Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Master Class

I have considered the possibility of Dungeon Mastering being taught as a fine arts course, and from that consideration has grown a picture in my head that I'd like to share.  The scene, if you will, is similar to drama courses I once took.  We have a large room with a black floor, made gray with the dust from people's shoes.  There are benches arranged in tiers along one wall, where up to sixty persons might sit and watch the proceedings.  The ceiling is 12 feet high, without any panels to soak up the sound, with an open framework where spotlights might be hung and pointed at a performance.  Ducts, pipes and vents, along with the outer walls of the room, are painted black to give the illusion of greater space.  There are no windows.  In the middle of the floor is a large table, with five chairs arranged around it.  One chair is isolated from the others.  On this chair sits a 'master in training.'  The other four chairs have 'players in training.'  On successive days, the participants change roles in order to each experience the game from differing points of view, playing all possible character classes as well as adjudicating the game.

A group of ten other students sit on the benches awaiting their turn.  In a 90-minute class, three groups will each participate for 30 minutes; the remaining time is spent watching, learning and not speaking.

Circling the table where the students participate is the professor, called the 'Director' to emphasize the performance aspect of the game.  He holds a yardstick menacingly.  He watches the students with the vicious patience of a bird of prey, descending upon their errors with the emotion that ... well, that I remember my acting coaches and performance directors having.  In particular one Mr. Phil Edie, loathed, feared and - by some of us - greatly loved.

We worked very hard for him.


Director:  Again!

DM:  You find yourselves in a small, quiet town on the edge of the Kingdom of Yarl.  Beyond the fields of the town begins the area of wilderness known as the -

Director:  Why have you put them there?  (student begins to explain and is cut off)  No!  It is the worst sort of cliche!  It shows no sign of thought whatsoever.  You must awaken the players.  You must invest them into the game from the beginning.  If you do not give them something purposeful to do, they will drift from the game and despise you!  Make them feel alive and they will reward you.  Choose another setting and start again.

DM:  (closing his eyes and taking a few breaths)  The town is not quiet, it is large and busy and is right now experiencing the effects of a nearby volcano, which is dropping bombs of acid-infused rock among the citizens.  The lava is beginning to flow through the streets ...

Director:  What are you doing!?  (Catches his breath, appears to be suffering from a heart attack)   No, no, no, NO!  You are railroading the party.  You're giving them only one possible response ... they might as well not even be playing the game!  Is that what you want?  To make them puppets on your string?  You must never, ever do this!  They must be allowed to choose their own destiny, and that does not begin with the crisis as it is ongoing!  Did they not have an opportunity to move and choose their lives before the actual eruption of the volcano?  Not to speak of the simple truth that you have chosen an event that is hardly likely to happen to any person in the whole of their lives!  This makes it precious, a worthy experience to be built up to, not to be exploited like a cheap magician's trick.  You must not weaken your own presentation by grabbing for the climax at the beginning.  These are players who have not yet met your world.  There must be introductions.  There must be formalities.  Invest them slowly.  Now, again!

DM:  (clearly rattled)  You meet each other together on a road.  It is ... a crossroads.  During the course of an evening you arrive one by one, deciding to rest there while it becomes dark ...

Director:  Good.  Continue.

DM:  Getting to know one another.

Director:  (turning to the benches)  At this point a poor group of players will waste time with fruitless words about how this elf would not speak with this dwarf or how their character is a lone wolf or some other banter while it is quite clear that they will be together as a party because this is the game.  I want it understood that this nonsense will not happen in this class.  (hammers end of the ruler upon the floor)  If you will learn anything it is that we are not mawkish children making poor jokes to emphasize our own importance!  (looks back at the DM)  Continue.

DM:  You agree to set a watch through the night in pairs for safety, and since none of you have any animosity for the others -

Director:  Be careful in dictating the characters of the players; they may take no direct action, but yet have animosity.  Allow the players to decide their emotional states.  Continue.

DM:  Pardon me.  The night passes without incident between you four ... (brightening as something is thought of) ... but one thing does happen.  Throughout the night a small herd of cattle moves towards you.

Player 1:  How many?

DM:  There are nine that you can see.

Player 1:  Nine is not much of a herd.

Director:  Do not quibble.  It wastes time.  Continue.

DM:  The cattle sleep much of the time but slowly gravitate towards the crossroads.

Player 2:  We keep an eye on them.

DM:  As the sun begins to rise, you can't help noticing the cattle have no one tending them.

Player 3:  Where is this crossroads?  What's the land like?  Pastures and farmland?

DM:  Neither.  All four of you can testify to there being no nearby manor house, nor farm, nor known pasture in any of the four directions you've come.

Director:  Excellent.  Continue.

DM:  The land is sort of a bottom land, with one road following the course of the small stream and the other cutting across the low valley.  The ground off the road is a little soggy.  The cattle's feet are sinking into it.

Player 1:  So who do the cattle belong to?

DM:  You don't know.  They -

Director:  Stop.  You've said enough.  Let the players ask questions.  Do not give more information than is necessary.

(a long pause as the players look at each other without speaking, or being certain what to do)

Come then, put yourselves in the position.  You are in a medieval setting, the cattle represent a measure of property, which at present appears to be unclaimed.  What do you do?

Player 4:  Steal them?

Director:  Avoid assumptions.  You are not certain at this time that they belong to anyone.  You must think in the terms of someone in that situation.  You would not say 'steal,' which is reserved for actively arresting the cows from a herder.  You would say -

Player 4:  Take them.

Director:  Yes.

Player 2:  Are they tame?

DM:  Yes.

Director:  No.  This cannot be learned from looking at them.  The DM should not answer questions of this nature.  (to the player)  You must ask a question which can be answered with your eyes, or take an action which gives information in some other way.  (to the DM)  You must not give information that they cannot know given the effort they have made thus far.  (to all the players)  What must you do to determine if the domestication of the cattle?

Player 1:  Go towards them.

Director:  Do not tell me, tell the DM!

Player 1:  We go towards the cattle.

Director:  NO!  Do not decide the actions of the other players!  Speak only in terms of what your character does.  Nothing more.  You cannot decide ahead of time what others will do.  You may either ask them to go with you, or go alone.  Continue.

Player 1:  I go towards the cattle.  What happens.

DM:  The cattle remain peaceable.  They seem tame.

Director:  Very good.  Continue.


That's enough I think, to get across the idea.  Carl, you may have something there.  I could see this being an effective training in performance technique, both from the point of view of players and DM.  A class like this would rankle me, but I can see how keeping at it would improve me ... if nothing else it would help cut down on the sloppiness of my delivery, which does tend to degrade if I'm not full of energy and crisp of mind.

I suppose some would find the occasional thing the Director attacked as something not deserving of attack.  And I think that probably people wouldn't like him very much.  I never attended a drama class that didn't have a few people who were there because they thought drama would be "fun."  They failed to recognize that entertainment is a very hard, very unforgiving industry, evident in the acidity of reviews and the often outright condemnation by sitting audiences, particularly while the performance is going on.  People who in their normal habit of living would argue that the greatest virtue is compassion have no compunction whatsoever about booing performers who have not put in the time and effort to achieve anything less than a brilliant performance, nor a writer who has made the mistake of being only mildly humourous.

Fun is Work.  When there has been no work, it is not fun.  D&D often gets away with it because the people sitting around the table are friends, and being friends we make our own fun.  But then it is not the D&D, is it?  So how can you claim to love the game if you will not suffer for it?

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Vizzini Before He Croaks

Vizzini:  You only think I guessed wrong!  That's what's so funny! I switched glasses when your back was turned! Ha ha! You fool! You fell victim to one of the classic blunders! The most famous is never get involved in a land war in Asia, but only slightly less well-known is this: never go against a Sicilian when death is on the line!

I am here to say, I do not have an answer to the question of how to be a better DM.  I don't.  I can give suggestions on what to do here or there, how to present a given adventure, how to present yourself as a DM, how to care a little more, how to control your party a little better, why you should take it seriously and what you should expect back from your players.  But all this is fluff.  It is filler.  It is cosmetic, and while it will help with momentary problems in your sessions, it won't make you a better DM if you are not already acceptable.  This is why I said in the previous post on this subject that I'm sitting in the back feeling the bile rise in my throat.  I am watching the professor write notes on the blackboard, I am watching the other students diligently copying the notes, I am watching everyone feel they are growing and changing as people, and I am not seeing anything grow or change.  I'm seeing 30 years of this bullshit - don't believe for a second that it has started with the internet - and after all this time I am hearing and seeing the same repeated statements all over again.  Dance like this, sing like this, wave your arms like this and everything will be wonderful.


