Friday, March 30, 2012

A Day Like Before

If it should happen now and then that you go to bed thinking upon the day that has just passed, and how quickly it has just passed, you may resent it.  You may wonder about your life.  You may wonder how it is that you did not do things you thought you might.  You're thirty today when only yesterday you were twenty.  And tomorrow you'll be forty.  Day after day spent like the one that is ending now, ending so quickly that you barely had time to breathe, much less live or do anything memorable.  Today, like all those other days, will simply disappear into the past.  It is unimportant and thus, sad in the way it makes you older.

If you have had this feeling, it has no doubt arisen from the busy manner in which you live your life.  You wake; you rush through breakfast and preparations; you make your way out the door to earn your living, you spend your living at stores, shuffling through aisles and past clerk; you wheel your car from driveway to streets to parking lots to roads to driveway; you eat, you gather in the events of other people's day, you relate the events of your day, and then it is night and you resist until the last moment the demand of your body and the next day's responsibilities to go to bed.  There's no time for reflection.  There is no time for making today any more relevant that yesterday was.

More often than not, if a day is important, you've had little to do with it.  Soemone else is getting married, or divorced, or having a child - or you are having a child, but the actual day is beyond your control - just as the origin and success of the pregnancy was largely beyond your control.  A family member or a friend dies; a catastrophe causes a fire or an accident holds up your journey; or something of your health lays you low; or the weather changes for the worse.

You have so little power over the little events of your life.  Is it any wonder that when your day has been memorable, you have not made it so?

If the chance exists that you can reflect on matters like this, consider that the medieval dweller had even less control, or even comprehension, of events that caused a day to be memorable.  Strip away all the news media bringing news, or the entertainment industry bringing entertainment; strip away all the books full of explanations for things; strip away all the comprehension you have about the weather, or how biology works, or every bit of education you've ever received.  Strip away your experience with, or even the power to visualize, a world greater than seven miles from where you were born; strip from your imagination every animal you've never seen in fact; strip out buildings you've never seen, or people you've never seen, or every kind of clothing in the world beyond that worn by your parents.  Rid yourself of the knowledge of foods you've never tasted, or materials you've never touched, or stories that were never written and never read to you.  Sink yourself into the world of the medieval mind, where there is only one music, one culture, one idea of the world - and where everything you know that does not come from your own limited experience is the spoken word of someone who is prepared to lie to you about what is true.

Jacob Bronowski, in his series of the Ascent of Man, puts it thus in the second episode of that series:

"There is no room for innovation, because there is not time between evening and morning to develop a new device or new thought.  Not even a new tune.  The only habits that survive are the old habits.  The only ambition of the son is to be like the father.  It's a life without features.  Every night is the end of a day like the last, and every morning will be the beginning of a journey like the day before."

Your day ends and you feel it has amounted to very little, if anything at all?  Try for a moment to imagine every day by necessity ending that way - and imagine lacking even the comprehension to wonder why that should be so.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Redress Your Wrongs

From the 10,000 word post:

"If I, as the player, throw a hammer at a closed box, intending to break it, and there is a magical device inherent in the box that causes it to explode upon impact, the player is rightly killed, though the trunk was revealed and the bomb was not - since detecting the bomb required more than the player's eyes. If, however, the player detected magic about the box, and was told there was no magic, and then caused the explosion, the DM is at fault for not giving COMPLETE information."

Yes, it can be difficult to know when you have, as a DM, given complete information.  Very often your opinion will differ from that of your players.  Very often, if you withhold information which your players considered complete, a confrontation will arise.

A DM must remember, first and foremost, that he or she is not perfect.  He or she will forget to give information - something is overlooked, or forgotten, or simply not conceived.  The party may be following the wheel tracks of a cart, and you overlooked describing the tracks of whatever is pulling the cart; or you may forget to mention that the cart is much bigger than an ordinary human cart - which might be important in determining its owner; or you may simply have failed to conceive that the cart, full of hay, will have left a trail of hay in its wake.  Such things happen.  There are invariably more details about a simple thing than you are bound to remember or describe.  You can easily forget to mention that the box is magical.

In your lack of perfection, explain to your party that they have the right to appeal their situation, if it should happen that you made a mistake somewhere.  If they think they're following orcs, and it turns out they're actually following trolls, fix it.  Where it says above in the quote that the DM is at fault, this does not mean the fault cannot simply be repaired.  Replace the trolls with orcs and keep the campaign going.  Back the party up so they can make up their mind about whether they want to fight trolls.  If you didn't give them the information they need, ADMIT IT.  Dump your pride, address the situation and move on.  The situation is not past resolution; you have absolute power at your fingertips to change any aspect of what's going on - so apply that absolute power and redress your wrongs.

On the other hand, if you DID describe something that was critical, and you DID give the information the party needed, and now the party is complaining because they weren't ready, don't give ground.  Sometimes, a party will fuck up.  Sometimes, a party won't pay attention to the right details and blunder into a situation for which they weren't prepared.  This is not your fault.  Unless your party can name for you the exact piece of information you should have given but did not, your party doesn't have a case, and you are free as judge & DM to rule against them.

Sometimes, a player won't accept such a rule.  Sometimes, a player will see your universe-slash-world in terms of how they personally would run such a universe or world.  This can be tricky.  It usually results from that player having played in a different campaign where certain clues or descriptions were presented differently.  Most often a DM will create a series of clues (short-hand) regarding monster strengths or combat expectations which become standard to that campaign.  Players will often make the mistake of believing that such short-hands should be dogmatically applied to every campaign, including yours - and when they are not, there's the possibility of the player becoming irate and disruptive.

Do not let this dissuade you from your vision of how a campaign ought to be run, or what information players ought to be given.  It is your campaign.  I've explained that your players have a right to what their senses can tell them - you are not duty bound to label or mark your strongest monsters according to anyone's precepts except your own.  If the ogres in your world have 20 hit dice, because that's the way YOU want it, your players will have to adapt.  Of course, if your ogres have 20 hit dice, you might want to make them bigger - but you don't HAVE to.  Many human high levels have 20 hit dice, and they're the same size, right?

In summation, then.  Admit your errors.  Fix them.  Apologize to your party.  Keep the game moving.  And if you have a player that disputes your presentation upon preconceptions that originate from other games than your own, try to explain that to them.  Try to make them understand that this is your world, and things can be different.  Don't let the rest of the night bog down in a discussion of how D&D should be run, or how a DM should fit a particular mold of DMing.  Settle the player down, or eject the player.  Game night is not the best time for a philosophical debate.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Prospects of Slow

How many of us question when we may be too old for this game?  I know what the young think; they think what I thought once upon a time - that the answer is never.  I'll never be too old.

Still, I'm not talking about loving the game, or enjoying the game; I speak of when we will simply be physically too aged to run a campaign.  When does that come?  Sixty-five?  Seventy-five?

I can tell you right now I am starting to feel it.  I am 47 and there are definite signs.  I am not as equal to the task of quibbling over small, minor rules for twenty minutes at a time.  I don't care as much - I want the matter settled because I'm quite bored with what I've come to recognize is an insignificant detail.  I'm equally bored with looking up a particular number in a particular book - which I am finding I have to do because I've actually begun to forget pages I once knew cold.  I don't know if it's disuse, or disinterest - or the first signs of senility.  I do know that piling through books in the middle of a session is more exhausting than it used to be.

I can't seem to think as fast on my feet as I once did, even five years ago.  There has been a noticeable change.  My brain just locks up, where it never used to.  I do better now having lots of time to think ahead; I have to less and less rely on 'winging it.'  Oh, sure, I still have really great ideas at the last second and all - but there have been too many real life sessions lately where I'm simply stumped.  I'm casting around the books trying to find a good monster to fill the time when I once would take a pee break and come back with something brilliant.

