items, etcetera, etcetera.  I was one of them.

Problem is, the logic is sound and compelling - for the same reason the algorithm occurs in so many films and film sequels.  Equally matched opponents produce a more interesting dynamic.  Even better is the situation being unequally matched by a marginal amount - with the players in the deficient position.  Dickens knew that overcoming odds that are not in your favor wins over an audience.  It also wins over a party.  There's little pleasure in crushing fourteen orcs when you're 6th level.  And 14 orcs are too many when you're first.

For all the hue and cry about how worlds need to be potentially dangerous, and how encounters shouldn't be tailored to parties, actually carrying through with that philosophy doesn't make a very good fit in a campaign.  Running away gets awfully dull awfully fast.  True, I wish now and then my players would have the good sense to back off ... but as things happen they tend to be pretty resilient.  They're able to raise or replace their dead as necessary, as they wisely keep a war chest handy.

It brings me immense pleasure in the first few rounds of a battle to hear the party gnash their teeth in panic, saying "We're all dead!" and "Let's get the hell out of here."  But then two or three members of the party will advance, and then the magic will come out and the party will discover they have a great deal more strength and power than they really know.  Recently I tossed 45 flesh golems at them, manufactured in a steam punk contraption and released all at once.  After the initial terror, the druid formed a wall of fire, hemming them in, and the 9th level mage got off a fireball.  The player rolled unusually high, reducing a large number of the golems' hit points down into the teens, making them manageable for the fighters.  Yes, I knocked them around some, but the party handled the matter just fine.

What's important is that they didn't think they would, at first.  Their first reaction - dead wrong by the evidence - was that they were all going to die.  Back when they were 4th level, I threw one flesh golem at them that rattled them pretty good.  They still had that memory.  So when they overcame the far, far greater number, it surprised them.

Now, would it have been a better encounter if I had made it 450 golems?  Or if I had rolled a d100 and come up with 7?  No.  In fact, it wouldn't have been better or worse.  It would have been merely what it was.  Except ...

If the number had been 450, I would have had to run it differently in order to retain the drama of the situation.  Of the 45 that I created, the party in fact only killed approximately 4/5ths of them.  The others walked off into the woods, in different directions ... because my intention was to force the party to go looking for them before they could find civilization.  If I had started with 450, I would have increased this number of disappearing golems, and more than the party would have had to be involved with hunting them down.

On the other hand, if I had thrown only 7, that wouldn't have been enough to make things very interesting.  I would have had to create some other 'effect' to keep the party's interest.  Such as having the golems' bodies inexplicably, upon death, increase in temperature - invoking some greater and less tangible danger.  This was, in fact, where I left the party.  That is precisely what is happening to the golems they killed.  They don't know why.

My point is that DMs, to retain a sense of tension, MUST increase the algorithm progressively.  The party can feel success, they can feel they are getting on top of the problem - but if you want them to keep coming back session after session, there's nothing better than the Perils of Pauline.  One more seemingly insurmountable cliff-hanger, one more very slightly mis-matched situation, one greater non-boss monster to be overcome. 

Don't let the party know it, however.  They don't need to know they're being jerked around. 

It is our nature to be bored with things we can already master.  And disinterested in things that can never be mastered.  But something right in the middle ... that's the holy grail, my friends.  It may be disingenious, but as people keep telling me, the game is about fun.

Or at least it's about as many life-threatening circumstances as possible.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

How Do I Make Them Do What I Want?

Today my elbow got seriously jogged by this post by James at A Dungeon Master's Tale.  I had been meaning to write on the subject proposed there, specifically the concern that a party could ask for something through an interactive mechanic which would be unreasonable to ask of an NPC.  The problem is similar to the ever-ongoing charm person debate, in which a spell designed to control the mind of an individual is consistently challenged in terms of "How much power do we dare give the caster?"

It is always presumed, of course, that you can't enchant an orc, wiggle your fingers and have the orc turn and march off a ledge.  This, it is generally agreed, is TOO MUCH POWER.

There are legends, of course, of powerful cult leaders ordering their followers to commit suicide on command without the need for any kind of spell whatsoever ... but although such legends have been in existence for thousands of years, we know them all to be completely false through the all-knowing brilliance of modern scholarship, which assures us that such legends were just made up to make non-European peoples look silly.  But then there's this story.

The question remains - for the game, mind, and not the real world - how much influence can you have over other peoples, how do you measure it, and where do you draw the limits for what a party is allowed to do?  It cannot simply be a question of right or wrong ... it must be a measure of degrees, whereby what you ask for must be measured against what is reasonable to get.

Concentrating on the game, it absolutely and must be possible to ask for someone to A) commit suicide or B) commit murder, or any other horrendous crime.  Obviously, from events surrounding the 20th century it is possible to take a perfectly normal person, give him or her a reasonable feeling of security and direct him or her to execute or see executed tens of thousands of people.  It is equally possible to encourage people of certain character to give away their own lives.

But it should be difficult!  The party cannot be wandering aimlessly through the city streets as the Wizards of Death, bending over and whispering a few words to passersby who immediately pull of their belts to be stuffed down their own throats in an orgy of self-destruction.  Therefore, I propose a scale that restricts how much can be expected ... but before I get onto that, a word about morale.

The 'scale' that would usually be invoked from D&D would be that of various sad - even pathetic - Loyalty Charts that have been created to go along with the game.  They are all very heavy on the "we've known you a long time" element, and are to some degree correct in putting a lot of emphasis on years of acquaintance.  But as any good salesman knows - the kind of salesman who can talk you into selling your house in an afternoon - time doesn't pass in monthly or yearly increments (the same must be said of confidence artists).  A week, or even a few days, can be enough to dupe even the brightest pennies in the box, if the circumstances have been set up just so.  What's more, being known by people and winning over their loyalty can prove to be rather appallingly easy.  Rules for that in D&D have always been based on followers and henchmen - they're not very practical for total strangers who are now going to bribe, persuade and lie their way right into the Sanctum Sanctorum.