Allow me to leap to a something tawdry that some of us might know from experience.  My first wife Michelle, who rests in peace, lived and breathed music.  Her father had been a music teacher in a high school and Michelle had embraced the lifestyle as early as it is possible.  Training in french horn and flute, she began in marching bands - something she adored - at the age of eleven, and continued touring and marching throughout her teens.  Every year she marched in a little event around here we call the Calgary Stampede, which means that I was probably in the crowd one July when my wife of ten years later went marching by.  Life is funny.

When she entered university it was to obtain a music degree, which she pursued with vigor, particularly theory and composition, while continuing to play in orchestras and in her own band.  She was a punk rocker in leather mini-skirt and torn top lo about 1982, and I am sorry to say I did not know her in that period.  Suffice to say she was eclectic, driven, highly intellectual and wonderfully confrontational.  I have never enjoyed arguments as much as I did with her.

Part of her training and drive involved spending much of her existence incorporating Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians into her knowledge base.  Let me put that better: she effectively reduced the books into a rich paste which she was then able to introveneously inject directly into her brain.  If you have not opened these books, let me explain that this is not light reading.  This is extraordinarily heavy material.  It is the bible of music.  And of course Michelle owned a copy.

It will only take 15 or 20 years before you're
thoroughly familiar with this.
I very much respected my wife's knowledge of music, and I learned a very great deal about it.  But that isn't important right now.  What is important is the story that goes along with all this knowledge.

It happened one Christmas several years after our marriage that Michelle received a gift from my parents: a coffee table book gotten from the local big box store about ... yes, embarrassingly, music.  In nice big lettering with lots of pictures.  Michelle was polite about it, but that book and my parent's stupidity became a topic of conversation very often in the years afterwards, for which I cannot blame her.  They knew perfectly well the level of her investment and knowledge, but that didn't matter in the fluffy world of their middle-class sensibilities.  "She likes music," they thought to themselves.  "Let's get her a book about music."

What's really baffling about it is my father, who is an engineer and rockhound, acquired at a very early age Dana's manual of mineralogy, which also is not a light book.  If I had bought my father for Christmas a Big Book of Rocks, he would not have been amused and I doubt very much he would have been polite at all.  He should have known better.

My point to all this story is that there comes a time when a little bit of knowledge just isn't enough to make reading worthwhile.  After thirty-two years of playing and reading and studying and building my world and securing players and changing to suit players and re-evaluating my goals and rifting through unbelievable tons of written crappy material about RPG's (which, I am not sorry to say, the authors of which did not impress their names upon my brain), I am hopelessly and disasterously past the Big Book of GM Challenge.  It's crap from end to end not because it's wrong, but because it isn't new.  It is flabbergastingly difficult to explain to people that while the Big Book is pretty and full of accurate little facts, it is full of accurate little facts I acquired some twenty years ago and which no longer hold the magnificent quality of original thought they did when I was very young.  It is therefore useless to me.  It gives me nothing.  It is dead weight.

This was my point with the goldfish essay a couple of weeks ago.  The massive horde of bloggers about are still wanking themselves with this material, even while claiming they've played the game for twenty years.  Really?  Twenty years and this isn't shit you know already?  You know, it only takes 8 years to become enough of a doctor that you can split my chest and operate on my heart.  And after 20 years, you're just now learning to stand up and use your whole body to conduct a session?  Holy crap.

I am here, waiting for someone to tell me something I don't know.  I'm patient.  And while Vizzini laughs and tells me what's what and how much of a fool I am, I'm perfectly aware of the location of the iocane powder and that he's going to tip over any moment.  Change is coming.  When it does, I'll be happy about it.

But O gentle reader, who's content with the way things are ...

You're already dead.


Vizzini:  I can clearly not choose the wine in front of me.
Roberts:  You're just stalling now.

To all the poor, sad, disgruntled, unsatisfied, ignored people who have taken the time to comment on this blog and who have not seen their genius presented.  You have an alternative.  You may take your grievances regarding what I have not published, and therefore have not acknowledged, here.  In this magical place, you can whine, piss and moan to your heart's delight, and you shall be bouyed up by your fellow complaintants as a good and steadfast intellect of the highest degree.  There, every concocted truth about the motivations and character of the author of this blog shall be accepted with the sincerest belief, as can only be known about a person who has never been met.  I encourage your participation there.

I don't want you here.  That's a terrible sentiment, I know, to have about my fellow human, but it is true.  Last week I made a series of propositions that led to an enlightening, enjoyable discourse between persons who felt inclined to write long, long posts presenting their points of view.  It was refreshingly lacking in bullshit.  This is because the bullshit was removed by me.  I am in love with moderated comments, knowing now that it doesn't seem to stop the SMART people from commenting here.  I also know now that the dialogue doesn't get sidetracked by attempts to politically 'spin' the topic, or degrade into semantic nonsense, or philosophical sophistry.  How wonderful that is.

So take a shuffle off to Buffalo.  Take the A-train.  Go anywhere else.  Please.  Because no, there's no soapbox for you here.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Well Water

There comes a point in making a stand when a writer realizes there is little left to say ... but this is not the end of writing.  Political pundits know that if their theme is to be adopted, that theme must be pounded on the rock until it is soft and pallatable for ordinary minds.  People shall accept free trade as a doctrine, and daily I shall write articles which presents the matter of free trade from positive direction after positive direction.  People who do not know what free trade is shall believe me because they know me, and they shall willingly speak my doctrine to others who know them.  Go to that well and draw, my dear friends.  Draw and draw, for it takes a lot of well water to wash a brain.

This last week I have watched the buckets come up and I have read much praise for water's taste.  We have the written word on how to be a better GM, and the critics are in favor.  This shall surely hail a change in game playing across the land, for the true knowledge on how to better run your games is but a mouse click away.  There never need be any lack of a great GM ever again.

Or it may be a lot of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

When hair conditioner was first advanced on the market back in the 1950s, the marketing department discovered that women didn't believe the product worked because it was far too simple; women were used to the trials and tribulations of hair salons.  It was necessary to create a ruse, and women were told that the product needed to remain in their hair for 30 minutes to get the full effect.  The lie worked.  Women everywhere sat with their hair wrapped, moisture dripping uncomfortably down the backs of their necks, to give enough time for the product's effect - even though that effect in reality took only a minute.  People will believe anything if it is presented as rational.

Will reading about how to be a better DM actually make you a better DM?  No, probably not.  Will it make you believe you are a better DM?  Almost certainly.

For most good folks, this is enough.  We all live in a cloud of dubious certainty, and belief is a comfortable blanket we can pull around ourselves and feel snuggly and warm.  Belief can carry you through the darkest times; it can reshape and revitalize misery; it can justify the continued slavery to a job that has brought you nothing for twenty years; it can work wonders with love; it gives solace to the dying.

Reality can offer very little in kind.  It will not wrap you in a blanket, it will wrap you in barbed wire.  It will not wake you up in the morning and get you to work.  It will not give you a good sex life.  It is virtually impossible to define and it is in constant dispute due to its flagrant disregard for belief.  Becoming a better DM in reality is a very hard thing, taking years and sweating effort, and is much harder than believing you're a better DM, which can be accomplished by reading a few hundred words and saying that its true.

The only snag is that other people are rarely prepared to buy into your belief strategy.  If you sit down at your gaming table with the statement, "I am a better DM today!"  You will more likely be met with doubt and derision than with backslapping and approval.  Selling your belief to other people pulls with it a full bucket that feels like the work you associate with reality.  "Oh yeah?" they ask.  "Show us."  And in that demand is implied the insistence that some kind of real change is demonstration.  Call it, I don't know, 'proof.'

You may have gleaned a gimmick or two from the recent compilation of belief strategies, and you may apply it to your upcoming or recent session, and it may ge a cry of approval that may very well seem like proof.  Gimmicks have a shelf life, however; and by the next running that shelf life may have run out.  Three or four runnings down the road, your gimmicks will all be gone and unless there was real change, you will have gone back to running the same dry campaigns you ran prior to your 'great improvement' as a DM.  That's all right, however ... you'll believe, and your players will believe, that you're pretty snappy now.  That one terrific session you ran will echo in their heads for months, and will carry you through a lot of dry times.  And no doubt that'll be good for your ego.

All this said ... the question of how to make you a better DM in reality, that I can't answer.  Carl, who regularly comments on this blog, often calls for an answer to that.  But in all the time that's passed since I began playing, I haven't figured out yet what makes me a good - or a bad - DM.

Let's conjecture a university course in the subject, which I would have probably attended if it had been on the curriculum.  It would probably be slotted into the social sciences; I feel belongs in the humanities department, but that isn't really important.  As long as it's not 'Business.'  I can imagine myself in the class with forty or fifty others, half of them with at least some experience of the game, a quarter thinking that "dragons" meant a survey course on mythology and a quarter there just to get their credit requirements - computer programmers, probably, or jocks told by their chums that D&D meant "Ds for Dummies."