Running until after midnight, too, is getting harder.  I used to let combats go on until one, two in the morning if that's what it took to finish; that just isn't possible.  I eat some kind of protein dinner late in the afternoon (not too late, or I'm sleepy), then jack myself up with coffee and sugar to get through the night.  By the time everyone goes home I am in the middle of a legitimate blood sugar crash - I actually sometimes experience chills and the shakes from it.  Mostly its because I haven't had actual, healthy food in seven hours - and before the gentle reader tells me to eat actual, healthy food during the session, let me explain that at 47 actual, healthy food makes me yearn for my sweet, sweet bed.

Sometimes, come ten o'clock, I have to call a session closed.  This is three times more likely to occur if we happen to end a combat at ten o'clock.  I am becoming shameless in my old age.

Not that any of this keeps me from doing this every Saturday ... except the prospect of NOT doing this on some Saturdays can be a beautiful, beautiful thing.  Now and then a running has to be cancelled for some reason.  I usually suspend my campaign two months in the summer time.  I'm looking forward to that two months.

How will I feel ten years from now.  I will say with certainty, as tired as I am now, I will be much more tired at 57.  I am much more tired now than I was at 37.  There is no hope of improvement here; that's a fact of getting old.  The older you get, the clearer you are on the principles of age = no improvement.  You learn to appreciate things you can still do.  You adapt yourself to the reality of never playing tackle football again.

There are compensations.  I'm smarter and more experienced and I think happier.  I am also slower.  I will continue to get slower.  Watch me - given enough time, you'll see I don't move at all.

Monday, March 26, 2012

For the Players

Pretty much figures.  Use the word 'responsibility' in a blog post title and watch a slow day pass on the blogometer.

I have really noticed this past three months a diminished lack of time and motivation to "work" on D&D.  The job is a bigger stress this year, with new responsibilities and new angst.  I'm getting older and I'm tired more of the time.  And I've been running three campaigns, and three campaigns need one fuck load of diagrams, design, plans, preparation, thought and effort.

But you know what?  I'm having a blast.  I may be spending less time working at macro-D&D, but the micro is going fuckin' great.  I know that some people might be concentrating on the player troubles and so on I've had this last three months, but meh ... player troubles are part of this game.  Just as actors who pout, or actors who quit, or actors who turn up for rehearsals drunk or having not done the work.

You know, I fired a sound technician once on the eve of a performance I was directing.  He was a part-time musician, and did a lot of gigs and a few drugs (what musician doesn't), and I had known him for years.  But he didn't show up for any of the tech meetings three weeks prior to dress rehearsal and did not return my calls.  For all I knew, he was molding over in a ditch somewhere - so a week before we started, I replaced him.  The woman proved a brilliant coup; she was much better at her job, had great ideas and managed to bring the whole show into line in just nine days.

She had set us up, and I was about twenty-five feet above the floor fixing lights, when the old sound man came waltzing in, ready to set up his equipment.  This is about 27 hours before performance, you understand.

If you think that a few nasty words between people on the internet disturbs me, you've never participated in a shouting match after firing someone, while hanging from the ceiling rafters.  I was not coming down just to kick the asshole out on his ear; and the asshole decided he was going to stage a calculated tantrum because the performance hadn't been organized around his schedule.  Naturally, there's about twenty people standing around listening.  They don't want to deal with it.  They're all goddamn busy, they're excited about the performance, they're anxious to do the dress rehearsal.  As ever, though, there's always one self-centered little shit who hasn't done a damn thing to justify whatever behavior or "stand" they've decided to make at this moment that is so fucking convenient for them.

Well, people like that don't worry me.  I let it go on about five minutes, then shouted down to the venue owner to call the cops.  Turned out, his picking up the phone ended the argument immediately.

Reality is, in D&D or anywhere else, you do what you have to do to make the experience as profitable for everyone involved.  I love that the people playing in my games seem to be enjoying a hell of a lot of profit, and I take pride that I'm instrumental in making that profit happen.  Oh yes, I know the poor suffering insufferable internet pricks who can't understand why I'm so intolerant, and they must have their moment to scream about my intolerance.  The only reason I have comment moderation is because the pricks can't stop themselves.  And I'm willing to be the prick if that's what it takes to keep the peace.  Obviously, its not understood that someone HAS to be ... despite about a million pieces of evidence in the world.

If you want to be a good DM, you have got to manage yourself and you've got to manage people.  You can't be afraid of them.  You can't let them push you around.  You can't apologize when they bitch and moan about nothing.  Develop some principles and stand up to them.

Then give everything you've got to people so fabulous they deserve everything you've got.

This is written in thanks to all the players.  I don't thank you enough.  You guys are great to DM for.

Responsibility & Desire

I observed a positive feel-good moment among the players in my offline campaign on the weekend, doubly precious since my party seemed to completely miss that it had happened.  Then again, it was very much in their own interest - yet, it was heartening to see them recognize it.

A few house rules I have to explain.  First, that I don't have any rules about having to "train" to increase levels.  When you've accumulated enough experience, you've had a revelation or an epiphany, you've figured out how to cast that spell at last that your master used to harp upon day and night to no avail (until now) or you've gotten a better handle on your weapons.

Second, when you go up a level, you gain the hit points of that level to your previous hit points, even if you are injured.  Thus, if you have 26 out of 34 hit points, and your level gives you 8 more, then you now have 34 out of 42 hit points.  And the campaign moves on.

Finally, if you are a spellcaster, or you have some natural ability limited by the day, such as a bard in my world does, you get that all back, instantaneously.  It may not be real; it may not reflect some people's concept of play - but it is easy, it is friendly, it makes my players happy.  Therefore it makes me happy.

Saturday I killed two characters:  a 3rd level ranger and a 6th level paladin.  Both were already hurting when an invisible ogre mage appeared and hit a convenient line of characters, in combat, with an 8 hit dice cone of cold for 30 damage.  The ranger and paladin failed save, took the whole damage, and died.

It was proving a tough night.

To show my sincerity, at the beginning of the combat, knowing it was going to be a bitch, I wrote on a piece of paper, sealed it in an envelope and stashed it in sight of the party, not explaining.  I did not want to be accused of any last minute DM pity.  I knew the party was going to have a rough time; I knew that ogre mage was going to be waiting invisible until the worst possible moment.  I knew I planned a nice stack of treasure, and that treasure was going to include a Rod of Resurrection with 8 charges.  The party has been in this dungeon for 10 runnings now, leaving dead behind as they've gone, and I knew the number of dead was getting depressing.

The rod of resurrection was in the sealed envelope.  The party opened it and was pleased with the results.

When it came time to distribute the treasure, however, the 6th level illusionist made an impassioned plea for treasure and experience.  The illusionist has been hopelessly short of experience since the invention of my experience system - and in case you haven't run an illusionist in it, let me explain.

Illusionist's don't have a lot of spells that cause hit points of damage, so they don't generally get much experience from combat spells.  Their spells also highly depend upon creatures "with eyes," as the illusionist often complains about - and dungeons, sorry to say, tend to be fairly short on creatures with eyes.  Those with eyes tend to be blind or much more dependent on hearing or smell in finding their prey.  So the illusionist, who has been casting spells through the adventure, has been somewhat less effective than he would have been in a city or outdoor campaign.

Because the battles have been one after another after another, with little time to rest, regain spells and so on, the illusionist has also suffered from not getting recharged.  And because the needed experience for 7th level is 60,000, the illusionist has just had a bitch getting there with the 200 to 300 experience a night.  He's been short on hit points since forever, can no longer rush in and take a hit and gain any ... so basically he's been throwing darts and watching others get the glory.

At the end of Saturday's running, the illusionist was 4,500 x.p. from levelling.  The treasure was going to give around 2,700 per party ... but the party, in the spirit of generousity, offered the two largest magic items to the illusionist - the rod of resurrection (which I have always allowed any class to use, not just clerics), and the scroll of protection against undead (I rule any spellcaster can use a protection scroll).