The gentle reader can go on using these charts, them's the breaks - and after all, I haven't read any chart in existence, maybe there's a really brilliant one that you have.  But for the purpose of this post I'm going to scale the response of people according to four categories:  appreciation, friendship, admiration, and love.


Appreciation is what you feel when the person next to you just does what they have to do without making your life harder.  You'll back up and make room for them, but you don't really care what they do.  If you're a guard, you'll let them into the town, but only because there are other guards standing around the things in town where just anyone shouldn't enter.

Friendship is what you feel when you feel honest concern that the person next to you gets done what they need to do.  You'll lend a hand, just so long as it doesn't put your own needs on the line, like your job, your other relationships, your hard-earned money, etc.  If you're a guard, you'll help them get where they're going, so long as they don't want to go where they shouldn't.

Admiration is what you feel when you start to seriously question not doing what you're doing now in favor or doing something like what the person next to you is doing.  You'll ask questions, guage the consequences of changing your mind and starting a new life, and probably do so if you get the chance.  If you're a guard, you'll ask what they'd be willing to pay you.

Love is what you feel when you realize this person you've met is it, the real deal, the one person you've searched all your life to get next to.  You'll sacrifice, change yourself, brave dangers, whatever it takes.  If you're a guard, you'll walk them right through the town as far as you can, no matter what they wants to do.

Two points.

First off, every loyalty/reaction system I've seen seems to occur inside a vacuum where the character and the reactee are the only people in existence.  The tendency is to think that the party need only get the above-described love response, all from there on the rest is easy.  It is rarely taken into account that the guard described - or anyone else - has probably already fallen in love, or that they are already possessed of deep admiration for someone else.  Relationships are complication.  I may fall in love at first sight with that woman using the leaf blower to dry the ice off her car's doorhandle, but that doesn't mean I automatically forget that really marvelous woman I live with who has the black leather corset.  "Love," along with admiration, friendship and appreciation, can be very fleeting.  I am often in the situation where a girl gets on the bus wearing some rather attractive little ensemble that suggests her having a bit of sense, only to have her pull a self-help book out of her bag and destroy my appreciation.  A guard may fall in love with a member of the party upon letting them through the gate, and may follow along enfatuated as the party makes their way forward to assassinate the high mucky-muck, but chances are something or someone is going to pop up along the way to remind the guard that he loves said mucky-muck too, in that all-too-familiar "My God Isn't He Grand" sense.  And then the guard might vigorously encourage the party member to change their mind, and might fail, and might find himself standing helplessly in the street, unable to help or hinder the party's quest.  It really depends on how the DM wants to handle it.

And two, "Love" is not quite so blind as the above description.  Sacrificing or changing one's life is a circumstantial thing: "Okay, I understand, you want to kill Lord Roderick of Symposium, but does it have to be today?  The sun's out, there's a little fair being put on by the Baker's guild and maybe we could grab a blanket and take a walk out of town.  We could kill Rod of Symp tomorrow.  My brother's cousin who is the apprentice clerk to the town's water overseer says the junior deacon who regularly purifies the city's water supply predicted it would rain tomorrow.  Surely that would be better, no?"  There is usually plenty of room to make excuses, cajole, argue, discuss and otherwise drag feet where it comes to obeying the wishes even of the people we love.

But of course, if circumstances right now say that the guard's lady love is an inch from death right now, then the sacrifice comes off forthwith.  But how often is his lady love an inch from death?  I mean, actually?

Reconciling a conflict should be seen as billiard balls hitting and bouncing off ... sometimes scoring a point or two, knocking this ball to the other side of the table or rebounding back to the place where the cue ball started.  Eventually the perfect shot is lined up and the balls all fall in line just so; but the game is never won in one shot.

If the players want something easy and uncomplicated, the yes or no of getting it can be sorted out in one dialogue, yes.  But just because Urk the Ogre says "Fine, walk through my land" today doesn't mean he won't rethink that when he tells his wife Flawgurl a few hours later.  Nothing, where it comes to human interaction, is certain.  Just ask any salesman.  Close the deal, get the hell out of sight and don't let them find you.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Conflict Cards - A Game Interactive Update

Following a somewhat short but intense session of testing on Saturday, I feel very confident about the development of my interactive mechanic for roleplaying ... and all the more confident since it has become evident among some who have been using the system for two months now that the overall structure is actually teaching them how to roleplay.  This was a subject that was discussed at length Saturday, since the mixture included middle aged players who had been part of numerous kinds of campaigns and roleplaying formats for decades, and teenagers who had absolutely no experience with roleplaying whatsoever.

In a staged roleplaying head-to-head using the conflict system, the 17-year-old girl and the 16-year-old boy went against two men aged 44 and 38.  Two groups attempted to convince each other to stay in town and rob the people there, or leave town and seek adventure elsewhere.  Roleplaying was attempted, some of it better than worse.  Much laughter occurred.  Much shouting and throwing of cards down on tables also occurred.  A short sword fight broke out in the middle of it, which was then belayed.  In the end, after an unusually protracted tug-of-war, the young girl won.  That was as good as it got.

One other important discussion came out of the evening.  It was noted that for the most part, the players themselves did not really care very much about the pictures that had been selected for the backs of the cards.  This was a mock-up set of the game, and the assumption has been all along that the cards would need images to give them a sense of value.  But after watching the players for two months, and the way they used and managed the cards when they were not in use, it has become clear to me (having had it pointed out) that perhaps my initial assumption that each card does not in fact need a picture.

This is a phenomenal redirection of the business plan.  For those who have generously made contributions already, I would like to reassure you before continuing that the production of the game will still require art, and that the money received will still go directly into the hands of artists.  At the same time, I find that I must rescind my call for artists to produce images for the gaming cards.  Instead, I will be contracting with local artists for fewer pictures, for which I will pay considerably higher fees (slashing my budget 75% in art yet allows as much).