The prof comes into the room, writes his name on the blackboard - Mr. Chundley - and goes into his introduction.  There will be a midterm and a final and there will be a 2,500 word essay on the social relevance of D&D.  Each will count for one third of the total grade.  No, there will be no actual playing of the game during the course, but we are "encouraged" to take part in as many games as possible in order to get a full sense of the game.  The jocks groan, the game players nod enthusiastically, the mythologists check their schedule to see how fast they can dump this course for something else ... and I sit in the back and feel my bile rise in my throat.

Naturally, if we're dealing with what is substantially a complicated context-oriented performance art, the last thing we would want to do is have anyone actually perform.  That would involve standing to the side and criticizing people as they ran the game.  Hands up, those of you who would care to learn to be a better DM by running the game in an auditorium full of well-meaning critics who were encouraged to shout at you during your presentation.  Mind you, I said "well-meaning" - not trolls anxious to put you off your game, but persons who have legitimate, well-founded oppositions to what you're trying to do.

Cue laughter.  What in this game represents a "well-founded opposition?"  Anyone?

We're all old hands at the blogosphere, the sniping, the derision, the pompous superiority, the dismissive carping and so on ... most of it to be found right here in this post.  What's missing here is the slobbering praise, the wanking approval and the excited presentation of the very ordinary.

Oops ... that was more dismissive carping, wasn't it?  Sorry.  It's a hard habit to break.

Call it what you will, the last thing we have represented in the D&D 'field' is a well-founded anything.  D&D is, for those following around the blogosphere like puppies, a survey course, taught without play and taught be people who think "social relevance" is a measureable quality in the superiority of the game and its participants.  You can't teach something if there's nothing standardized enough to be taught.  All we really have is what people believe, and you don't teach beliefs.

You sell them.

Thursday, August 25, 2011


While everything I did not need to learn was learned in Kindergarten - the most idiotic statement ever made - it was there I acquired my taste for something that has remained central to my life ever since.  It is central to most of our lives, though I don't think we realize it.  I am speaking about the habit of show and tell.

In education, it is merely an exercise in public speaking, and for some people not a very fun exercise.  But it is hardly restricted to the classroom, as we were all thrilled every time we had something new we could take to school and show off.  It is a kind of prestige, one that carries forward into adulthood with the acquisition of cars, electronics, golf clubs, houses and vacation pictures.  The same practice applies to pregnancy and the birthing of children, the day we graduate from university, the new job we've been hired onto, the relics we bring back from war zones and even the gravestones we buy to anxiously show our loved ones where we want to be buried.  Having something new and then showing it, or telling about it, is the best kind of buyable status there is.  For ten minutes we have something that someone else does not, and we want to enjoy that brief measure of satisfaction.

Obviously, a thing that brings satisfaction to others is ten times better than something that brings satisfaction only to ourselves.  Vacation pictures, and telling about vacations, are the absolute worst ... not only do we listeners NOT get to see anything, we are forced to hear stories about something we'd much rather be doing that what we are doing right now.  Our only real response is to tell about OUR vacations, thus evening the score.

Things that do bring satisfaction to others are far superior ... and I think those things can be divided into two categories:  things we purchase and things we create.  There are things that are awarded, such as medals and trophies, but while these convey status I don't think they necessarily bring satisfaction.

Most everything that can be purchased by me can be purchased by you, and that is what we think of when we see a new boat or some marvelous new gadget ... unless, of course, we can't afford it - and then the first thing we want to know is can we borrow it.  If that fails, we just don't care.  We're listening to the other person go on and on thinking, Get the thing out of my face, all right?

Things that we create fall into a whole other measuring standard.  You can show me the crappiest blender in the world that you purchased and my opinion will be that I wouldn't buy one.  But show me a crappy blender that you built yourself and my first thought is more likely to be, "Wow, you built a blender?"  Only after that, when it proves to be pretty crappy, will I think, "Why did you build a crappy blender when you could buy a new one?"

Believe it.  This same thought process can be applied to virtually any creative work that has a counterpart in the world.  Build your own anything and it will be compared with that same thing done by somebody else.  It doesn't matter if you laid your own driveway and it cost you $35 because you did it with stones you found in the nearby mountains.  It will look strange and people will raise their eyebrows at you and feel all superior and shit.  It is only ten years later that they'll look again at that driveway and think of it as 'folksy.'  Right off, they'll think you should have spent more.

Then there are the creative things that can't be bought.  They exist nowhere in the world except in your possession.  Some of these things, such as a novel you've written or a sculpture you've carved, still have a bit of that "measured vs. the good stuff you can buy" feel.  That is, unless you've sculpted or written something really profound.  On the other hand, there are things you make yourself that cannot be bought.  There is simply no place anywhere in the world for you to go where that thing can be obtained.

Your world is one of those things.

Even if I can measure your world against my world, both of us being D&D players, the fact is that my world and your world will never exist in the same time and space.  When we sit down around the table to listen to you be the Dungeon Master, my world ceases to exist.  And as you show and tell the various features about your world, presenting them to us so we can oooh and aaah about what's new and different, you are maximizing the satisfaction not just for yourself, but for us as well.

We hope you are, at least.  We hope you haven't worked all week in order to flount your world in a superior, fuck-us fashion that makes us feel unnecessary and uncomfortable in your self-aggrandizing fantasy.  In the fight against that, , I and many others have written hundreds of thousands of words decrying the DM's-world-as-my-vacation-photographs.

I still get excited before a running.  I have this mess of things I've created and am ready to spring on my players - I will show them and tell them what they see, and watch the fall out at they tackle the new quandaries I hope to create for them.  I have new rules to talk about and new bits of my world I've created.  Knowing I get to talk about them, and knowing others are interested, it is that moment in Kindergarten when I brought a preying mantis in a bottle, all three inches of it crouched in its horrific splendor.

I admit, though, that some of the thrill at the outset of a new D&D running is robbed by my having this blog to talk about things first.  This blog is S&T in perfect harmony ... post a map, a table, news of some kind, a bit of knowledge from the past or even some other person's contribution to the blogosphere and tell ALL about it.  And doing so without any concern about anyone's facial expression, or shuffling feet or nodding eyelids.  I don't see any of that.  I can tell and tell until my fingers get tired and if people don't want to listen any more, they can skip off and I'm none the wiser.  You have to love this formula.

Now I will take myself off, and think of something else that's new, and conjecture on how best to tell about it tomorrow.  The classroom awaits.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

This Is Fun For Me

I'm afraid that most of my fascination these last two weeks has been the mapping of India.  I must admit, I am amazed that I am that far in this project.  I started just to the left of the middle of the map above, with a region called Voronezh, a county during the time of the Renaissance.  Steadily and slowly I added one region at a time, moving in a general outwardly spiralling circle for a number of years before deciding just to work on whatever seemed best.  As a favor to a friend, after I complete India it's my plan to finish the remainder of the Mediterranean Basin.  I'm researching the cities and towns of France now so I'll be able to start that late in 2011/early 2012.  The research is the time-heavy part, to be honest.  I've got the actual mapmaking down to a science, so I can set down 10 to 50 hexes a day without much trouble.  Admittedly, France is a great deal more dense than India, so the individual hexes will go slowly, but once the actual ground is researched completely, it will just go tickety-boo.

I wanted to add the above map as a rejoiner to the one added last week.  It includes a lot of parts that were on this map, but it has been somewhat updated and at any rate it looks good to group parts together.  It helps with the general perspective.

The gentle reader may not be aware that all of the above map is listed in detail on the Same Universe Wiki, on this page.  The map compilation above, and the one posted last week, were formed entirely from the maps on the wiki, copying them one by one and shrinking them consistently before overlapping them together.  None of this is from my private files, so anyone could do what I've done above for their own benefit.  The pleasant thing about the maps I've done is that they are all the same size, in the precise same scale.  Here and there I've found there's a slight error where the maps overlap ... wrong color used on one map or the other, and in one case the actual wrong hex designated on one of the two maps.  If you look carefully you can find the discontinuity in the South Sahara on the Arabian map.  Eventually I'll get around to fixing this sort of thing, and reposting those maps on the Wiki.

This map above lines up with the other map as well, as below.  I've had to shrink both maps down to get them into blogger, but you can see if you save it and blow it up that the map hexes fit seamlessly (or as near as is reasonable).

This should look really great when I get India done.  I have so far mapped the Punjab & Kashmir, Uttar Pradesh, Nepal, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat.  For those who might know the region, I'm presently working on Maharashtra, which is central India west of Mumbai (Bombay).  I am having a great time, as India is one of those places you never can get a great map for, and the landscape is therefore unfamiliar to me.  Thus, I am learning immense things about where the rivers flow, how this shapes the history of the country, where the natural chokepoints are for trade and military ventures ... all that sort of really cool stuff.