The logic was, let the illusionist go up, the illusionist will gain all his spells back.  But it was still a give of tremendous generousity - the illusionist gained 5,000 experience, compensating for the great disparity between he and the party's gain ... and no one in the party pissed and moaned about it.

Here's a fact about D&D that many people don't seem to quite get.  Between "rules" that stop players from fighting players, which I have only in the sense that I'd rather you'd leave my table if you want to play that way, the game truly works best when players don't act like squabbling children, but as a unit towards creating the strongest possible party for the strongest possible defensive and offensive capacity.  We hear so very, very much about the desires of individual players to be individual assholes ... there isn't enough said about parties that play together as friends IN THE GAME.

It is the reason why some DM's can't keep a group of players, and why some people can.  The DM is one of those friends, too.  Maybe I will kill characters with a cone of cold.  I might have killed the whole party - it was close for them, getting rid of that ogre mage.  But I also remember they were my friends, and I sealed the envelope in their favor.

It isn't enough to say, I'm a DM so fuck you, and if you're my friend you'll understand.  As a DM, I have a responsibility and a desire to take care of my players.  And as players, they have a responsibility and a desire to take care of each other.

Don't EVER play with people who don't think this way.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Background vs. Personality

I wrote a comment for this back post that I think bears enlarging.

I've heard it implied here and elsewhere - particularly in reference to my own character background generator - that a character's background is part-and-parcel with a character's role in the game.  This is nonsense.  While I know Hollywood has done a wonderful job making background cliche A fit into motivation cliche B these past 95 years, not all people hunt for their father's killer, not all people raised as a blacksmith loves blacksmithing, and not everyone with a prostitute mother is ashamed of it.

The importance of a character's background, and exactly HOW it applies the character, is something that ought to be left up to player - not the DM, not any cliche, and certainly not to some preprogrammed campaign strategy.  As I said, if a character whose father was a miner wants to eschew any hint of mining in his present personality, D&D ought to be free and fair enough to enable that.  I designed the background generator as something that would restrict or contribute to a player's knowledge; or as something that would give the character certain shortcomings, that the character might have to live with (or overcome); or which would offer talents and an idea of social position.

But background CAN be mostly ignored.  Or twisted negatively or positively in the character's imagination.

If it happens that the character lopped off a foot due to an error in firelog judgement when the character was 12, that can either be something the player screams about, uses, fixes or simply shrugs over.  The player does not need to automatically hate axes; the character can get the foot restored after accumulating the wealth and finding the opportunity.  I don't personally care.  All I am trying to provide in a background is a suggestion that the character actually LIVED prior to racking up six numbers on a piece of paper.

It's not railroading, its not introducing rules for roleplaying, and its not an attempt to "roll" a pregenerated personality.  Personality is a complex, profound thing in the game, a mix of what the player likes and what the player is handed on the character-sized plate.  You can't "roll" personality into existence any more than you can use pencil and paper to trace a cat.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Great Honk!

While it is clear I shall have to remain near my toilet for such things, I shall remember in the future that when I am at a loss for something to say, I can go read something Mike Mearls wrote.

How baffling it is that this so-called writer of things D&D seems to have had his head firmly up his butt, particularly when he writes with apparent new-found wonder of the original game of D&D.  The Research & Development Group Manager for D&D didn't know this until last week?  That the core rules are easy to use, apparently, was a "milestone" for him and his little table of minions.  What wonderful research skills this man has - to have written all he has to date and not to have known this until playing last week.

Oh, I know, some of you will say that this is just a clever way of writing, something to appeal to the noob and to help sell the concept - but wow.  Just wow.

I have this ridiculous opinion that someone who is "developing" D&D should actually sound like he knows what he's talking about, and not like some rube falling off a turnip truck.  After three-years in a Colombian prison, apparently.

Is it really okay that some monsters can be complex?  I don't know how, exactly, I'm going to run a "big brawl" without getting a little complex.  Apparently our R&D expert hasn't run a big brawl in his whole fucking life, or he'd know that managing a combat with eight players at the table against 70 bugbears ain't no motherfucking picnic.

I love this little 45 minute schedule he describes.  An "entire" party (that sounds like SO many but apparently was just three people), a ruined keep, SIX rooms explored and TWO battles.  Whaddya say - let's just break that down some.  Mearls says the one character took 5 to 10 minutes, so we'll say 7.5 on the average - so that accounts for half our 45 minutes.  That gives us an average of 3 minutes and 45 seconds to explore each room - assuming we don't waste even as much as 1 second describing the ruined keep we've only just appeared beside.  Oh, wait, that gives us no time to have the combats!  Oh well, it only takes 1 second to roll a die and watch it bounce on the table, and another die to roll damage, so that's only 2 seconds a combat, right?  Well, 4 seconds if the other side even got a chance to swing.  That sounds about right.  ALL my combats take 4 seconds, maybe 8 seconds tops, if someone misses, to play out.  I guess I can't fault Mearls timekeeping there.

Yep, says right here:  "the fights were brief but sharp"  They sure fucking were.  Never mind getting up and using the can, if you took a drink from your pop and scarfed a handful of cheetoes, you'd have missed the brief and sharp combats.  No wonder Mearl's monsters get "sprinkled" like the everlovin' rain.

For my part, I'm so glad Mearls doesn't want us all to give up the way we play.  You know, the way DMs have to answer a couple hundred questions during a session (like what the ruined keep looks like, for one thing), squeeze in 5 or 8 seconds of laughter while rocket launching from room to room, or giving the players time to actually talk out their next fucking move without holding a stop watch at them and screaming "18 SECONDS TICK TOCK!!!"

Which isn't to say that Mearls flash-forward rooms and combat mechanics aren't wonderfully "flexible."  They obviously are.  In Mearls' twisted sense of reality, TIME itself is flexible enough that any length of it can be described as "45 minutes."

Including the additional 8 seconds it takes for any and every party in the gameplaying universe to divide up treasure.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Role-playing Inevitable

UPDATE:  This post has been updated and included in the recently released book, How to Play a Character & Other Essaysavailable for purchase from the Lulu marketplace.

I'd like to make a point about roleplaying, if I could, in answer to arguments that "rollplaying" destroys the development of characterization.

It's nonsense, of course.  Human beings are hardwired to construct or fabricate personalities into everything from the stuffed animals they bonded with as infants to the cars and houses they live with and in as adults.  Anything familiar tends, in our thoughts, to develop a personality - even non-sentient objects that seem to turn on us, like hammers or fireplaces.  If the small peg will not quite fit into the small hole, but seems almost to fit, we will describe the peg as a "goddamn bloody stubborn sucker" and insist that it somehow help us in getting it into the hole.  This is natural.  We can't help ourselves.

So to argue that "rollplaying" will somehow strip the long-time character in a game of any personality, or suck dry the characterization of said imaginary fighter or thief, is perfectly ridiculous.  No matter who the player is - no matter how little interest that player appears to have for his or her character, or for roleplaying in general - there will yet remain an intensifying involvement with the character once that character has survived battle after battle.  This is true even if the only activity a particular campaign carries forth is battle.

For anyone who has played campaign wargames, where even a particular "lucky" tank or horse cavalry unit develops spontaneous personality traits for both the owner and the opponent, this should be obvious.  Have you ever rolled dice to destroy a single counter in RISK that just won't die, only to have several people at the table claim that counter to be made of elite green berets, imposing into that cheap plastic form the personalities of staunch, indefeatable SOLDIERS?  Of course you have.  Why?  Because it is astoundingly easy to invest most everything with human characteristics.  We are sentimental that way, and the longer we are acquainted with something, the more sentimental we are.

That is why the players of Chainmail began roleplaying their characters even when NO RULES for roleplaying had even been conceived.  The rules followed the original human inclination - and as such, those same rules do not drive the inclination.  Roleplaying drives rules, not the other way around - and if there were no rules for roleplaying at all, roleplaying would still exist.