I apologize to those online who were hoping to get in on this project.  Unfortunately, my focus is fixated upon the business proposition.  The gain benefit of having the art work attached to the cards does not match the projected return.  This is one of the reasons why things are tested - to remove or eliminate misconceptions and to force a rethink of the product.

Overall, the change will seriously reduce the difficulties in production, the cost of production and the period of time between now and when I should be able to make the system available.  I can't say just yet what the new schedule will be ... but certainly earlier than the previously given date of September 1st.

I should like to say that given that this interactive idea has now been in existence for less than three months, I'm moving rather fast here.  I want to reassure some gentle readers that the testing is not 'done' ... I'm really only at the place where now I feel confident enough to start sketching out the rule book and recreating the language and presentation of the cards.  Writing the rulebook is already proving to be a huge headache, having all the pleasure of writing out your resume.

The moving fast issue encourages me not to rush too fast into production.  While September was four and a half months away (and we would have probably missed that release date), the fact that now I could foresee pushing the envelope and having this done in six weeks does not make it a good idea.  A little more time could still reveal something that I and others involved with the project so far have failed to identify.

So, once again, an apology to artists whom I've now let down.  My reassurance to contributors so far that their money is going into the hands of offline artists I'm communicating with.  Great, encouraging things happening on the gameplay/roleplay aspect of the system.  And overall, a drop in my overhead will mean a lower price overall.

Thank you.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Dave's Answer - The Nice One

There's an opportunity here and I'm not going to pass it up.  Last week I wrote a post about creating tables with an eye towards adventure building - which would in turn require a level of granularity - and I got a response from Dave Cesarano of The Caffeinated Symposium which fit the typical flippancy of comments that people all over the blogosphere have come to expect ... i.e., not well thought out.  And I stomped on Dave just as hard as I could.

Ah, but then Dave did something highly unusual.  He listened.  He looked past the acerbity of my reply and recognized the point I was making.  He DID NOT sulk or stage a nutty or cry on his own blog or act like a squawling, petulant child.  No, Dave is a fan of Alexis de Tocqueville - no nice guy by anyone's reckoning - and Dave is himself no piker where it comes to using his head rather than the glands attached to his kidneys.  He re-read his own comment, saw my point, addressed that directly and earned my respect.  Which is not to say he agreed with me ... I'm not certain where, precisely, that Dave stands - except that he stands on his feet.

If people want to know who I'm writing this blog for ... I'm writing it for Dave.  And for all the people like him.  Grown ups.

On Saturday, Dave decided to 'poke the bear,' which I find an acceptable metaphor for most people who want to disagree with me.  I was in the middle of game-testing (which has turned the corner, though I will continue to refine, refine, refine), so the answer has had to wait until today.  I did not find his response (found here in the comments section) particularly sharp or nasty ... and that's why this post is titled the 'nice' one.  Again, a reader has brought up too many subjects in a comment for me to answer in that rather narrow location.  So for the third post in a row, I've got to answer here.

First off, a little housekeeping.  Dave asks why I don't play with alignments.  I wrote the answer to that in a post here.  Briefly, it's a DM-imposed limitation on player behavior that I cannot tolerate. 

Dave says he has a lot of respect for Gygax.  I myself do not.  I see no reason to heap plaudits upon this man who evidently had few social skills, who ripped off his peers, who bankrupted the most brilliant game every created and who showed little or no remorse for any of these actions.  On film he has always struck me as the worst kind of social pig, and his existence in the 80's did not serve very well to lend credence or respectability to the words "dungeons and dragons."  I think he succeeded in hammering a rounded, stubby stake into the chest of RPGs before he died, which took an awful lot of sustained pounding.  I believe firmly that the game would still be in existence without his contribution, and I would rather he had never lived.

But that's okay.  Intelligent people are allowed to disagree.

With regards to rules as a means to simulation.  I feel the definition of simulation I posted two days ago makes it clear that I don't.  A simulation is a problem-solving tool for use in engineering, science and related fields.  I'm on record as saying that D&D is an art, and art is not a 'simulation.'  People do not speak of going down to the theatre this Friday to "see the simulations."  Rembrant's Nightwatch isn't described as a fascinating 'simulation' of a town guard setting out upon its daily rounds.  Debussy has not composed a remarkable 'simulation' of the movement of fawns and the passing of afternoons.  This is because art serves no purpose other than to BE.  It is not created to discover if it satisfies the perameters of a design or if it fits the expectations of an hypothesis.  If it matches no design, if it fits no hypothesis, art is not changed in its value or its importance the the least way.

As such, no, I am not attempting any kind of simulation with D&D, not in the strictest sense.  My world may have aspects and elements of being a simulation ... it may carry in it elements that would allow me or others to gauge the effects of trade or the movement of armies over vast distances - but I have no idea if there is any accuracy in this measure, nor do I care.  The system is not built to measure the Earth and its conditions, the system is built to provide an environment in which players may operate according to expected perameters.  If they mount a horse in order to travel from Berlin to Baghdad, they would not be wrong to expect - this being the mid-seventeenth century - to pass through the main part of the Ottoman Empire.  If they had read a book of history and had come across the philosophy of Rosicrucians, they would be in their rights to expect to find Rosicrucians in existence, behaving to some degree in the manner they had read about in history books.

The reason for this isn't to better represent the suffering and strife of Rosicrucians who had once existed, but rather to create a world that has more depth and reason that a world that was produced entirely out of my mind.  If my world is very much like the Earth, and I tell you that you are now passing through the city of Prague, I do not need to spend time as a DM investing in your mind the importance, majesty, romance or tangibility of that city.  You, the player, bring baggage to the campaign that tells you how important that city is ... and as such you, the character, possess the same visceral reaction to the word "Prague" that you yourself do.  Melf the Halfling Thief has heard of Prague, has wondered about its existence and has wondered what it must be like to walk the streets of that city, just as YOU, Dave, have heard of Prague and have wondered about its existence and what the streets are like.  You and Melf share that together.  And if you, Dave, have heard of the opera house there, probably Melf has also ... and like you, Dave, Melf probably wonders if he could take a brief sidetrip from the adventure on hand in order to see it.  And if in seeing it there is an adventure that occurs there, all the better.