I did slap around some people (they know who they are) about my maps.  I think the most important thing in the game about having a map, whether you invent your own world or not, is the sense for the BIG PICTURE you get.  It's all very well to know the road between the town and the dungeon and the other temple, but if you want your world to flesh out and come alive, the great scheme of human movement cannot really be understood without a top down view of considerable proportions.  Measure the maps above, and ask yourself if we really understand how large this world is, or how varied is its possibility for adventure, or how immeasurably the facets of the world jostle one another for power.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Crumbling Spectre of Age

So it turns out, after seeing the appropriate doctors yesterday, that I do not have cancer.  The growth that has appeared on my back in the last year is benign, and I am told it is nothing to worry about.  Well this is good news.

It does highlight the conversation I had with my offline players two weekends ago that there is a foreseeable upper limit to how long I can practicably play D&D as a dungeon master.  No, I'm not talking about my death.  But with my 47th birthday being in three weeks, I realize that it is harder and harder to keep in my head the level of detail necessary to manage as many as eight or nine players at one time.  It gets harder to pull their attention back to the table, it gets harder to get as animated as I need to get to compel the excitement of the events going on, and in particular it is a drain and a half to manage the many, many little rules that go into a combat.  My memory is starting to go; facts which I knew solidly ten years ago slip my mind now, such as the ranges of spells or what it takes for a 6 HD creature to hit AC zero, or the saving throw for a 3rd level fighter.  These are things I used to know once without needing a book.  Now I find I must look them up.

The upper limit for DMing, I am guessing, would be about 60.  I might do a little after that, with very small, patient parties who don't mind if their doddering old referee nods off once or twice while the party debates on and on about the best way to enter a difficult fortress.  I trust they won't mind that I have to pee seventeen times in a night, or that it takes longer for me to get to the bathroom and back again.  Perhaps I can have some kind of monitor mounted on my walker that will allow me to digitally run the game from the toilet.

I think I'll be able to play into my 80s.  Oh, I might need some whippersnapper to add up my experience points or nudge me into action when its my turn to roll to hit, but I'm sure the grandchildren won't mind their grandfather's little idiosyncracies.  I should still be able to strategize for a few intense minutes before getting distracted by my aching hips.  The young'uns will appreciate the many stories I have to tell about flame wars on the internet or my detailed, lost-when-the-computer-fried trade tables.  How could they not?

Unlike the hapless inventors of the game, I do plan to live into my 80s, even my 90s, despite my recent scare.  My theory is that Cheetos are effectively little age-stealing bombs, lethal in combination with Mountain Dew, causing many to die in their 60s.  We'll see how that goes.

Then again, I could die of a brain embollism at any time, lance in hand.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Ode to the Defrocked

This is just a little addendum to Friday's post about computer programmers.  I am still getting comments from programmers who feel it is very important that I don't have this completely stupid opinion about what programmers are and what their motivations are.  For some reason it is important that this blog, as opposed to the 1.69 million results that turn up on google when you search "programmers suck," doesn't exist in error ... I guess I have a lot more influence than I ever guessed at, since its so important to change my position.

(Incidentally, the first page on that search, Why Programmers Suck, is worth a read)

So, programmers being annoying, not news.  I need to add a little aside that its a telling bit of interest that most of the programmers who wrote comments that never saw the light of day (and a few that did) never argued, "I am not an asshole," but more along the lines, "programmers have to be assholes because everyone else in the world is so stupid."  I'd say about 90% of the negative responses felt that somehow clients not knowing how to explain what they want justified just about any response a programmer wanted to give, well, anyone.

This was not true of every programmer.  At least half of those programmers who answered expressed a desire not to be that way themselves, admitted that a fair portion of programmers do tend to have those characteristics in some degree, and that it was something that should change.  All of these comments were without exception published.

It's very easy to identify with one's profession and get upset and defensive when it's attacked, but the bigger reality is that every profession is rife with a particular kind of prick, pissant, prig or phucker.  I could write blog posts about writers, actors, directors, engineers, journalists and editors that would be no less harsh and condescending ... only none of those things, in this case, applied to the problem in question.  That problem is that for D&D to move forward from the Dark Ages (pencil & paper) is has to embrace new technology and the tools that technology offers.  And the only way this will happen is if programmers who play D&D get out of their fixed, flat, fucked thinking patterns.

Some expressed a wonder that I should attack programmers since so many of them played D&D and were likely to read my blog.  As if to say, I shouldn't attack the backgrounds of anybody unless they are the kind of people who would never read it.  Of course I know there are a lot of programmers in D&D.  Which brings up the bigger point.  Why, if D&D is a programmer-rich pasttime, has so little been done to improve the game with the programmer's tools?

I don't know.  Far too many programmers who play D&D either really aren't very good programmers, or they really suck at D&D.  Because anyone who was good at both, and who possessed a solid, nail-it-to-the-fucking-wall work ethic, would have gotten on this thing done two decades ago.  Or maybe the brainwashing about what D&D ought to be - this stupid concept that computerization is anti-imagination, for instance - has polluted the minds of good programmers into thinking their dabbling wouldn't be appreciated.  Either way, I felt I needed to shake that part of the community up - and the best way is to first make them very uncomfortable.  It is in being forced to defend ourselves that we are forced to think about what IS defensible.  It is way to compel people to examine themselves, and THEN return an argument.  The result is that some will rush to the keyboard, start hammering out an answer and freeze, realizing, "I don't have an answer for that."

Not everyone, of course.  A lot of people just drum out the same old beat without thinking about it.  But I don't need to make everyone think.  Just a few will do nicely.

So if the gentle reader can't understand why I would approach these subjects in this manner of confrontational brutality, there it is.  Some will always argue that a gentle prodding and suggestive post is more effective, but its been proven that the more respect you give the status quo, the stronger the status quo gets.  The solution is to spit on the status quo, take the heat and let others realize that it's not really that hard to hock up a few big ones themselves.  As it goes on, the status quo seems less and less oppressive and meaningful, and change begins to occur.

That is where the energy comes from, O Gentle Reader.  From the knowledge that it takes energy to change the world.  It can't be done from your lounge chair.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Point Stated

The DM starts with an interactive palette similar to that of Sim City, though with the ability to zoom down to person scale.  For the present, since we can eliminate most of the automated portions of the Sim City game, we can spend more effort on zoom and detail.  The DM terraforms the environment, lays down watercourses and roads, plants villages with houses or scatters houses, farms, pastures and forests.  The DM digs a few dungeons, arranges some lairs, specifies monsters if desired and so on.  This is all done without the computer telling the DM what to do, or restricting the DM from fantasia landscapes or things that might seem irrational.  The DM has total godlike powers, and is not restrained in any fashion from building the world up from scratch in any way.  Even if a pre-made template is provided, the DM can dabble with it at any time.  The tool never requires that the DM surrender this godlike ability to reshape, change, modify or otherwise further detail this world.  Ever.

The DM does all this on a screen that only the DM can see.  The players are then placed into this environment, wherever the DM wishes to place them.  The DM can move them, change the environment around them, give them stuff, kill them with lightning, whatever the DM can do in real D&D ... provided we have come to the point where that App has been added to the tool.

The players all view the world from the position from where they see out of their eyes.  They can turn in any direction, look down, look up, lift their arms, walk forward, run, etc.  This is all accomplished with whatever wii/kinect convenience required - not as a means to replace elements of the game such as hitting or hiding in shadows with physical actions, but merely as the best means to move your character around.  I don't advocate the tool being used to replace your characters ability ... unless, of course, somehow your actual ability could be successfully translated so as to downgrade or upgrade it to make it level with your character.  Hum, wonderful thought that.  You swing marvelously, but your mage stills swings like a girl ... but sort of in the same way you just did, just now.

So your players look at the world around them, the world the DM created.  The DM makes the most of the tool and carpets the ground with one of many kinds of grass, adds a few of many kinds of trees, chooses the weather and so on.  The DM picks rain, or the DM uses the tool as a random modifier - which the DM can override at will, just like a die roll - and we'll say rain appears.  The players draw their cloaks closer and watch their own body temperature go up on one of the many, many readouts available for them which the DM cannot see.  That last would be really interesting, though of course it could be optional for control freak DMs.  The players couldn't cheat anyway, the tool would have to be hacked.  The DM would have to ask the players ... though there would be visual evidence the DM could gather which would indicate Nack the Thief wasn't doing so well.

The DM could view the party from any position except through the players' eyes.  We want to discourage the DM from having too much information.  The players could move things around on their body, hide things in their clothes, pass things to one another, etc., which could be seen by the DM if the DM were paying attention.  Otherwise, the DM just wouldn't know.