This is something that all the creators of games designed to create roleplaying seem to completely ignore.  People roleplay at the level of comfort which suits them personally.  Some people name their cars, and some do not - and yet their cars retain "personality."  Some children only give a name to their stuffed animals and nothing more.  Some children design whole histories and geneologies to describe where Rufus Xavier Sarsaparilla came from and ultimately how he's related to Rafaella Gabriela Sarsparilla - they're not just brother and sister, they're half-brother and sister, with their bunny mother having married both the tiger and the teddy bear.  No one has to teach little children to think this way ... and they will do so to the degree with which they love it, a great deal or very little.

No matter how you huff and puff, no matter what games you invent or tables you ascribe towards the manufacture of roleplay, at best you'll get those who were inclined to sketch out the Sarsparilla family tree without your help; and if those people happen play a game where there are no roleplaying rules provided, they'll do it just the same, because they don't need your damn rules.

You're building cardboard houses for people with real homes, then claiming you've built the homes, too.  You've done a good job deluding yourselves - but in fact, the RPG world doesn't need you.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Angels on the Head of a Pin

Let's talk some statistics.

If we can review my experience system for a moment, we find that for every point of damage an individual takes, he or she gains 20 experience.  For every point of damage the individual causes, 10 experience.  And all the damage that is taken by any one side in a fight is multiplied by another 20 experience, and divided equally among all the participants in the battle on that side - even if those participants never caused, or took a point of damage.  If they tried to fight, or they supported those who fought with spells or by keeping them alive in some manner, they are entitled to experience from the event.  It is important to note, in addition, that individuals do not have to die or even win the battle in order to gain experience.  They can lose, or fail to kill the foe, and still walk away more experienced than when they began.

Those are my rules.  Other people play by other rules, but this is my blog and my world, so here we play by mine.

What this means is that for every point of damage caused, a total of 50 experience is rewarded: 10 to the attackers, 40 to the defenders.  This would be lopsided, but it should be noted that experience has no influence upon combat while the combat is ongoing.  Experience is only rewarded AFTER the combat is over.

Thus, if someone takes enough damage to kill them, dying in the combat, that someone never actually gets that experience; the 20 x.p. that they would get for losing their own 8 or 80 hit points is gone.  However, the bonus 20 x.p., that which is divided among the survivors, is still gained by those who watch or otherwise experience that individual's death.

So after a battle, if people die, some experience is lost; but those who live still get at least 20 experience per hit point suffered - and likely more besides, as they are unlikely to be unscathed or unsuccessful in causing damage of their own.

In a war, let us make a gross estimate of 40% of the losing side being killed, and perhaps 20% of the winning side.  I have no averages to back this up - but given the number of battles I've researched, and the number of battles I've run in D&D, this seems reasonable.  Most wars do not end with one side being slaughtered - that side routs or surrenders first.  It's rare that everyone on a side is killed, and in any case, its more common that two sides in a battle will both pull back before more than 10% of either side dies.  Most battles are the result of two forces feeling each other out before the last ditch all-or-nothing battle is fought.

I state openly the numbers are unreliable.  I have no reliable numbers, and I want to write this post, so here we are.  No doubt, the quibbling quandrists will insist on having their picky moment over the exactitude of numbers that just don't exist, but I'm not interested.  I'd like to calculate the effects of the proposal.  Feel free to pick your own numbers and make your own calculations.

Okay, so 30% of the participants are killed.  Some of the experience for killing them is lost, as the killers are themselves killed.  That gives an average of perhaps 41 x.p. per hit point damage gained in any given battle - or war, as the case may be.

Let us consider the 30 Years War (1618-1648), which ends just 2 years before my campaign begins.  Estimates for the number of killed in that war are anywhere from 3 million to 11 million; for my campaign, I prefer the high number to work with (the quibblers are having a field day).

If we assume that an average, untrained human has 4.5 hit points (1 hit die, 1d8 per hit die), this is a total of 51,750,000 hit points killed, minimum.  Leveled persons and even men-at-arms have more hit points on average.  All told, we can argue the real average in a D&D army would be quite a lot higher than 4.5 ... but let's be conservative and make the number just 50% higher.  That gives us a nice round 75 million hit points caused to dead persons.  A lot of these wouldn't be combatants - just butchered people in town, given the nature of the war - so we don't want to push those numbers too high.

I have numbers that say the size of the participating armies in the war - at any given time around 1630 - were about 545,000.  It's unlikely that many participants were part of the army for the whole 30 years, and NONE of the armed participants from Germany are expressed in those figures.  In addition, there were armies of Poland, Hungary, Italy and other smaller entities that took part, as well as one hell of a lot of freelance mercenaries who did not consider themselves part of any army - plundering at will as they went.

Total participants must have been at least 32,000,000 over the period of 30 years ... and since the experience system enables you to gain experience from suffering half your hit points again and again and again, by FAR the greater balance of hit points suffered by any participants in the war would be suffered by those WHO DID NOT DIE.

How many hit points, total, has your 8th level fighter taken in all the campaigns he or she participated in?  Ten times your hit points?  Fifty times?

In my world, it takes 1000 x.p. for a man-at-arms to become a 1st level fighter; if that man-at-arms gets 4/5ths of his average experience from being damaged, he or she will probably suffer 33 hit points damage to do so (1000 over 0.8 x 41 x.p. average).  Non-leveled persons don't get experience for treasure in my world.

Call it a reach; call it silly; call it mental gymnastics in the extreme - you wouldn't be wrong.  I titled this post knowing what I was doing.  I think it is reasonable, however, to use this number to estimate the total damage suffered by the 32,000,000 participants in the war.  No, that number isn't real.  NONE of the numbers here are real.  But I'm not building a nuclear power plant, so no one's going to die.

All I'm suggesting is a number of hit points that were suffered on account of that war, the Thirty Years War.  The number I'm suggesting is 1,056,000,000 total hit points lost by non-dying persons over a period of 30 years.  Add the number of hit points of those killed, and round the number down, I have a reasonable figure of 1.1 billion hit points lost.  That's 45 billion x.p. - from battle alone.  Lord knows how much experience we're talking gained from plunder.  Twice as much?  Three times as much?  More?

Don't let the inaccuracy of the figures disturb you.  The real numbers - if we could go back and tally them like bean counters - would certainly produce truly staggering amounts of experience.  If we triple the experience gained by taking plunder into account (and plunder was excessive during that war, particularly if we argue that destroying a 1,000 g.p. cross for the good of one's religion is as significant as carrying home coins), we're talking 135 billion x.p.  Divided equally among ALL the participants, that's 4,219 each.

But of course you know it wasn't divided equally.  The more powerful always get a greater share - and there was enough experience going around to enable more than 1.35 million participants to gain 100,000 experience or more.

So where did all the high levels on this post, in Germany, get their experience?  It's not a mystery.

Detailed Combat Posts - Fighter Attacks

At the end of the last post, I suggested that I had eliminated the "zero-level" in my world.  This is true.  I did it with this.

If every individual's base hit points are determined by their mass, and a "hit die" is defined as the composite of that mass, than every creature by definition has at least one hit die.  Gygax and cronies decided that a suitable solution to things having less hit dice that a leveled character was to define them as having half a hit die, or a quarter of a hit die, or a die 8 minus 1, or other such garbage; when I created the Mass Effects On Hit Points rule, I eliminated zero levels ... and unfortunately, I eliminated the fighter attacks against zero level rule as well.

So I created this table, which I should have posted a couple of months ago before my online player Ahmet reached 3rd level (but I don't think he's fought anything of 1 hit die since doing so):

I can almost hear the screaming as I violate the inviolable rule - but I don't really care.  I do confess to making some ad hoc decisions about the above table, based on experience.  I have limited the number of attacks to 10; in my combat system, this is an attack every 1.2 seconds and I am comfortable saying that pushes the boundary of believability.