I have images of that opera house at my disposal.  I can probably find some kind of floor plan, I can invent secret rooms in the opera house's basement and invest the chambers throughout the building with characters and enemies, staging a murder there, staging a Lovecraftian insurgence there, or indeed anything my mind can concoct.  And if it should ever happen that Dave finds himself in the actual city of Prague, and visits the actual opera house, the adventure that happened there will have as much importance for him as seeing how the stone and glass have been combined together into that magnificent building.

I cannot obtain this sort of emotional response with a completely made up world.  At the very best, with a completely made up world I can represent stock houses and villages.  I can create run-of-the-mill forests and river bottoms.  I can create stereotypical cities and town gates and castles.  And if I want to depict an opera house of importance in the city of my own fabrication, I have to steal the image of the opera house in Prague and wedge it into my make-believe campaign.  I don't have the mind to completely invent an opera house of my own imagination, nor do I have the resources to build it, age it three hundred years and take photographs of its interior.

If I'm going to steal the thing anyway, why not steal the whole world and put it in its right place?

This is what you have when you have my world.  A robbery.  A theft on a grand scale, hammered out in places and squeezed into my living room for quick and easy use.  Not as a simulation, but as an arena of play.  Dead on accuracy is not required.

Now with that said, I want to make a point about 'abstract' and 'concrete,' which are used as opposites in your comment Dave.  I don't contend with their being opposites, but I believe you fail - and many people fail on this precise point - to recognize how they are opposites.  It is usually assumed that since concrete is very hard and very tangible, the opposite of concrete is therefore ethereal and intangible.  The fault here comes from equating 'concrete' with 'stone;'  but you will notice that abstract is never used in context as the opposite of 'stony.'  There's a reason for that.

The opposition isn't being the difference between tangible and intangible.  Concrete exists in the world for only one reason.  Unlike stone, it does not occur naturally.  The only manner in which one is likely to encounter concrete is in it being part of a designed structure.  Abstract is the opposite of concrete in the sense that, while concrete represents the structure, 'abstract' represents the designed plan of that structure ... i.e., the structure hasn't been built yet, or we are describing the structure for some other purpose.  The word abstract is a composite for ab- meaning "away" or "from" and trahere, meaning "to draw."

This specific aspect of the word has been largely mauled and abused by thousands of inept and poorly educated art critics and other writers throughout the 20th century, to the point where it is casually thrown around without much attention being paid to its actual meaning.  It is not much different than the whole of the English language, which is a frustration for me - since I feel language is in fact very specific, no matter how many people can't read a dictionary or do research into the meanings of words.  It makes a conversation like this hard to have, since we have little or no common ground upon which to make matters clear to one another.

To address your comment, Dave:  adjectival or otherwise, abstract still means the same thing.  My argument with the Riddle of Steel would be that the abstract is so minute and obsequious as to murder to death any chance of enjoying the experience.  Architectural plans must be clear and readable ... rules must be easily adopted, understood and implemented.  An overly complex system may be granular, but if it becomes an obstacle in itself to the process, it is anathema and must be gotten rid of.

I am all for granularity, but I don't make up tables for what kind of cobblestones the road incorporates (this used to be a joke from a player I had many years ago).  I could make up such a table, and I could even incorporate my trade tables as an element in creating different road surfaces for different parts of the world.  But the return for such granularity is so small and so insignificant as to not bother in its implementation.  Granular in and of itself is not a positive thing.  But threats of granularity should not be used as an argument against making a simple system that remains easy and effective in its use.

A mechanic - any mechanic - must be measured in terms of A) how easy is it to use; B) what is the emotional/visceral return for its effort; and C) how difficult is it to fabricate and create.  If, as a DM, I am able to create something incredibly complex and difficult to fabricate which nevertheless is simple-simon in its use and brings real return in creating an experience for the players, then I am willing to do the work that brings that about.  This blog tends to focus a great deal on Point C because Points A & B are dealt with in the actual campaign.  Outlining the campaign and detailing what the party did and how has always been the kiss of death for me in any conversation I've had about D&D.  I don't want to hear about your campaign.  When I talk about mine, I try to keep it to one paragraph, glossing over most of the details and getting down to what was fabricated that made the campaign work.

That is the nature of blogging.  You cannot measure the excitement of my campaign by the details of this blog.  If I were writing a blog about creating a carnival midway, this blog would be filled with engineering schematics, calculus, commentary about the poor design features of other people's structural efforts and logistical considerations.  NONE of that has anything to do with how much fun a rollercoaster is.

Thank you Dave for having a brain.  I don't feel very much poked at all.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Zzarchov's Answer

This post is being written to answer a two-part question from Zzarchov of Unofficial Games which frankly requires space, so it is here.  It was asked in the comments section of the previous post, but is not necessarily related to that post.  The pertinent part of Zzarchov's comment, compressed for space, was this:

"I notice you implied (or at least I inferred) that you are not simulating reality. If my memory servers me this is something you have mentioned more than once.  I am curious to know what you are simulating when you develop rules?  As an example, I try to simulate the 'reality' and 'physics' of 1955-1989 adventure movies. I always got the impression your simulation had far far greater historical accuracy in mind, and I was curious to know what your overall ideal was?"

I have been wracking my brain trying to come up with an answer to this question.  I believe that it has two parts, which I will address one at a time.  The first part being my perception of rules, and the second being my overall ideal, as Zzarchov calls it.

