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.


Zak S said...

Not trying to harass you, Alexis, really, but I honestly believe this is how this conversation will go, let me know what I'm wrong about here:

Z: "While I agree that there are many crappy tables out there that don't work. If the nongranular table (or whatever) is used over and over for years and everyone in the game keeps coming back and likes the game--and so, by my lights--it does work what's the problem, exactly?"

A: "If they're happy having a crappy campaign good for them, I don't want to hear about it."

Z: "But what exactly is the standard for calling it 'crappy' other than the lack of granularity? Isn't that a tautology? It wasn't built using X tool, therefore even if it stands and you can barbecue on it and enjoy that it is crappy?"

A: "Some people have low standards. I don't. I believe the game is a work of art and can be eternally improved."

Z: "So do I, but doesn't each group have different areas it could eternally improve that would be relevant to its own style of play?"

A: "Some people aren't very bright."

Z: "So you're assuming that whatever effort is not spent making the random encounter table more granular -is- spent doing what, exactly? Huffing gas fumes?"

A: (now Alexis says something scathing and aggressive and seems so assured that the only reason you're asking this question is to harass him)

I really want to understand, honestly, otherwise I wouldn't bother to even post this question.

What am I missing here? Do you not see that "lack of granularity" and "lack of forethought" are not necessarily the same?

Am I making a strawman argument here? I don't want to.

When you read Jeff Rients' stuff do you just turn green? Does it all seem like the workings of a diseased mind?

Alexis said...


If I could just speak for myself a moment:

That comment said a lot more about you than me, Zak.

Zak S said...

Great, so it's a terrible straw man argument and I am stupid.

But, again, if Jeff Rients' posts a big non-granular non-simulatory rule and then a play report about how much fun he has had for years with it, what exactly is the argument against it?

Or, again, if that;s not right:

-What part of your argument am I getting wrong?-

Tell me and we will all be smarter and better gamers for it.

Telecanter said...

It's not clear what your suggested approach is.

You say:
"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, you know adding entries to the table is not the right answer.

You mention design. I'm guessing you mean the entries on your table would be better somehow. Or maybe you wouldn't use a table at all?

I would say omitting all but what is necessary to evoke the feel of being on the sea is not only design, but much more difficult than adding more and more options.

I'm all for adding more flavor and options to the game and to base those on the real world, but always balanced against how it impacts play. If we have to memorize more than a page of rules just to sail, I'm going to wonder why-- what exactly that's bringing to my game.

Arduin said...

...Okay, apparently I should refrain from commenting on the regularity of material I percieve as quality.

It seems to have much the same effect as prodding a slumbering bear with a well-sharpened stick.

That said.

MMOs, I am compelled to argue, are the future. What I conceive of, with my experiences in games of many kinds, is that the "ultimate" gaming experience will be thusly:

Start with a Dwarf Fortress-esque world generator. For those unfamiliar, that means ridiculous detail. Specific body-heats for items, procedurally generated rainfall and glacial movement hacking out the landscape, social design and resource parameters set to ensure that a certain number of potentially helpful/hostile civilizations/tribes/titanic beasts exist in the realm. NPCs, each generated with a customisable background, culture, and whatever the hell else provided with emotions, opinions, and day-to-day goals that they will accomplish or not without supervision.

With the landforms and cultures thus done, we have the setting. One or several DM-like administrators would then provide access to this server, facilitating roleplay and eliminating troublesome persons.

Players, however many chose to play or not, would then enter these world/s. Adventure could be found or not entirely based upon environmental conditions, but with the added possibility of administration intervention.

This is, incidentally, how the MUD community works in terms of admin/player relations. For most I've seen, anyway.

Computers will make our hobby obsolete in it's current paper-based form eventually. And for the reasons Alexis mentioned; eventually it will be easier to let the computer do it.

By creating a software, easily modded to suit individual's tastes, a community of worlds could be created. Neverwinter Nights was a prototype of this sort of universe, merely created far, far before it could be reasonably sustained.

As I said before, the worldbuilding is merely the dogged modeling of a universe and the laws of physics therein. What really interests me is in developing the AI needed to create NPCs who act as people with their own goals would.

I don't know how to build a deck.

I just know the deck I want to grill on.

In the meantime, I'll look at other decks, read up on carpentry, and see if I can't make something passable.

Dave Cesarano said...

There comes a point in attempting to simulate reality in which a game becomes absurd. Consistency should be attempted in any gaming system--thus, if sailing rules are going to be extremely "granular" (as you said), then combat should be as well. However, combat, the rules-heavy center of most roleplaying, is probably one of the most abstract and least granular game elements.

Its that way for expediency. Not everyone wants to play Riddle of Steel, which can be pretty overwhelming to even intermediate gamers.

A little knowledge of something like sailing can go a long way to make a game more realistic and enjoyable. I'd actually suggest reading books or watching movies about sailing ships, pirates, etc., for ideas.

Cost-benefit analysis: What do your players get out of increased granularity? What do you get? Is it worth the time investment? Perhaps most importantly, are there better things you could be doing? Example--in my alotted time I can learn about sailing or rock climbing. Which one benefits me more in-game? Which in real life? Or should I just put it off and get my taxes finished?

Todd said...

So what you are saying we should use lead minis because the plastic ones will float in the bathtub?

JDJarvis said...

I like tables and their use in gaming when they actually provide something the ref and players can react to.

In the example 'seagoing weather table' nothing is presented to modify the outcome for the player, no forewarning, it's a table of movement penalties and ship damage. The only choice the players are given as implied by this table is to stay out of the water or hop on a ship.