It's even worse than that, though.  My rules are that multiple attacks for fighters gained from levels are still done in the "2 movement point" requirement time frame.  Thus, if it takes a 1st level fighter 2 points of movement to attack a 1 hit die orc, then a 3rd level fighter attacks that orc twice in the same time period.  This means that a fighter can still move forward and attack - even needing less movement than before, if desired.  As such, those 10 attacks would occur at 0.48 seconds per attack.  It just doesn't come any faster.

Another ad hoc limitation is the 7+ hit die ceiling; since the change from 6th level to 7th level is all-important to an advancing fighter (1 attack per round to 3 attacks every 2 rounds), this seems a reasonable stop for the table.  After all, it was an ad hoc rule in the first place that limited multiple attacks for fighters to zero level - I'm just picking the limit that suits me.

If you are a DM designing your world, you can always design your own table.  The important thing here is the possibility of increasing fighter attacks against lower level/hit die creatures.  It works in the game, and it is a marvelous counterbalance for fighters vs. mages (and their mooks) at higher levels.

Friday, March 16, 2012

All the King's Men

Let's have a discussion about the level of national leaders, shall we?

To begin, let's take name level for clerics and fighters, both 9th level.  For the cleric, that's 220,000 experience; for the fighter, 250,000.  According to the book, this is the level at which the character is entitled to clear out a hex, build a castle, or otherwise be considered a baron or a bishop (or equivalent title).  We can assume, therefore, that any NPC in charge of one hex of civilized land (20 miles in diameter), is of name level - or at least, employs someone of name level to run the place.  After all, the heir might only be 8 years old.

Baron is obviously not a very high rank for a person of landed nobility.  But it is a logical starting point.  The question is, if the NPC controls TWICE this much land, what level ought they to be?

Well, I'm a fan of the Fibonacci Series for such things, as I've mentioned before.  Loosely, we can peg two hexes at 10th level, three hexes at 11th level, five hexes at 12th level and so on.

Thus, if you have a nation the size of Belgium, which would be about 34 hexes, your king ought to be something like 16th level.

Of course, you could also mark the difference that there's a major difference between an empty hex and a hex with an Ginormous city in it, like Brussels or Antwerp.  Perhaps you could define a spatial hex as equivalent to a population of, say, 10,000 - so that a country the size of Belgium with Belgium's current population would count as 154 "hexes" ... and thus your king would have to be at least 19th level.

But then, there's always a question of the number of titles your king happens to have.  After all, if he is the King of Belgium AND Grand Marshal of the French Army, that does somewhat change things.  Let's suppose that for every extraordinary title, we presuppose some huge event that loaded our king with massive amounts of treasure - i.e., a new level.  So let's say our King & Marshall is 20th level.

Fine.  Let's take an example.  Let us suppose that we have a Prince-Bishop (which was a common title once upon a time), who holds mastery over five different prince-bishoprics.  He is the Prince-Bishop of Munster, the Prince-Bishop of Liege, the Prince-Bishop of Oldenburg, the Prince-Bishop of Paderborn and finally the Archbishop of Cologne.  At the bare minimum, he will have a considerable population subject to his will (all those cities!); he controls five completely different fiefdoms, so we may assume at least 5 hexes under his exclusive power.  Without getting too deep into the matter, we may conservatively estimate that he's at LEAST 16th level (12 for fiefdoms, +4 more for titles).

Is this the sort of thing you need to share with your players?  No.  This is the sort of thing that you, as Dungeon Master, use as a guideline to let you know what level your NPCs are.  It is slightly better than throwing dice, the results of which you wouldn't tell the party, either.

Ages ago, I struggled with another question that came out of this - how exactly does one determine the total support that someone like our example above would have?  How much would a party member have, if they eventually worked their way up to this position?  How many fighters or thieves or mages could they really depend on?  How do you determine who is loyal to the King, and who isn't?

Some gentle readers might remember that last year about this time I posted a description of the henchmen my offline party were carrying around with them.  And as part of that post, I mentioned that the henchmen the party gained from this system of mine were FANATIC.  While it is true that my parties do tend to gain a certain collection of followers and contacts and hirelings and friends, there's a difference between all those people and the henchmen I give to my parties:  the henchman system is specifically designed so that the player can have another character to run, who will never, EVER, stab that character in the back.  Because, basically, the DM does not run that henchman; the player does.

If the player has some task that needs doing, that isn't that important, the player can send a hireling to do it.  But if the player has something that MUST be done, and done right, the player will DIY-that puppy by sending the player's own henchman to do it.  The player, as it is, can be in multiple places at once - and as my graphic on the linked post above shows, the player starts to pile up quite a number of henchmen by 8th level.

An important part of the system is that the henchman gets something like half the experience of the main character.  This is befuddled a bit by my experience system, in which the henchman can get more than the main character if they do a lot of fighting, but treasure is halved and so are other X.P. bonuses.  So let's use half experience to determine the level of henchmen - remembering, of course, that henchmen in turn can have henchmen.

So let's start with our 16th level Archbishop and see what we get.

First and foremost, our Archbishop has 1,760,001 x.p. minimum.  We can roll a random number between 1 and 220,000 to get an exact number, and we find our Archbishop has 1,791,721 x.p.

Next, our Archbishop got a new henchman at 5th, 7th, 9th, 11th, 13th, and 15th level - 6 direct henchmen in all.  Some of these henchmen died, and were replaced, but since we're already adjusting downwards for experience, let's keep this as simple as possible and just leave the henchmen at half level.  Our Archbishop received these henchmen when the Archbishop had (dropping all the 1s) 13000, 55000, 220000, 660000, 1100000 and 1540000 experience, respectively.

(I'm having a feeling of deja vu, that I've done this calculation on my blog before, but since I want it expressed with precisely this example, because it is relevant to the online campaign, I'll go ahead and do it again)

Some of these might be mages or fighters or monks or thieves, but let's keep this simple and just assume they are all fighters.  We can put together a table, then, of the amount of experience the henchmen would have (ballpark), by subtracting the x.p. the Archbishop had when he got the henchmen from the present x.p., and dividing by 2:

This is convenient.  Our Archbishop has a name level fighter for every one of his five territories, along with one extra fellow to perhaps lead an army on some front of war.

But we are not done.  As with the link above about henchmen, these henchmen have other henchmen; the three 11th level fighters each received a henchman at 5th, 7th, 9th and 11th levels (at 18000, 70000, 250000 and 750000 x.p.); the 10th and 9th level fighters have 3 henchmen each, and the 8th level fighter has 2.  Let's work out their experience by the same method we worked out the Archbishop's (again, assuming every henchman is a fighter):

So are we done?  Hell no.  Every hench who has reached at least 5th has a hench, and every hench who has reached at least 7th has a hench, and so on.

In fact, the entire list is freaking scary.  I had to start coloring it and giving them names to keep it straight, and as I was in the middle of it, Google died on me.  Here's what I got so far:

Mind you, this is only those people that the Archbishop can absolutely count on - it doesn't include ALL the people in the five different Bishoprics.  And when you consider the population for those number in the hundreds of thousands, then this doesn't seem like such a big number.  There's lots of other people around who would be happy to kill the list of people above any time.

But I know, I know, I'm crazy.  No one - NO ONE ANYWHERE - thinks like this, or thinks anyone should think like this.

Because everyone except for the party is zero level, right?

Speaking of zero level - I have to write a post sometime soon about how I eliminated it.


With all the talk of 'hooks' in game running, I wonder if people give much time to thinking about the metaphor, and where it comes from.

Hooks are used to catch fish.  Good for the angler - not so good for the fish.  Still, that is the point after all.  Hooks work well to catch fish because the fish cannot see the hook.  The fish sees the bait, or the fly or the spoon attached to the hook ... and while rushing up to swallow the spoon, it gets the hook in its mouth.  Excellent, that's breakfast.

So if you are a DM, and you are dangling hooks in front of your party, and they're not biting, don't be surprised.  Fish don't bite at hooks.