Conceded, rules do contribute to a simulation.  If I can haul out the metaphor of the theatre again, however, the gentle reader will please take note that the rules are not the play, they are not the dialogue between the actors, they are not the stage or the set or the audience or indeed any part of the performance ... except in the sense that gravity restrains people from floating unassisted a few inches above the boards.  In the real world, we tend to take 'rules' for granted.  I am able to run only this fast, I have only this much strength in my body, I can speak only so quickly, my eyes can only see detail so far and so on.  When we speak of the simulation of rules in the game, we are speaking of how players within the abstract model are limited in what they can do.  The specificity of the rules really isn't that important, as long as everyone can agree on what they are and as long as they apply to everyone.  Much of the contention surrounding roleplaying in the game is that, in some campaigns, it tends to cut across the rules so that some players are allowed benefits on the basis of their personal emotive skill, and not on the basis of their actual characters.  I dislike godmodding because it bends the rules for some or all of the players in a way that makes the game somewhat similar to the game Candyland ... a game where the infantile need for approval is more important than the mature need for challenge.

A further philosophy I'd like stated about the rules affecting everyone is that the NPCs and monsters in the game must also play by them.  The acquisition of knowledge is a serious aspect of the game.  Just as players must gain this knowledge through effort and time spent, non-players and monsters should not be blessed with all the knowledge of the universe in such a manner that it enables them to know exactly where the players will be at a given time, or what players are the most dangerous, or what attacks will work perfectly in this situation and so on.  NPCs and monsters must be condemned to die on account of their ignorance, just as players will die when they make the wrong decision based on a lack of knowledge.  The DM must play by the rules as well.

Very well, let's talk ideals.

This, obviously, is the hard part of Zzarchov's question.  It asks me not as much to nail down my style of play, but rather my purpose of play.  It is not enough to say that I want to edjudicate a world where persons can interact and experience fun and excitement upon a visceral level.  The question asks, why this type of world and not that type?  People can have fun at an amusement park or they can have fun at a sports event.  Why do I make my players participate in a world of this particular nature, and just what in hell is that nature anyway?

Let me begin thusly.  Zzarchov is right when he says that I am not attempting to simulate Earth.  My world has magic, gods, unnatural creatures and vast areas of the planet controlled by races and civilizations that never existed on the real Earth.  My rivers flow along slightly different paths, my highest mountains are shifted around within 20-50 miles of their Earthly locations, the political goals of my world's participants are slightly askew and somewhat varied from their Earth counterparts.  My Rene Descartes was a cleric-mage who died in an insane asylum, where he wound up after writing his meditations ... whereupon he vigorously researched into augury and divination spells until he got a definitive answer about the reality of the universe.  No, I am not simulating Earth.

I am, however, simulating the characters of human beings as I perceive them to be:

"What a piece of work is man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculty.  In form and movement how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god."

Unlike Hamlet, however, who was a myopic young poop, I don't happen to find man only a quintessence of dust ... and I find women less so, but that is certainly another post.  Moreover, I don't find human beings lacking in villainous qualities either.  It is the overcoming of villains that makes for great drama, and my world is peppered with them.  Conniving cowardly worms, triumphant indefeatible bastards, guiltridden helpless fools, insidious instigators, blundering conquerors, careful murderers, guileless bullies ... the whole spectacular wash of human detritus as it crashes upon the engineered solidity of human achievement.

But do not take from this the error Zzarchov makes about my world being based upon historical accuracy.  I understand how it can appear to be that, since this is a blog and the blog has the time and the space to concentrate on things like the slow steady acquisition of Europe by the Ottoman Empire, or the steady flow of immigration from the Old World to the New.  These things fascinate me, certainly, and I will address them in campaigns for the simple reason that people tend to know generally who is running the country and whether or not the country is at war.  My players passed through Prague in my last running, and I described the countryside to the northwest of that city as full of burnt out ruins and the abandoned shells of razed fortifications.  The party did not know what was going on, and had to ask, to which they got the answer that it was the detritus left over from the Thirty Years War, which had ended four years before the present day of the campaign, December 15, 1652.  They nodded, did not think of exploring the ruins (they were in a hurry to catch a ship) and simply moved on.  That is typically as historical as my world gets.

No, I couldn't say that the structure - or motivational quality, if the reader will - is based upon any tangible formula.  It is certainly influenced by a great many sources ... which, I am not sorry to say, would not fit into Appendix N of the Dungeon Master's Guide.  Frankly, I can't remember what's there in that appendix.  Is Robinson Crusoe there?  Everything by Jules Verne?  What about The King of the Mountains, The Count of Monte Cristo, The Three Musketeers, The Little Savage, The Jungle Book, Just So Stories, the War of the Worlds and the Time Machine?  I really haven't any idea.  I know this sounds like a list of dusty classics to many of you, but they were the books I read as I was growing up, some of which I read and reread until having to buy another copy ... at the same time as reading Gor, Stephen King, Asimov, Heinlein, Penthouse Forum and the Happy Hooker.  Then I started drama and it was Shakespeare, Ibsen, Chekhov and Shaw.  Along with a lot of people I didn't like, but had to read anyway, like Ionesco, Brecht, Pinter and Williams.  University brought a lot more writers and playwrites that I didn't like, but I read then and absorbed them and channeled them into my psyche.  Classics was a brilliant source:  Thucydides and Herodotus, Plutarch and Suetonius, Polybius and Tacitus.

And then over all of this pile up a lifetime love of films, all kinds of films, filled with thousands of characters loved and unloved, evil and good, flowing through my consciousness and drifting out into my campaign.  I won't even try to tabulate the resource field there ... it numbers well over a thousand significant, meaningful titles that I personally feel everyone should be forced to watch starting at age 8.

There's just no way to get across how all of this has affected me, particularly in the way it is mixed in with the non-fiction I have voraciously read all my life.  I remember how in Elementary school my mother had to go personally to the school and tell them to stop telling me to read fiction, and that in her opinion I was free to read all the non-fiction I liked.  Apparently, my principal and my teachers were worried that my incessantly reading about geography, astronomy, human anatomy, geology and war would damage and corrupt my brain somehow.  Good thing that turned out to be wrong.

And from this, Zzarchov would like me to distill my motivation.