There would be no more lengthy discussions about who had what sword and where did it come from and how fast can you draw it and can you carry 4,765 g.p. and so on.  All of this would be handled by the tool, the players all finding what they can and can't do spelled out for them.  And all those limitations could be modified by the DM, at will, at any time.  If the DM wanted to change any perameter about the weight limit of a 40 lb. halfling, for instance, no power in the tool would be able to stop the DM from doing so.  This would apply universally to all conditions, always.  Like I said, godlike powers where it comes to affecting the environment of the game.  The only limitation is the player.

Listen, do I really need to keep spelling this out?  Have you played this game?  If you had a tool like this to manage every element, wouldn't you want it?   If you had one that let you make the combat turn based or ongoing?  If you had one that let you adjust the speed of the characters as they travel blindingly across the landscape?  If you had one that let the DM create pockets of goods and - like Sim City - that started bits of trade and price gouging and so on, all modified as the DM eradicates a mine or adds three thousand acres of cropland?

Picture the DM telling the player about the ogre on the player's right - not because the DM just invented said ogre, but because the ogre is approaching and the player hasn't looked in that direction.  "Oh right," says the player.  "I was going to deal with it next round."

Picture the DM creating a temple from hordes of templates, but then saying, "Well, its not exactly like this, but it is this big and just picture it with a big 'C' on the front" ... as the players all look UP at it.

Picture the player's rolling through their list of spells and not having to look up the area of effect or the range, but just trying it with the various tools in the kit and learning from practice what the spells do ... and watching their marvelous effect.

All of this, repeat, ALL of this, happens when the players and the DM manipulate the tool to make it so.  NOT when the tool decides the player can or cannot do something.  If the DM doesn't put the restriction there, there is no restriction.  And if this seems like there are too many restrictions that the DM would need to add, consider again the argument about having some things standardized.  But standardization still wouldn't mean the DM couldn't change the standard once the tool was in hand.

There could always be certain random things.  The DM could specify a monster to kill Nack, or the DM could specify the monster to move towards any person in the party, provided another monster wasn't already there.  The tool would shift the monsters around, and the DM could nudge them.  At any time the DM would stop the monsters from attacking, or change who they attack, and so on.  Always, always, always, just like the real game.

This can be done.  This ought to be done.  And those people who are screwed in their heads about how this would destroy imagination really know nothing about imagination.  Seriously.  Things don't get less interesting when you increase the possibilities.

I See

I have vastly underestimated the depth of mud in which this stick is stuck.


Fun times.

Between people wondering if I've gone off my nut, and those running around on other blogs claiming the solution to creating a better game is to have people list off three great things they do as a DM, today has been one great festival.  Yes, that's what I said.  Write three great DM things and you'll get a gold star.

The defining thing about rhetoric is that it tends to be rhetorical.  That means, to use language to persuasive effect, you've got to get a little crazy.  You've got to stand on a car's roof and wave your arms about and scream, or people won't listen.  I mean, they won't listen anyway, but if you still have to risk sounding like an idiot, even if they can't digest what you're saying.

I am on my own path here, so we needn't worry about the parade going past on the next street over.  We can get serious.

I don't like to embed videos on the blog, since they soak up memory, but this is special.  Some of the brighter among you may have seen this before (it's quite old):

I have to explain that I began working with statistics like the ones Hans Rosling describes going back to the 1970s, so over the years I have intensely studied these.  I mention this because I remember the first time I saw this video.  It was shown to me by my partner - she stumbled across it and knew I'd like it.  She was right.

Funny story.  When we got to four minutes into the video - as he is discussing those changes happening to family size - I paused the video.  "Wouldn't it be great," I said, "If instead of showing a bunch of slides clicking the shift from one year to another, we saw the thing move like a video?"

Then I started the video again, and it happened.

Now, that's not a huge prediction story.  What is important is that for me, studying statistics all this time, what you see in the video is the way statistics always play in my mind.  Just as my first wife Michelle, a trained musician, could look at a page of notes and hear the music, I have always been able to look at a page of statistics and inherently see the pattern.  It is a talent that has served me wonderfully in D&D.

But here is an example of not needing the talent, at all.  The computer graphic has been created so that Hans Rosling, whose talent must exceed virtually everyone we shall ever hope to know, can paint the world of statistics in a fashion that people who have no comprehension of them can grasp them immediately.

In no way does Rosling's demonstration change the numbers; the facts haven't changed.  But the demonstration makes the numbers real for those who can't see them in the way of a statistician.  Can you see how this demonstrative process, appropriately adopted, could revolutionize the game of D&D?

I beg the gentle reader (far more gentle than I) to recognize that numbers are not in themselves meaningful.  Numbers are representative labels which we hang upon things which are meaningful.  But any label, provided it is consistent, will do.  Numbers have that wonderful quality of consistency.  But computer graphics composed of numbers carry that consistency forward, making it possible not only to know the measure of a 17 strength, but to see it as well.

When we speak of the generation of a character in these terms, along with the generation of world, of the monsters in that world and of the combats and interactions taking place between that world and those characters, THEN we are speaking about D&D, my friends.

The only thing is - and this being the point of the previous post - it has to be thoroughly understood that this interaction CANNOT be automated.  Automation destroys variety, because Automation cannot be innovated beyond its point of programming.  However, if you put the power in a DM's hands, to change the perameters of what is a 17 strength, and what defines a 'hit' in combat, and what effects a spell has - just as the DM defines these things in the DM's game - then the computer program is a tool, and not a straightjacket.

The weakness of video games to this point is the insistence of programmers that they themselves must be the DM.  They want to build a machine that will come and build your house for you.  That is their thinking process.  What you want, what every DM wants, is a hammer.  We will build our own house thank you very much.  Give us a cyber universe that lets up stop the motion, change the shape, weight, range and effect of a thrown hammer however we wish - along with every other condition of the D&D universe, as the rules allow.

Every bit technological know-how needed to do this exists.  At the moment, the only people able to do it are brain-trained to think they know what is best for everyone.  But it could be done - and when it is done, and players can really envision what a DM wants them to envision, the long-crippling weaknesses of pen, paper and poor writing will be dealt a death blow.

This is my point.  This is what I've been saying.  Ramp up the visual presentation to the modern age, and we are cooking with gas, people.

Hey.  Am I serious?

The Tiny Door of Priests

I had intended the previous post to be just a few paragraphs to lead into the heart of the post, but I kept on thinking of stuff to say and when I feel that, I don't resist.  Feeling however that I've established to some degree why D&D fails as a game - an argument that could go a long time but belongs on the previous post - let's talk about what could make it better.  And let's all understand, O Gentle Reader, that I will set aside my conception of D&D, and you will set aside your conception of D&D, long enough for us to talk about a bigger picture.

Shall I tell you first what I hate equally about visual artists and computer programmers?  It is quite simple.  They are virtually useless to me.

Let us consider a person of a completely different artistic temperment: a musician.  I am having a wedding, and I think it would be lovely to have music at that wedding.  No problem.  I contract a musician, I negotiate a contract, the musician shows up and plays for the wedding, everyone is happy.  Moreover, there's a long-standing tradition with musicians that enable them to realize that playing for a wedding party is not the time to try out your a-tonal experimental material.  They don't seem to mind terribly playing tame, easily recognizable tunes, bland though they may be, because for some reason they seem to be able to remember for a whole five hour period that they are working for other people and that their personal bullshit isn't appropriate.  It is even possible to go to a musician and ask them to play something you would like to hear - and incredibly, they don't spit at you and call you a meddling asshole for daring to suggest they use their talents for your benefit.  It is as though they recognize that not everyone who appreciates music has the ability to actually be a musician!  How bizarre is that?  I simply am not able to recall going up to a musician, suggesting they play a bit of folk music, and getting the response, "You want to listen to folk music, why don't you learn to play a fucking instrument you obnoxious freak?"

Let me carry this example one step further, though the reader simply won't believe me.  Did you know that sometimes a musician will even play a song you like for free?  I know.  Unimaginable.  It is as though they just like being musicians, and they don't care what they play.

Now, I have to admit that I have on two occasions demanded that people pay me before telling me what to write on this blog and how to write it.  But for those who are paying attention, I have many times written on subjects when I was asked to do so.  I am not above working for free ... if I am asked.  It is the whole being TOLD to write a certain way that gets under my skin.

Okay, let's get back to artists and computer programmers.  What a fucking pissant lot of self-righteous little shitholes we have there.  My god, asking one of them to slap a little paint around or write a few lines of code, you'd think you were asking them to rip out their soul, jab a stick through it and roast it in the rich flames of a gasoline fire.  Holy shit, just imagine someone who is not a computer programmer having an idea about what kind of programs could be designed for a particular thing.  Heresy, that's what it is.  Fucking outrageous heresy.  Rest assured, every idea in the universe that will ever be worth having will ultimately and in the end be had by computer programmers ... and if it isn't, well, it was a shit idea to begin with, wasn't it?