Now, I am a spoon hook fisherman.  I screwed around with fly-fishing once, but I'm not looking for reasons in the wilderness to keep myself busy.  Nor am I a big fan of bait.  I like my fingers clean.  For me, the easy toss of a spoon out into the lake, the soft clicking of the reel as I draw the spoon back, this is for me.  No muss, no fuss.

As a kid, I used to think that it made a big difference what spoon you used.  I had a favorite one that was a frog, with six black spots on it, and I had one that was white with a red stripe, and one that was neon green and orange, with two red jewels on it.  They were standard hooks, and if you fished in the 70s and 80s, you know exactly which hooks I mean.

But experienced anglers learn that what catches the fish isn't the pretty painted pattern on the one side, it's the flash of chrome or gold on the back.  The spoon, with its dull and shiny side, spins as it drags through the water, and the spin is what catches the fish's attention.  The spin also nicely distracts the fish from the hook, dragging behind.

In fishing, you must be careful not to reel too slowly, or the hook will drag the bottom, or it won't spin well - it will ride with only the dull side showing, and the fish won't see it.  You must be careful not to reel too fast, or the fish won't have time to see it and pursue.  You must reel in just right.  It's a learned skill.

The flash of the spoon, my gentle readers, is the treasure or the reward the party wants to have.  The dull side is what the party can't quite see - the obstacles or the terrain or the monsters, if you like.  The hook is invisible.  The hook is what the party is well and truly caught on when its too late to pull out.

The tendency is to think the treasure is the hook.  In a way it is, since going after the treasure is going to get the party in trouble.  It's very, very important, however, not to let the party see what the trouble is.  That is what I discussed on the previous post.  As an angler or as a DM, you do your utmost best not to let the fish or the party know there even is a hook.  By sphinx and merry catoblepas, you want your party to think the treasure's so easy to get, their biggest trouble is going to be having enough bags to carry it back home.

Never, ever, show the hook.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

What They Know vs. What They Don't Know

From the 10,000 word post:

"Complete information can be defined within the game format as all the information that is necessary for a player to make an informed decision ... with the understanding that if harm arises from that decision, it is not because the DM failed to tell the player something the player would certainly know about in that moment."

I recently had a situation come up in which the online party decided to storm the front gates of a castle, in order to stop the lord of that castle from continuing an evil ritual within its walls.  The party comprised of a 4th level, a 3rd level and two 1st levels.  To obtain control over the castle gates, they had to overcome 12 guards.

How much information was necessary in this circumstance?  To begin with, the players are entitled to what they can see, hear, smell and so on - in effect, what their five senses tell them.  Said information would be the location of the guards, their general equipment and the kind of activity in which they are employed: where they are, what they have, what they're doing. 

The players have, presumably, learned something about what the guards are protecting.  And the players may have access to information gained through magical means.

What the players are not entitled to includes what the guards are thinking; nor does it include anything about their motivation, nor does it include anything about how strong or dextrous the guards are, or how many hit points they have, etc.

It was suggested to me (abusively) that as a DM I was duty-bound to provide clues to the strength of the guards.  Certainly, if any of these guards is of high level, he or she should be in plate mail.  They should carry ornately carved weapons.  They should be tough-looking and huge.

Be careful of these kind of tropes.  They exist throughout prefabricated RPG literature, and represent two-dimensionalism in writing and game design.  There are reasons not to wear plate mail, like mobility and speed; the guard may be multi-classed; the guard may have a temporary skin disease which precludes the wearing of plate.  The guard may simply not like plate metal.

Not all persons of strength and power wish to draw attention to themselves with outward expressions of wealth and status, such as carrying weapons of a fabulous nature, or bedecking themselves with jewels, or wearing expensive clothes while carrying forward ordinary mundane duties.  Many party players keep the same weapons level after level; some players develop an sentimental affection for the sword they carried through this campaign or which they used to slaughter such-and-such a monster.  Nor are all magical weapons necessarily remarkable to look at; there are benefits to having a +4 sword that looks ordinary, with a worn handle.

Not every "tough-looking" soldier is high level; some are simply soldiers who have eaten a lot of poor grub and lived a long twenty years in the service of their lord.  Virtually every guardsman is tough-looking.  And why should a guard necessarily be "huge"?  History isn't filled with short, wiry men who could kick your ass from here to Mars if they wanted?

Players are going to try and trap you into giving them more information than they are entitled to have - through tropes like these, or with questions to which they could not possibly know the answer.  Few are the nights where I run a campaign where a player does not ask me something like, "What is the guard want?"  As a dungeon master, you're not responsible for conveying what the guard wants; the players are only entitled to what the guard says.  The guard's motivations, or background, or hit points or level are not things the players are able to glean with the use of their senses, SO DON'T TELL THEM.

Remember that momentum is always the child of tension, and that tension is always created by what the party does not know.  Of course the party will want to know these things; knowledge is power, and the more power the party has, the safer they are.  The less they know, on the other hand, the less power they have, and the less they feel safe.  Not feeling safe creates a strong, ambiguous feeling in the gut that makes the body uncomfortable and the player anxious.  Do not let your party get comfortable.  Comfort murders momentum.  Terror provides it.

Remember also that the party will learn all they need to know in due time.  They will eventually, through fighting the 7th level fighter, that the fighter is 7th level.  True, it may be too late for them.  It may result in their deaths.  But that will only instigate in your player's mind a layer of terror that will be there for you to exploit once they've rolled up a new character and are set to tackle the next instance.

Finally, remember that none of this begins the subject of disinformation, in which what the player's senses betray the player into thinking they are getting information they're actually not getting.  Disinformation is a nasty part of the game, and is sure to make your players upset, distrustful, addled and prone to overreaction and extreme cautiousness.

Ain't it fun?

Friday, March 9, 2012

Pick-Up Artist

Miracle of miracles, having found some time today when I did not expect to have any, I shall attempt a post.

It's hilarious that xkcd released artwork on being a pick-up artist today, since that was precisely the inspiration that struck me yesterday on my way home:

Not that I don't fundamentally agree with above genius, but once upon a time I was a pick-up artist.  Not because I had any intention of dehumanizing anyone, but because I was looking for a very particular type of woman, one that was very hard to find, and there was no internet.  If you would like to know approximately how this played out in reality, it was extraordinarily close to the movie, the Pick-up Artist, with Robert Downey Jr. and Molly Ringwald - except that I didn't keep a book, since if it wasn't clear that we were a match from the beginning, I didn't care about calling anyone.

I saw the movie mentioned above in 1987 with my wife, picked up in self-same theatre two years earlier, in exactly the way that Downey tried to pick up women in the movie; the principle difference is that while Downey told his women they looked like Renaissance subjects, in 1985 I asked my wife - kid you not - who her favorite Renaissance painter was.  She had an answer for that, and that began a conversation that lasted over the next thirteen hours and ended in passionate sex.  Yes, this was the mother of my daughter, and we were married for many years before she passed away.

Coincidences.  We laughed very hard through the movie.

This is all a preamble to certain qualities of being a dungeon master that I share with being a pick-up artist.  There are certain rules that apply to both.

1)  Approach your subject in a place where they cannot easily leave.  My logic at the time was that the right woman would recognize I was the man she was looking for IF she had time to see the whole person.  No doubt some people on the net will recognize that I am somewhat grating.  This may baffle some gentle readers, but as a matter of proven fact (two marriages, both lasting more than ten years), this is actually an endearing quality that strong, fearless women appreciate.  I needed more than 10 minutes to bring demonstrate the value of this quality, and so unlike Jack from the movie above I did not hit on women on the street; I hit on them in places of work, at events or - as it worked out - in a movie theater, after she paid her way in.