Okay.  The pattern seems to be this.  The party is free to do what it wants.  This tends to drift into two types of behavior ... and let me emphasize as I write this, I do not play with alignments.  Please do not write any comments that relate to how alignments are supposed to work.  Please do not mention alignments.  Thank you.

Very well, two types of behavior:  constructive and destructive.

If the party chooses to be constructive in their efforts, and therefore make improvements upon the land and in the process create wealth and prestige, destructive factions will tend to coalesce in an effort to selfishing exploit the player's efforts.

If the party chooses to be destructive in their efforts, and therefore plunder and raid the wealth gathered together by constructive factions in the world, those factions will make increasingly tenacious efforts to search out and destroy the party.

The party, in point of fact, tends to behave according to both of the above.

If I, as DM, wish to create an adventurous spirit to become constructive, I create opportunities that increase the volume of material wealth that the party possesses, forcing them to either abandon that wealth or to take steps to protect it.  Protecting wealth requires structure.  Moreover, the rules provide opportunities that are available only to those players who choose to be constructive, in that tithes, taxes, privileges and nominal freedom are only accorded to those persons within the realm who visibly and tangibly contribute to the overall wellbeing of the realm.  If the party does not want to be harrassed endlessly by every region they enter and if they do not want to be subject to the winds of change, or lacking in the conveniences of hiring experts or obtaining supplies. then it is in their interest to settle down, obtain respect from the community and engineer the wealth of the world so that it comes to them.

On the other hand, if I, as DM, wish to create an adventurous spirit to become destructive, I create villains possessing land and materials for the purpose of threatening or outright attacking ordinary, happy go lucky individuals ... like the party.  I place these villains in authority over clans or tribes, towns, geographical regions and kingdoms, and then use the villain's personality to "poke a stick" at the party until they come boiling out like bees.  Like any good villain, they operate behind the scenes, rewriting laws, harrassing with minions, mistreating innocents, executing family members, confiscating goods and creating obstacles to simple party desires, and whenever possible deriding, mocking, humiliating or otherwise mistreating the party whenever they and the villain happen to meet face to face.  Since I am such a nasty person in real life, I can usually get that stick working quite well and the bees buzzing loudly and angrily, right up to the point where the villain is good and dead, a lot of treasure is accumulated, and the groundwork laid for the villain's friends and associates - all upstanding noble citizens of the corrupt empire - to start planning their revenge.

There are a few aspects of society that I assume are unquestionably true:

1)  poor, common people who work for their bread are ignorant and easily offended, but generally well meaning.
2)  poor people who beg for their bread are deceitful, selfish and habitually violent ... but will always pretend to be well meaning until they sense they've gained the advantage.
3)  low level officials in any organization will be either disgruntled and unsatisfied, or ambitious and unsatisfied - either will seek to exercise their petty power in order to feel better about themselves.
4)  high level officials are corrupt, nasty, vicious, cruel and greedy, except for a tiny, tiny percentage who are not.  The tiny percentage is a high level official due to ability; the larger percentage has achieved their status through the sustained exercise of petty power.
5)  controllers of society are either despotic and therefore villainous, or appallingly ignorant of everything going on around them.  Sometimes they are both.

I wish I could say the world was otherwise.

A last word about villains:  I have long considered, for months now, writing a post about what makes a villain villainous, and who would fit the category of greatest villains.  For me, there would have to be guidelines that would eliminate so-called great villains on principle ... the great villains, I should think, would be above things like remorse and guilt, would be self-created and would do their own dirty work.

I've held off, largely because of the rather paltry perception of what villainy is, and therefore how well a list of mine would be received.  For example, I don't consider Darth Vader to be a particularly good villain.  He threatens a lot and he's got a great look, but he's rather incompetant in his success rate and he's got this rather ridiculous sentimental streak that's about a mile wide.  I mean, if the guy can't even kill his own fucking son, he's not much of a villain.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

An Answer To Dave

This is an answer to this single sentence from Dave Cesarano of The Caffeinated Symposium on the previous post, As Usual:

"There comes a point in attempting to simulate reality in which a game becomes absurd."

Yes, Dave.  There is.

Giving you the benefit of the doubt, I presume you realize that at no time in my last post did I make any statements about 'simulating' reality or anything else.  In fact, I did not use the word 'simulate' in the post.  Nor did I use the word 'reality.'  I did write a post about making an effort to design a game so that it wasn't, well, boring.

But okay, you've invented the strawman to argue against, so let's stick that bastard out in the field and see if it scares up anything.  I'll start by pulling out my old tattered dictionary so we can find out what "simulation" means.

The relevant definition I've found reads as follows:

"Simulation is the process of designing a model of a real system and conducting experiments with this model for the purpose either of understanding the behaviour of the system or of evaluating various strategies (within limits imposed by a criterion or set of criteria) for the operation of the system."

See, Dave, I've done some reading and it turns out that in a wide variety of respected scientific and non-scientific fields, 'simulations' are built solely for the reason of better understanding things.  A pretty stunning revelation, don't you think?  I know I was surprised.  So surprised, in fact, that I did about 90 seconds of deep, involved investigation and discovered that this ridiculous, obviously hopeless effort to simulate reality was taken to rather remarkable extremes.  In fact, millions and millions of actual dollars, more than either you or I will ever earn in our lifetimes, are spent on taking these simulations to ... what was the word you used?  Oh right, "absurd."   Yes, they take these simulations to absurd lengths in order to determine silly things like engineering integrity, safety, social policy and so on.

But of course, we don't do anything like that in D&D.  Everything in D&D is profoundly abstract ... as everyone knows.  Why, just take combat.  I've heard it said that it's probably the most abstract element of the game.  I don't know who said that ... but as we know, once a statement like that is made, it must be true.

Goddamn, you know?  I'm not sure I really understand what "abstract" means.  Let's have a look at that puppy since, after all, I've got the dictionary open.

Here it is:

"That which comprises or concentrates in itself the essential qualities of a larger thing or of several things.  Specifically, a summary of an epitome, as of a treatise or book, or of a statement.  Expressing a particular property of an object viewed apart from the other properties that constitute it."