Now, I don't deride the necessary skill and effort it takes to write code.  On the contrary - it is quite beyond me.  I used to do it way back in the age of Basic, but Cobal and Fortran were babblage to me and I really couldn't stir myself to write it.  Thankfully, some idiot proved that I would never have to, by stupidly making it possible for code-illiterate slobs like me to actually use a computer for things like, oh, writing and stuff.  What a dark fucking day in the age of IT that was.

Just for the record, the guards in the famous 1984 Apple commercial were assholes who taught Fortran for a living.

In case there are any programmers out there reading this and taking great umbrage at this diatribe, I have a message for you.  Go fuck yourselves.  There are about a million things in the world that are hard to do, but which people are willing and able to do for others who can't do it.  Being a doctor or a lawyer is hard too, but I can still go to one or the other and get advice without being told I'm an asshole for not learning everything there is to know about medicine or the law.  Doctors and lawyers manage to somehow describe things to me in language I can understand, they don't seem to mind that I need them and in general they're not stuck up suffering little pricks.  I've seen them smile now and then.

This is another one of those situations where I've gone on longer than I intended.  The opinion, however, is off the chain and I feel like hammering it home.  I've worked in the oil industry, for a high-tech utility, for the statistics branch of the government and in both the publishing and film industries ... and everywhere computer techies are the same.  You have to beat them and beat them to make them produce what you want them to produce ... and even then it doesn't work.

Here is the situation.  D&D needs a butt-load of really complex programming to lift it out of the pen-and-paper age and move it into modern times.  Computer programmers, by and large, have proven themselves to be absolute shit at doing this.  They are rather simple minded creatures, who think absolutely everything in the world needs to be automated and absolutely fail to understand that being able to manipulate something on the screen like I would hold a hammer or saw a log would be incredibly useful.  Programmers, however, being 2-dimensional thinkers they are, presume that the only important thing about manipulating anything is the final result.  In 50 years they have zero-conception of the zen of doing things yourself, and given another 50 years they will continue to have the same level of comprehension.

If we are going to talk about computer games and computer graphics and their addition to D&D, what I need is a space where the only changes that occur are those that I have made myself.  I need tools like waldos that enable me to personally shape and fashion the world of my desire, without pre-programmed "time-saving" crap and garbage.  Don't save my time.  Don't decide for me what I need.  And when I tell you to do this, SHUT THE FUCK UP ABOUT HOW YOU THINK IT SHOULD WORKIn this particular case, given that you don't know a fucking thing about what I'd like to do with this environment, just make it work like I want it to work.

In this particular case, I am going to write the music.  You're just going to play it.

Hey, it won't be that hard.  Musicians play music written by other people all the time.

Okay, deep breath.

Fact is, the arrangement I'm describing is never going to happen.  Take any element of the game, from DMing to game design to the maps of the world to the trade system that runs it to the monsters that inhabit it and their behavior and so on and so forth, and put it in the hands of a programmer, and you are going to get back a pile of shit that the programmer decided in their infinite wisdom that YOU were going to need.  It never occurs to a programmer that these biased ideas about what is needed and what is not is smothering the creativity of everyone who isn't a programmer.  They know best and you can't tell them anything.  It's like talking to a priest.

There are spectacular potentials for computer-interactive D&D.  It has to happen on some level where the computer is not a stand-in for the DM, but a literal tool in the DM's hands.  At present, the only real computerized tool that is 100% DM-controlled is Microsoft Office.  This is pathetic.  We cannot play on the next level until the next level is built.  Which it won't be with the priests in charge.

Oh, if I had been a programmer, what might I have accomplished.  But I was too busy learning about a lot of other things besides computers ... completely useless things, obviously, because I should have spent the last twenty years invested in this one skill that other people already know how to do.  If only I could take advantage of that expertise, the way I might with a broker or a cabinet-maker.  Oh well.  At least Jobs invented Office.  Best thing that ever happened to D&D.

Pause a moment, O Programmer Priests, and before you scream at me recognize how really, really shameful that is.

The Neurotic Hordes

My mind this morning is full of a great many discussions, arguments and ideas.  Like the gentle reader, I have been considering the matter of D&D's unpopularity; the argument that some people simply don't like it; that it is not for everyone; that people give it up due to time constraints or a change in their lives ... and so on.

I should like to make it clear that I don't believe D&D should be 'dumbed down' for a mass audience.  At the same time, I don't believe that D&D is all that inaccessible.  I have run many a young - and therefore uneducated - goodnatured idiot who had to have the dice thrust into their hand for every purpose, who nevertheless grew to adore the game for what they personally could get out of it.  I have never had a problem with players who were not game-savvy ... and for that reason, I don't believe that the game needs any particular level of intelligence for it to be enjoyable.

What it does need is a patient and able DM, one who can push the envelope of a player's abilities while pulling them to the edge of their seats.  If a player can ask questions about the rules, and the rules can be explained to the player, there's no need for the player to be an expert in those rules.  There needs be only one expert at the table ... and as long as that expert lacks a persecutory bent, the game will go swimmingly and well, regardless of the so-called intelligence of the players.

I believe this because I have seen it and experienced it, and because I believe this I feel that D&D can be for everyone ... if certain qualifications are installed in the game to make that possible.

Let's pause for a moment and establish what it is that makes a game successful.  I don't argue that a game is successful because everyone plays it.  I do argue that a successful game is one that most everyone HAS played, and with which most everyone who has played has had a positive, enjoyable experience.  Board games are often trashed and hated by RPGers, but there is a great deal to be learned from a board game.  I no longer play Monopoly, since it is a very predictable game that no longer holds the necessary strategic potential to hold my interest.  But yes, like everyone else, I've played Monopoly.  And I have fond memories of having played the game in my youth, of the pieces, of the various places on the board and the tactile sensations of the game.  Like the gentle reader, I can easily imagine the wad of money in my hand, counting out $550 to pay the rent on a hotel at St. James Place, a square on the board familiar immediately upon my writing it here.

Similar memories can be associated with RISK, the Game of Life, Stock Ticker, checkers, chess ... and of course all the various sports we played like scrub, capture the flag, hide and seek and so on.  What is important here is that while you are unlikely in your 30s or 40s start up a game of hide and seek with your office co-workers, you would know how, and most everyone would agree on the rules almost immediately.  It is immaterial whether or not you actually still play.  You could play it if you wanted.  That is how I choose to define a successful game.

D&D has nothing of this quality.  It has not been played by everyone - far from it.  Most people who have actually played the game come away not knowing what they were doing or what the game was about.  They do not retain fond memories of the game, they mostly remember that nothing made much sense.  Only those who have played a LOT of it - the small echo chamber commenting on their own community here - actually view the game with the kind of clarity most people remember about chess.

Funny thing about chess.  There has always been a stigma that chess is played by really smart people (actually, the truth is that its played at its highest level by really observant people, but that's neither here nor there), but the fact is that the two dumbest people in the world could have a really good, resounding game of chess.  This is why is it often popular with children, who despite not being able to play on the level of adults (with a few exceptions), heartily enjoy the game with each other.  Moreover, capable players often enjoy teaching incapable players, knowing from experience that with practice, one DOES get better at the game ... and usually this improvement is evident within 20 to 50 matches.

D&D, on the other hand, is OFTEN persecutorial against new players.  Long time DMs and players often treat noobies with a disdain reserved generally for the military, treating them as prey or as possible fodder, since they're so dumb they'll run forward into combat if they're told to.  It isn't just that some people are assholes this way - they are - it is also that very, very often players who have participated in D&D for years show practically no sign of improvement whatsoever.  The game has so many diverse and inconsistent elements that it is very hard for someone not of a particular character to keep track of them all, and this is made worse to a great degree in that experience at the game at one DMs table all to often does not translate to player improvement elsewhere.  Even if I make real effort to teach a player the game, I'm really only teaching that player to anticipate me and my world ... it won't mean they can go elsewhere and be 'good' at the game.  The reality is they will meet a flurry of "we play the game differently" conditions that will destroy the new player's resolve to play.

Let me put that more simply.  An ordinary, non-power player can enjoy my world and have a good time, proving that D&D is accessible.  But that accessibility in my world is worth ZIP-SHIT-NOTHING in someone else's world.  When I stop playing, most of my players will never play the game again, simply because the game they have been playing isn't D&D as anyone else defines it.

This, I am sorry to say for those who love this game, is a really big problem.

If I am a modern train enthusiast, I can go as hog-wild as I like in creating my universe in my basement.  I can have trains serving the planet Mars if I want ... and if I bring another model train enthusiast, even the most conservative modeler in the world, into my basement to show my creation, he and I will still talk the same language.  He may not build his world like my world, but the elements of both our worlds will be the same, and we will agree on them, and therefore learn from each other.