Similarly, playing D&D online SUCKS.  The principle reason?  It is not my living room.  It is too easy to stage a nutty and storm off, because you only have to close the window.  Similar things might be said about playing in any public space.  Private, quiet spaces in people's homes produce respect which does not occur elsewhere.  In my home, players recognize I'm in charge - because its MY home.  Playing in someone else's home - I can promise you - is not the same.  Humans are programmed to show respect in your home, and they will quiet down and listen to you better there than anywhere.

2)  The first thing you must do upon approaching women is to baffle the living shit out of them.  No, this isn't always going to work.  In fact, if you're not very bright, and you're not looking for a very bright woman, this isn't going to work for you AT ALL.  But I was looking for terrifyingly bright women, and the first rule in dealing with a bright woman is to baffle - by baffling, you cause smart women to wonder, briefly, if they might be confused because you're actually intelligent.  This is why it won't work for you if you aren't intelligent, since they will know almost immediately.  Luckily, I am intelligent, and it worked out beautifully for me - my wife Michelle had an I.Q. of 168.

D&D is similar.  The first thing you must do with your players is demonstrate that you are apparently a lot smarter than they are.  You do this by producing ideas and campaigns which are so remarkably different from anything they've run into before, they become convinced you must be a really good DM for being so damned original.  Of course, it does help if you actually ARE original.  But in any case, you must show it.

Everytime you produce an adventure that seems to come out of left field, smashing their preconceptions of what adventures are expected to be, you're increasing your credibility with your party.  Produce an adventure where the monsters act like they always act?  Heck, you're not trying!  You gotta baffle that party if you want them on your side.

3)  With women, keep your damn hands off.  Seriously.  I never wanted anything but a long-term relationship, and I like to talk.  So when I met women, that's what I did - I talked to them.  I wasn't in any hurry to bed them.  That would come, if they were the right girl ... and it usually did, even if they were the wrong girl.  Hell, you have to have patience - don't rush the girl and give her time to like you, you'll find her rushing you.  When those thirteen hours of conversation ended in sex, it was because my future wife of the time jumped me.

In D&D, don't push your party.  Let them take all the time they need, all night if necessary, to get their ducks in a row.  Let them figure out their tactics.  Give them time, and more time, and more time, until they are ready to move the campaign forward.  As long as your party is talking, you don't need to do a damn thing as DM.  You can start up again when your party stops talking.  When they stop talking, THAT'S your cue.  Otherwise, shut the hell up and let your players have the good time they're having.

Well, I don't have any advice right now about what to do with women once they start having sex with you.  And I'm afraid, for you gay readers, that I don't have any advice right now on how to pick up gay men.  I do know how - I worked as a cook in a gay restaurant over a gay bathhouse for a year, the only straight man in the building, where all the women waitresses were lesbians.

Thank God I was married at the time.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

The Wall of Text

The "Wall of Text" was invented with the internet.

It is a term used to describe any thought requiring more than 200 words.

Thoughts requiring more than 200 words have a proven existence going back to Herodotus.

People who had never bothered to read started doing so because of the internet.

People also started to write because of the internet.

Dumb people on the internet began writing non-thoughts with more than 200 words.

Internet readers soon described anything more than 200 words as a "non-thought."

Other readers have long been wise enough to read something before making up their minds.

There are about 28 words contained in 140 characters.

For some, it is difficult to grasp a thought of more than 140 characters.

For some, if a thought has more than 140 characters, it shouldn't exist.

When a very, very stupid person encounters more than 140 characters, they call it a "Wall of Text."

D&D cannot be meaningfully understood in statements of less than 140 characters.

Stupidity, however, can be expressed brilliantly in 140 characters.

When someone describes writing as a "Wall of Text," I know they're an idiot.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The Difficulties of Success

I've been contemplating this post; Oddbit's last post finally succeeded in pushing me off the fence.  He makes a fair point about the motivations of game designers - a point that could equally be made about the creators of any project or object.  I don't believe that persons in a company intentionally create junk any more than he does (although, admittedly, Walmart does seem motivated to prove us all wrong).

However, I don't believe in the formula, hard work = quality, any more than I believe that good intentions automatically lead to good results.

Most people have good intentions; and most people are confident about their ability to provide hard work when hard work is needed.  I have been around people all my life who worked brutally hard - and often in environments where extreme stress led to life-lasting injuries.  I have worked around people for whom success was a thing wanted so desperately that they were ready to prostitute themselves; and for whom failure brought on tears, drunkedness and even attempted suicide.  The only thing I can't claim to have seen is the preparation of some to sacrifice their lives for success - but I know many ex-military read this blog, and I know they have some stories to tell.

I have worked blue collar jobs demanding heavy labor; and I've been in film and theatre, where every night a performer dies a little.  I don't think my experiences are very special.  I think every gentle reader here can remember watching human beings destroy themselves to achieve success or even greatness.

And here's the truth of it.  People do fail.  People do work themselves to the bone and people fail awfully.  Mills and mines and restaurants and construction firms fail, often because of a circumstance that couldn't be counted on, or a change in the market, or a stubborn perception that couldn't be left behind.  Films and plays crash and burn and get nasty reviews - and I can tell you from experience that no one in the theatre works at half their effort.  But sometimes a play is just bad - and all the lighting and all the acting and all the long nights spent rehearsing can't change it.

No, no one tries to make a game believing its a bad game.  No one in a company dreams up an initiative with the idea that its a bad initiative.  When your boss sets out to redesign the department or institute a new policy, it is always with the very best intentions.

Only ... people are not inherently good at innovation.  Hard work they can manage.  Good intentions they can manage.  Understanding that there's a problem and it needs to be solved, or seeing a need that has to be filled ... people are spectacular at that.

People, however, on the whole, suck at success.

This cannot stop us, however.  We must innovate.  Innovation is rewarded, and we must be rewarded if we are to better our lives and achieve our dreams.  And so we innovate.  We innovate like mad - which is to say, we apply our hard work to the one aspect of innovation which hard work can manage:  we change what already exists and make it "new."

For most of society, this is a process that most of us will recognize only if we are not personally involved in the task.  It is semantically equivalent to having the authority figure of your choice stepping up to you and handing you a shovel.  "Do you see this pile of dirt here?  We think it would look better if it were three feet to the left.  Would you please spend the next six hours shoveling all of the dirt to the new location we need it to be - and could you please be sure to pick up every last speck of dirt from the place it is now?  Every speck, please - otherwise, this project won't achieve the expectations we all have for its success.  Thank you!"

You work hard.  You pick up every speck of dirt.  The move it pronounced a success.  You feel good that hard work achieved success.  It is what makes the world go around.

It works far better in big business, where it takes decades - even a century or two - of continued purposeless dirt moving to bring down a company.  In small business, it can destroy a company in a couple of weeks.

It happens in the most benign way possible, and it happens all over the world.  This post, for instance; this post was conceived by me as something interesting.  It is designed to promote a new way of looking at things; it is designed to do more than simply spit out another day's words on a blog.  But is it new?  Or have I simply sat down for an hour and moved a pile of dirt three feet over?

When you sit and read a blog post, and it doesn't seem very clever or interesting, it isn't because the blogger didn't work hard to write it.  It isn't because the blogger didn't think it was interesting; but it fails to achieve its purpose because the blogger isn't CAPABLE of achieving its purpose.  The blogger simply doesn't have the stuff it takes to be interesting.  Oddbit's game company simply doesn't have the stuff to make a good game.  It just isn't a good play.

You're not expected to choke down this awful play, or this piece of shit game, or this godawful blog post.  You have the right to hate it.  You have the right to scream at it and rail at it ... because cheering the blogger for moving a pile three feet to the left is just goddamned stupid.

I never know for certain what kind of blog I've written.  I can't count on my own perception of my own success.  No one can.  That's why I ask other people, because they have no stake in my success.  They're emotionally free to hate or despise me.  They're emotionally free to be honest.

I can't be honest about myself.  I'm necessarily biased about myself, and every thought I have is automatically in my favour.

Don't think you're any different.