Hey, that's interesting.  You know, I don't see anything here about something that is abstract being false or misrepresentative or different from reality.  I must have the wrong dictionary, huh Dave?  I'm sure if I had the dictionary you use, I'd have a better sense of what you meant.

See, according to this dictionary, D&D presents the essentials of combat in order to resolve battles and death from wounds apart from its other properties - you know, like actual death.  In other words, or rather in the words above, the combat we play out in the game is an expression of the particular properties of combat - the excitement and the fun - accomplished apart from all that necessity for blood, pain, anguish, doctors, funerals and long periods of recovery.

You know what an abstraction is, Dave ol' buddy?  Why, it's a simulation!  Goddamn, huh?  Turns out, D&D Combat is an way of modeling reality so that it can be played as a game.

Now, I know that in D&D we don't go to absurd lengths to create this simulation/abstraction thing, but as it happens there are literally hundreds of pages contributing to the practice and game play of combat spread over at least fifty hardcover books and what, six or seven different versions of the game?  Oh, didn't D&D actually start out of a combat simulation (or abstraction, shit, it's your dictionary) called Chains and Mails or some crap like that?  I can't quite remember, it was some kind of Postal Service S&M thing.

Honest people, I would love to take your opinions and certainties about what this game is and where the line between absurd and farting around ought to be ... but it seems to me that the first goal for a lot of you would be to start with learning something about the use of ENGLISH.  It's a language.  It's used to define things.  I'm sure that once some of you get the hang of it, you'll get a clearer idea of just what the fuck I'm talking about.  Then, when you have some disagreement you'd like to advance, the actual thing you'd be disagreeing with would be something I actually said, as opposed to whatever it was you said in the last sentence YOU wrote.  Which, as it turns out, is something about which you have only the vaguest understanding.

Okay, Zak, it's time for you to write another One Act play in which you put words in my mouth to show how blind I am to your wisdom.  The real tragedy isn't that I think there are stupid people in the world - it's that anyone pretends they don't think so too.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

As Usual

Apparently, the last post was a good one ... "as usual," I was told.  I see clearly now that I will have to write some crappy posts just so the good ones will stand out.

With that in mind I want to talk about granularity.  People say they're daunted by the level of granularity I strive for, or that they don't actually want the level that I strive for.  In answer to this, I have to ask if anyone out there does any carpentry?

I'll try to explain.  Let's suppose I want a back deck where I might entertain a few friends while barbequing.  There's no question of needing wood for the project ... oh, say about 26 two by sixes, 16' long, treated of course.  The home store can deliver them, and I'll build the deck on Saturday.

What, that's not enough wood?  Of course it is.  When the wood arrives, I throw it all onto the lawn out my back door, line them up so they form a 12 foot by 16 foot flat square.  No, I don't need nails, a frame or any foundation except the grass.  Those boards will sit flat and the barbecue will be fine.  And when the boards start to drift apart, no problem, I'll just kick them back together.

This, gentle readers, is what we get when this 'seagoing weather table' is posted:

This will create adventure!
What a crappy, crappy table.  I wish I could tell you that this was an unusual sight on D&D blogs, but it just isn't.  In fact, this is so common, the entire freaking hobby should be ashamed to show its face in public.  Except that, well, as you know, tables of this quality get published in book after book.  Yes people, you are paying $40 and more for this fabulous shit.

Please understand.  It isn't just that there are only six things on the table.  It's that after 20 days at sea you've probably lost your ship, or at the very least after 10 days the ship has been damaged.  More than that, after you've taken the two seconds it takes to tell your players that they have a head wind and that the ship is going slower, there's nothing left to say.  It's boring.  It's all horribly, awfully boring.  The table is a total epic failure because it fails to accomplish what it needs to do: provide interest.

This is why there are so many people who HATE tables.  Just HATE them.  But you'll forgive me when I say this is like coming around and sitting on my uneven, throw-together deck and saying, "Wow, if there's anything I hate for a barbeque, it's a backyard deck. They're all so shitty, I don't see why anyone bothers!"

Now let's say I make an effort.  I build a frame and fix it on some concrete pilons, and hammer my deck together with nails and even put a railing around it.  What's more, now the deck is at the same level as the house kitchen, so people on the deck can talk with people inside the house.  Have I done it now?


Perfect, non-granular design
The error, the one I made for years and years, is thinking that by adding more and more to the table, more adventure was possible.  So I would pour over texts about historical ship design and travel, and wind up with the same sort of thing we got with Broadsides! Naval Adventuring ... lots and lots of data that just didn't apply to actual roleplaying.  And this is what you see everywhere: lists of things which, once the two seconds is taken to say it to the party, the 'adventure' is over.  That is, it isn't just a storm, it's a hail storm.  Oh no, there are rocks ahead!  Roll a die.  Okay, the ship avoids the rocks.  Yay.

It's the same sort of problem with monster encounter tables that feature sixty or seventy monsters on the table.  So?  If I get a monster that isn't logical right now, I have to roll again ... and seeing 'lich' on the table doesn't tell me what the lich is doing there, what it's motivation is or why in crap I'm throwing it against the party now.  Shouldn't there be some kind of 'pre-lich encounter formula' that would help make sense of the situation?

See, building your backyard deck isn't just hammering nails into wood.  There is a design feature that reaches beyond plugging things into lists.  There's no way to build a good deck without getting into the niggling and annoying considerations that arise from including support, balance, the use of a level and so on into your building project.  If you want the thing to be useful, you will have to get granular.

No one bitches about the granularity of car-building hobbyists, or the granularity of mountain climbing enthusiasts.  No one thinks deep sea divers go overboard in their granular effort to make sure their equipment is in perfect working order.  That's because, in those situations, you get very dead very quickly if you're not really, really granular.

But no one gets dead building a D&D table.  So it doesn't seem that important.  And if it means we're all sitting on really crappy decks with our chair legs caught between the boards, well, what are you going to do?  Make an effort?