This is not true with D&D.  I can write things here, and some D&Ders will see what I'm saying and what I'm doing, but a great many of them will shake their heads and cluck their tongues and shrug their shoulders and decide there is nothing whatsoever that I have to say that ought to be of any value to anyone.  This is rife within this hobby.  Others do it to me, and I do it to other people.  That is because there is in fact nothing we can teach one another.  It isn't just because we are self-righteous pricks, it is the reality that Jack Schmoo plays the game his way and I play the game my way.  We've both seen the rules, we've both experimented with what we've liked and we've both come to the conclusion that for us personally, it must be this way and it can't be that way.  That is just the way it is and neither Jack nor I are motivated in any way to change.

It is that lack of motivation that is key.  If I am to conquer and hold all of Asia, I may have strategies that I've worked up over the years in how to manipulate other people and make that happen, but I am always open to someone else's strategy when I see it played against me.  I will go, "Wow, that is fucking great, I need to try that."  That is just like it is here in the blogosphere.

The difference comes when my strategy to seize Asia is beaten again and again by person after person, and I finally admit to other people, "Yeah, I've got to quit trying that lousy strategy.  I don't know why I stupidly pursue it."

This is called learning.  And it doesn't happen with D&D.

People will adopt new strategies to deal with issues, and they will even give up rules that aren't working.  But by and large they WON'T surrender a playing style that has been sucking for them for twenty years.  They are far more likely to sit in the mud and pout, "This is my style and I don't care if it doesn't win me gold or experience, I like it and fuck you."

It is far more likely for persons in this game to redesign their perception of how the game "should" work, or what the game "should" be about, or what everyone else "should" consider important, before just admitting that they suck at winning.  The reason this is possible is because there is no winning in D&D, so players are free to define winning however they want, and particularly in ways that satisfy their personal neuroses and prejudices.  This then creates an absurd, ridiculous variety of definitions for the principle 'gamesmanship' associated with D&D, which in turn makes it insanely difficult to herd the participants into any jointly recognizable direction.

When you are speaking to a D&D player about their perception of the game, you are not speaking about the game, you are speaking about their state of mental health ... and you, gentle reader, are not entitled to comment on the mental health of another person.  You are, therefore, irrelevant to the conversation in which you are a participant.  This is why you find yourself bashing your head against an impossible wall when you try to explain anything about the game to anyone else - remembering that you are ALSO doing it from your own position of your own mental health.  Everything you have to say about the game is necessarily suspect ... just as you rightly suspect everything I am writing about the game myself.

That is why more than half the time I get comments about my game that make no fucking sense whatsoever.  And it is why the gentle reader walks away from my blog posts with the sense that I am half out of my mind.  It is because I am.  I really am.

Again, I am sorry to say for those who love this game ... but this is an ENORMOUS problem.

Listen, I am a good DM.  And I intend to go on playing.  But I am increasingly of the opinion that the insistence RPG players hold that we MUST not be part of a single movement is, at its heart, an absolute terror that our own petty achievements will somehow prove hugely irrelevant in the great scheme of things ... and that this will make us terribly, awfully meaningless with our pathetic little tables and insights about how to slap together thirty orcs and a lair.  Now, I obviously don't suffer from this fear as much as most people, since I am so amazingly great (I'm God, don't you know, I said it a few days ago), but I see why this might make the common people somewhat fearful and dubious of more rigorous game practices.

Well, I for one don't really care about your fears, or your neuroses, or your pathetic little contributions.  I want to play the game at a level higher than the one I'm playing now (I may be God but I've got ambitions!  I've got prospects!) and there are too many of you chunking up the gears.

All right; "half out of my mind" might have been putting it mildly.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Another Worthless Map

I wanted to put together some of the my maps and possibly update this map from last year.  The problem is, as I put them together, to show them in any kind of visible detail at all requires far more space than Blogger, or my Publisher program, can handle.  This is a .png from a file that is 150 megs on Microsoft Office.  The .png is 3 megs.  It isn't bad for detail, though it gets too blurry to read the numbers or the names.

I have found it written on other blogs around that I am wasting my time with these maps, that maps are practically useless for D&D, that its really inconvenient to have to refer to maps while playing the game, about what a waste it is to have areas mapped where the party isn't even playing right now, that DMs shouldn't have to count hexes to determine how long it takes to get to the next city, blah blah blah and so on.

You guys all know how lazy you sound, right?  I mean, you really do know?  Because, shit, you guys sound really, I mean really, fucking ass lazy. 

The Goldfish

I said in the comments section to Hills Cantons' interview with Rob Kuntz that I could write three blog posts on what was said there.  In reading it Monday, I conceived of all three in a matter of minutes, just gauging my reaction and considering how I might reply if I had the mic.  This is then the third post, and after this I shall drop the matter.  I am getting a truckload of pageviews for the material, but very little in the way of comments ... which always says I'm doing something right.

I now direct the reader towards that portion of the interview in which 'hot dogs' are discussed.  As ever, I encourage the reader to examine the quote in context and to review Kuntz's purpose for writing it.  I am only going to quote what is relevant to this post:

"As the main courses being served again and again are hot dogs a publisher vested in that route doesn’t want to change the menu that is working for them until it stops working, which directly relates to a-nickel-up-your-ass-at-a-time planned obsolescence. So a really good designer (offering steak, let’s say) is really up against it. Most everyone is used to seeing, smelling and eating hot dogs and thus cannot sense the steak vendor, and even if they did, they can’t “get” what it is they’re offering."

In answering this, I am now going to do something wrong.  I am going to talk about the elephant in the room, the fact that I have never seen "steak" where it comes to any design for D&D, ever.  I have argued from the beginning that D&D, as a game, is broken.  It, and everything that has ever been written for it, is a lumbering hulk of cobbled-together crap that barely hangs together on its shambling, contorted frame.  But this is not generally understood.  This is not generally believed, particularly by the echo chambers of the D&D blog universe, which simply refuses to accept that far more people have quit this game than play it now.  I don't mean twice as many people, I mean at least 20 or 50 times as many people, or more.  They have picked it up, spent money on it, tried it a few times, found it to be absolute crying shit, and have returned to their lives wondering why the fuck anyone would play this game.

And meanwhile the remaining participants slobber over 'classic' materials like old Greyhawk or the Tomb of Horrors, remembering fondly how wonderful these things were, their eyes glassing over with tears of games gone by that will never again be played with that happy fervor of youth.

I mean it.  Consider the best of the best of the best material you have ever seen in all your many years of playing the game, and now reflect upon all the copies of that material that have been thrown away because really, the vast majority considered it totally worthless.  You know, I can go into any used bookstore and find a whole wall of National Geographics; but does anyone, anywhere, offer more than three ratty issues of Dragon Magazine?

Hey, maybe New York City does.  Maybe Chicago is a mecca for such things.  But I live in a city of more than a million people, which boasts at least five hard-core D&D bloggers, and I would bet I couldn't find a Dragon magazine if I tried.  But I'm not going to try, and you know why?  Because the Dragon was SHIT.

Spells I didn't need.  Gods I didn't need.  Monsters that were repeated rehashes of existing monsters.  Two or three adventures which were the same old shit that I wasn't interested in using.  Really, really bad fiction.  One page of 'meh' humour and three pages of really, really crappy graphic fiction.  Articles about trends or reviews which were palpable filler, exactly the sort of thing Kuntz still writes and exactly the sort of thing that has no value to me whatsoever.  I find it remarkable that month after month the Dragon managed to remain the premiere magazine of a hobby I absolutely loved without ever actually giving me any information that was actually useful for me.  But then, I'm having the same reaction to what I see on blogs.

Readers, you can snipe and gnash your teeth and insist upon the genius of the Dragon and any other concocted writings you masturbate yourselves with, but one day it will dawn on you what is actually wrong with D&D, and what will always be wrong with D&D.

It is boring.  It is hideously, awfully, compendiously, hopelessly dull.  As a stand-alone game, it is absolutely crap.  It will never be popular.  It will never be embraced by the masses.  The cluttered mass of rules is far too feckless to ever appeal to people who want success and 'fun' spelled out for them.  That may not be nice to hear.  Truth never is.

There is one thing, and one thing only that makes this game enjoyable for a very, very, VERY small number of people.  That is a DM who can pull all this shit together and create a performance out of it.

Two days ago I said that "We stuck it to the man, and we stuck it so hard that yes, there is only one real manufacturer."  Kuntz would have you believe that this was a clever marketing ploy, that WOTC fills the market with garbage so the great material can never be found.  The truth is, we're both wrong.  I'm wrong, because we never stuck it to anyone.  We merely didn't care enough to put our tiny bit of collective weight behind a manufactured idea, no matter who did the manufacturing.  Kuntz is wrong because in 40 years no one has managed to invent any product associated with this game that could reasonably be called "steak."