Yes.  Sorry, but yes.  I'm thinking that it's actually worth my time to design something with an eye to actual sailing ... which is particularly funny, because there's information literally blowing in from sea about how to make the process of tacking into something difficult and interactive, which player characters would first have to learn, then get good at, then use to their advantage.  And not in that dumbass 'allotted points for the skill' sense.  Any dumb-fuck with time can learn how to sail.

Oh, I know.  Too granular.  Takes time away from your kids, sure, I get it.  It's not like you and your kids together could learn how to sail, and then use that knowledge to run a better campaign.  Heck, there isn't time to improve yourself, learn about the world, grow as a person, blah blah blah.  Fuck, how much granularity does a person need?

I'm going to go now, and continue to waste my time hammering out all this unnecessary granular bullshit that doesn't do anything to make my campaign better or my players better informed about where they are in the world, what the hell they're doing or why they're doing it.  Heck, players don't need that shit.  Sure the balance is unsteady and the weiners keep rolling to one side of the grill, but if the DM tells you its a great deck and the weather's just fine, that's enough, ain't it?  That's why you players out there never worry about getting your bearings ... and its exactly why those worlds never crash.

Half-assed is the way the game OUGHT to be played.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Magic Wands That Work

If I were to cast about for a metaphor to describe the amount of work that many so-called participants in the OSR put into their worlds, I couldn’t do better than to fall back upon Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure.  The moment comes where the jock is standing in front of the whole school, squirming as he tries to squeeze out something intelligent about history.  He knows he sounds like a complete goof.  The seconds spin out and he grows anxious and frustrated ... and then all at once his face clears as he realizes what to do.  He raises a fist in the air and chants out, "SAN DIMAS FOOTBALL RULES!"  And the crowd goes wild.

It's the crowd going wild that the reader wants to concentrate on here.

A couple days ago I received some sincere statements about worldbuilding from a friend who was focusing on how far he was prepared to go in order to create his world for D&D.  Not as far as me, was more or less the jist of it.  Farther than most, though.  I understood between the lines what he was saying.  There is only so much time, there are other things in life, this degree of world creation is enough for his purposes, etc.  And I thought, as I read what he said, how interesting.

His response came as an answer to my question, which was whether he felt there was any possibility that - given time - a single force could rise out of the maelstrom and disconcordance of the RPG universe that would bring everyone together under one system.  Naturally, my friend took this to mean, well, what I was trying to do.  I haven't been quiet about it.  But Alexis, he explained, people aren't willing to work that hard.

No, they're not.  But in the end, they won't have to.

Let's go back to the football player.  I know nerds are very fond of high school football players, since they tend to be A) assholes and B) stupid and C) aggressively dangerous.  The three aspects are not ranked.  Nor are they necessarily universal.  It's only that, while the occasional high school football player might have none of those characteristics, an increase in football players that happen to be present at any fixed geographical position usually means an increase in A, B and C ... with the increased likelihood of getting seriously fucked up if you happen to be A) conspicuously intelligent or B) physically weedy or C) a known D&D player.  So better to stay away from football players altogether.

But no one - seriously - works harder in high school than football players.  No one undergoes greater pressure to perform, no one risks permanent bodily injury to a greater degree, and no one of that age has more of their lives scheduled, observed or literally stolen away from them.  It makes it easier to stay away from football players when so much of their time is spent in the sort of prison they experience.

If I had understood that better at age 16, I would have had more sympathy for football players.  But I was focused on the aggressively dangerous part.  Yes, I would eventually play at 18 and 19 in non-high school organized games ... but we didn't have to practice.

Football is organized, and loved, both by the players risking themselves and by the organization that religiously fixes its existence into the fabric of the universe.  Boys may spontaneously gather together to play football.  Boys do not spontaneously gather together to practice football.

If the gentle reader can forgive me, there is a comparison here between playing D&D and working on D&D.  Most do not do much of the latter ... and if they do, it is usually a few hours sketching the outlines of an upcoming adventure, a floor plan or two, rolling up NPC's or working out the guts of a puzzle or a trap.  A smaller proportion takes it into their heads to construct a world, which usually consists of planning the scale, drawing one map according to that scale and then never quite getting around to doing more about it.

This is the nature of worldbuilding.  It is more fun to conceive of a world than it is to painstakingly draw one.  When people conceive of a magic wand, they imagine waving it and something instantly appearing.  No one proposes a magic wand that works by being waved and waved for six or seven weeks at a time.  Sadly, these are the magic wands that actually exist.

It should be understood, however, that there is a very queer group of people who do wave these existing wands for weeks, months or years at a time, creating out of the very air things like World of Warcraft or DDO ... awful, terrible horrors that no decently minded RPGer would play.  Except that they will, with more wand waving.  It is only a matter of time.

See, it isn't the pathetic bit of work that I put into the creation of a world that is very important.  I am a half-rate, lazy creator that barely pokes my way along with a few maps and tables that no one really understands except me.  The truly frightening designers are the footballers of the RPG world, who have sacrificed their lives in endless wand-waving, who can't speak rationally for three seconds in front of a human crowd except to shout "DDO!" when they run out of words.  And millions of little creatures go wild.

You will too.  You and I and every designer of D&D worlds on the planet are going to be overtaken in the next forty years and made to look like silly, stupid fools mucking about with pencils.  We are the dinosaurs.  And this dinosaur is waiting and hoping for some brilliant fellow to come along who can take my data and my maps and pile them into a matrix that will not only generate the world in three-D, but will help me make it more interactive than I can consciously dream of doing.

It isn't what anyone will say that will end this stupid infighting.  It isn't going to change by me or anyone else eventually convincing all the gentle readers to play the game my way.  It will change when it seems utterly stupid not to just let the computer do it ... and the computer will do it in the one, total complete way that makes perfect sense.  When we don't have to practice any more ... and we can just get inside the thing and play.  Not just dumb combats, like the computers can manage now, but every kind of human roleplaying interaction imaginable.

Won't that be fun?