The people who put it to the man, the people who really fucked over TSR, and the WOTC, and destroyed their dreams of empire, are the people who QUIT playing the game.  These are the people who never found a DM who could put all this shit together and make it good.  Their number of friends in their high school didn't happen to include such a person.  The fellow they met in university who could do it also turned out to be a major asshole.  The chances just never lined up in their favor.  And while some of them might wonder how it might have been if they didn't grow up in Shithole, Kansas, with the books their grandmother in New Jersey sent because she'd heard it was popular among young people, the majority will never think about the game again.  Their response will be, "Oh, that ... fuck, do people still play that?" with the clear, lacking in tears memory of a very stupid, crappy afternoon when four of them tried to figure out how the fuck the game was played.

I am sorry to put it so bluntly.  If you take the DM out of the equation, all the rest of it has no value at all.  Sadly, however, for DMs who haven't figured out yet how to do it themselves, all this crap for sale will continue to serve as a crutch; and for a lot of would-be designers, who haven't yet figured out that they are reinventing the wheel again, and again, and again ... and omg again ... it will forever seem that their decision to use this art image for the cover of their really profound Dungeon Imaginarium proves finally that they are the bestest designer EVER!

It all reminds me of the goldfish, roaming around its bowl, with its 3-second memory span:

"Hey, there's a castle here ...
oh look, a castle! ...
wow, I didn't know there was a castle here ...
oops, someone put in a castle ...
Hey, there's a castle here ..."

Ad nauseum.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Have Lance, Will Tilt

I spent much of the day yesterday becoming more acquainted with this former employee of TSR Rob Kuntz, reading his contributions to the blog Lord of Green Dragons, specifically those which seem to describe his philosophy, his extensive achievements and references to his apparent fame.  I had said that I hadn't heard of him before yesterday, but we here in Canada are used to this phenomenon.  We have a public broadcaster named the CBC which spends much of its time presenting "famous" Canadians of whom no Canadian has heard, so I expect to learn of famous D&Ders whose names escape me.  Wandering around, then, learning about Rob Kuntz, I chanced into a number of bits and pieces around the net, ending at the rather candid discussion of the man going on at YDIS, which has lately become an indespensible source for me.

For those who may be familiar with Kuntz's writing style, and find themselves daunted by its degree of depth and scope, I make this recommendation: copy any heavy text of your choosing into Office Word, then diligently remove every adjective.  Clarification will occur immediately, with little or no loss of content.

Regarding the title of this little post, I have been thinking how best to go at the windmill, er, ahem, the position Kuntz presents regarding what he vaguely refers to as "the move to AD&D with its codification of rules" to be found in the Hill Cantons' interview.  I know I talked about the interview yesterday, but hell, if you're going to tilt, you don't beat the dragon with one pass.

According to Kuntz, the demise of the great OD&D phase progressed as follows:

"From this point forward we see the promotion of a flagship line of AD&D products 'For Your Imagination,' a consistent promotion of Basic D&D specifically aimed at the mass market and the abandonment, wholesale, of the original RP-Creative vision ..."

To be fair, I want very firmly to state that this quote occurs within an argument Kuntz presents about the evils of pre-made adventures, and that the gentle reader is urged to read the quote IN CONTEXT to understand how it fits within that argument.  I see his point.  What I do not understand is how the DMG, the Player's Handbook or the Monster Manual in themselves represent the so-called abandonment of creativity.  I understand that for the modules to work, some kind of standardization has to occur, but why precisely is the standardization itself a thing of great evil?

If you read Kuntz's writings, you will find a consistent distaste for conformity popping up over and over again.  It is central to every link he offers in the comments section of this post from Hills Cantons, and it is his parting argument of August 16th on that same post.  He then quotes various people, including Greg Bear:

""If we all think alike, if we all become uniform and bland, we shrivel up and die, and the great process shudders to an end. Uniformity is death, in economics or in biology. Diversity within communication and cooperation is life. Everything your forebears, your ancestors, everything you have ever done, will have been for naught, if we ignore these basic bacterial lessons."

Far be it for me to badmouth the Great Greg Bear, whose writing I find about as bland and uniform as it's possible to be in this modern cheesy age of processed sci fi, but the statement above as applied to a GAME has about as much relevance as my making a quote about the difficulties of isolating a meson and then applying it to my grandmother's cooking.  I have no doubt that it could be done, but my grandmother would be stupified by it.  That is, if she were alive.

Games tend to have rules.  It is one of those remarkable things about games that enable them to be played by wildly diverse cultures so that a winner and a loser can be agreed upon without the necessity of pulling out machetes or pistols.  Kuntz celebrates the spontaneous creation of ad hoc decisions as the highest form of play ... but it is really the lowest form.

I am always dubious of people who point at the children's playground as the epitome of creativity while typing out such drivel on their computer, sitting in a 30-floor apartment building, drinking cappuccino, listening to Deep Purple over the internet, cellphone and lava-lamp next to the keyboard, with the tailored landscape of the city stretching outside the window as far as the eye can see.  This childlike-innocence-as-proof-of-perfection has always struck me oddly, since none of the things that are truly remarkable on this earth were created by children.  All were created by people who obviously once were children, but the actual expertise necessary for the creation was gained AFTER said creationists reached young adulthood.  Children, as I remember from being one, were petty, cruel, fairly stupid, warped in many of their interests, fearful, foolish and quite often easily duped by figures of authority or the lies of the media.  True, there were flashing moments of creativity, and these are the moments all adults choose to remember, with an denial-fueled intensity that by 35 usually insists that no other emotion besides happy creativity possessed them before the age of 10.  I point all this out because Kuntz returns again and again throughout his writings, and his quotings of other persons, to the idea that if the children do it this way, it must be the right way.

It seems strange to me that Kuntz so consistently speaks of the need to stamp out the dreaded conformity from the D&D universe when so obviously the attempts to conform D&D have been a disastrous failure.  I am certainly no conformist to the businessman's perception of how the game should be played.  I know of no conformists in this regard.  The businessman clearly slammed straight against the wall of creativity when he produced the books, called them a GUIDELINE and not a BIBLE, and discovered that we all treated them as a guideline and went off in our personal directions with gusto.  He must have been one very surprised entrepreneur.  And yet, convinced of the importance of this need for conformity, he and his cronies went ahead and tried again to conform D&D by turning out one edition after another.  I think we can clearly call this the absolute worst strategy for conforming anything since the American Government invented the Melting Pot.

If I might return to Greg Bear's quote above, it is staggering that the bacterial lesson that has NOT been learned from all of this is that all attempts at forced conformity fail.  Bacteria do not avoid conformity through determination and pluck.  Non-conformity is a natural condition of their being.  It is central to the whole condition of adapting oneself to one's environment.  If the environment be different, then we ourselves MUST be, regardless of any and all attempts to the contrary.  My world is no one else's world because no one else has lived my life, enjoyed my experiences or been driven towards my creativity.  The pouring of RPG material on the market, both good and bad, by TSR, the business community or James fucking Raggi can never have any influence on my being creative in my own way, ever.  It simply is not part of the equation.

This is not to say that I am against conformity.  I write this blog in the expectation that one day all the readers in all the world will wise up and suddenly realize there is only one way to play the game of D&D, and that is the way that God intended.  This with the understanding that I am God.  I know that all you fools don't realize that this is inevitable, but I don't let that worry me, since in the end I know best.  In the meantime, I am satisfied to sit and produce and wait for the populace to make themselves ready.

Let me finish with a half-made point, half-made because I think the quote should be enough for anyone who at this point is on the ball.  Regarding the rules to games ultimately, after much time, becoming standardized so that they can be played and enjoyed by many, many people.  Standardization is not such a bad thing:

"A number of early folk games in England had characteristics that can be seen in modern baseball (as well as in cricket and rounders). Many of these early games involved a ball that was thrown at a target while an opposing player defended the target by attempting to hit the ball away. If the batter successfully hit the ball, he could attempt to score points by running between bases while fielders would attempt to catch or retrieve the ball and put the runner out in some way.

"Since they were folk games, the early games had no official, documented rules, and they tended to change over time. To the extent that there were rules, they were generally simple and were not written down. There were many local variations, and varied names.

"Many of the early games were not well documented, first, because they were generally peasant games (and perhaps children's games, as well); and second, because they were often discouraged, and sometimes even prohibited, either by the church or by the state, or both.

"Aside from obvious differences in terminology, the games differed in the equipment used (ball, bat, club, target, etc., which were usually just whatever was available), the way in which the ball is thrown, the method of scoring, the method of making outs, the layout of the field and the number of players involved."

- From the History of Baseball, Wikipedia