NPC Agendas

From the 10,000 word post:

"If we rely only upon the player's narrative, the momentum of the campaign will quickly diminish. It is not what the players know that creates a fast-paced, unexpected game - but what the player's do not know ... For a good game, it is necessary for the DM to create other narratives which take place simultaneously with the party's narrative. We can call these "NPC Narratives" ... side stories the players don't get to see, but which occur chronologically in tandem with the player's decisions and actions."

To explain this, on the main post I used an example from Star Wars, comparing the chronological actions of R2 and 3PO with those of Luke & Co. in the trash compactor.  That things happen simultaneously to other people (NPCs) around the party is fairly obvious - but how do you construct these things so that they affect your campaign?

The answer can be found in the stock events I spoke of earlier.  Your NPC's, too, will be chasing after opportunities, combating scarcity and accumulating wealth also.  As a DM, you need only consider what motivations your NPC's have, and how that shapes the temporal setting and narrative of your campaign.

I've been talking about setting for months; by now the gentle reader should understand that a setting is more than dimensions on a map.  A setting encompasses the purposes of the occupants of that map also.  They are trying to improve their miserable lives, bring their produce to market, fight off unfriendlies and shape the ordinances and purposes of their collectives.  They live and breathe too, and they don't want to die anymore than the party does.  Every NPC has his or her small stream of narrative in your campaign; hundreds of NPCs together form rivers of narrative, and thousands or tens of thousands form great lakes or seas of narrative.  If your party desires to pursue their own agendas, they must be shown that sometimes the river flows with the party, and sometimes the river flows against the party.  It all depends upon which course the party chooses.

What I'm saying is that yes, there is a sandbox; and yes, the party IS free to choose what they will and won't do.  But there are quite a lot of others right there in the sandbox with them - individuals whom you, the DM, control - and they are just as free to choose their will as the party, in terms of how you perceive 'freedom.'  As a DM, you must stretch your imagination to make those people come alive, and to define for you and for your party how those people agree, or disagree, with the party's actions.

Not everyone in your world is good.  Not everyone thinks slaughtering the residents of a town is a bad idea.  Not everyone is opposed to a little bribery on the side.  Not everyone hates the local lord.  Not everyone thinks the prices at the market are too high.  Not everyone thinks the local ruins should be explored, or the residents therein wiped out.  Not everyone thinks the same.  Some people have different ideas of what is right and wrong.  It is up to you to have a candidate from each constituency meet the party and discuss how the party's actions are praiseworthy or contemptible.  Sometimes a fight will break out.  Sometimes the party will be convinced to change its mind.  Sometimes people just won't disagree.  But what you want is for the party to recognize that the friends and enemies they meet along the way aren't made of cardboard.  They're REAL - in your mind, at least - and they have legitimate reasons for believing whatever it is that they believe.  They have legitimate reasons for trying to stop the party from doing what they want.

Doesn't mean the party can't still kill them.  But it needs to be conveyed that the party is killing more than merely stick-figures, or plot-devices, or exposition-throwers.  The orcs aren't just growling targets.  Red Dragons have agendas too.  Everyone feels scarcity.  Everyone appreciates the importance of having friends.  Curiousity touches every heart.  Battle is an act of desperation, either to defend against fear, or to achieve what cannot be gotten any other way.

Sit down and figure out what your NPCs want.  Figure out how they'll go about getting it, from planting crops to raising armies to slipping over a garden wall for a bit of nookie.  Now figure out how those actions affect the party, who happens to be in the same garden, or upon the same battlefield, or walking along a farm road.  See where the narratives cross, where they smash together, and where they flow together.

Worry less about the programmed information your NPCs must tell the party to make them do A or B.  Have your NPCs already in the process of doing A and B, and let the party decide if they want to go along, stop the whole process, or ignore it.  When you stop seeing your NPCs as road signs and pamphlets, and start presenting them as creatures with purpose, your game will improve in ways you've never imagined.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Handling Difficult Players

Everyone finds dungeon mastering hard, especially at the beginning.  The game itself is terribly complicated; the level of creativity required carries the same doubts and inadequacies any artist has; and inherent are all the difficulties a new manager faces when promoted over his or her friends.

I think it is probably easiest on the young.  At fifteen, an individual isn't nearly as introspective or doubtful as they are at 25.  At fifteen, one is more likely to take on the task out of sheer stubbornness, with little or no concern at the prospect of 'managing' friends, or concerns about 'screwing up.'   At fifteen, screwing up gets to be a lifestyle, what with parents, teachers, coaches and every other authority figure explaining how you have, ad nauseum.  It is harder to screw up at 30, particularly if you've gotten good at your job, you have some authority and no one beyond the occasional driver has called you a fuck-up in years.

If you keep at it - diligently, mind - you will eventually learn all the rules; you will develop tools to enable you to create more elaborately and efficiently; and you will manage even large groups with the confidence of an experienced executive.  After a year or two, you'll find yourself comfortably facing a collection of rowdy players with the knowledge you were born to do this.

In smoothing out your campaign, you'll come to decide what rules you will or won't play.  You'll consider your players, debating with them what you'll propose, but in the end you'll make the decision you want, that better facilitates your personal style as a DM and the particulars of your world.

If most of your gaming consists of running one party year after year, changes in your campaign will become calcified.  Character creation and combat will cease to change.  You'll find it hard to play in - or relate to - other campaigns.  You'll chuckle when you hear someone is playing a rule you abandoned ten years ago.  You won't believe people won't play with a modification that's proved magnificent for you, that you began using before Y2K was an issue.

These rule changes - and your ease in getting and keeping regular players - results from your confidence as a DM.  You're entitled to do what you want.  Those who play in your world have abandoned their other game experiences because it is worth it to them to accept what you say as gospel.  Not only because it's the DM's world, but because you're giving them something they can't get elsewhere.
I don't encourage a DM's world to run as unquestioned dogma.  Players should point out flaws in my reasoning when I run; I want players to comprehend the rules, and to know that there are reasons why a particular element of the game is played this or that way.  I don't like the words, "because I said so".  There has, however, been a calcification of certain rules in my world; not because I said so, but because I have had and seen so many people play by these rules, I know how they affect the game and I know that players are able to adapt to them.  Further, I know the problems in the game that are solved by such rules, and I don't wish to throw out the rule and regain the problem.

I've been playing for thirty-three years, and as such, there are many such rules.

I have noted the problems with my world arise with players due to two inflexible positions:

1)  I am doing this, no matter what anyone says.
2)  I won't do that, no matter what anyone says.

The first applies entirely to actions the player intends to take.  Usually, it is something that will result in almost certain death; where the death is uncertain, the odds are long, often ridiculously long.  More often than not, it is other players who will beg the one player to get down off the ledge.  As a DM I find myself forced to make a decision about whether or not to argue a player down about every fifth session or so.

In part, the phenomenon occurs when tension in the campaign increases to a point where the players feel powerless and desperate.  Usually, some indeterminate solution will take hold of a party - it's a little scary to watch them build themselves up - then like Linguini bursting through the door in Ratatouille, it will go something like, "LOOK ... I know it's stupid and weird, but ... so let's do this thing!"

I try to be understanding and forgiving, and not kill parties when they do this.  I often have lots of time.  While the party is squabbling and wrestling with their tactics on how they're going to take on this enemy that I know as DM is going to seriously kill them (I don't balance encounters), I'm thinking hard for reasons why the enemy won't want to, or how I could spontaneously get some help for the party (maybe the servants in the surrounding houses could flood out into the street with brooms or something).

Human beings, if driven to the breaking point, will do stupid things; if your party is doing stupid things, then you, O Dungeon Master, are driving them to the breaking point.  Congratulations ... you have achieved immersion.

On the other hand, there are particular individuals who consistently play their characters as deliberately obtuse as possible:  I don't care, I'm stealing that pouch; I don't care what the Lord says, I'm doing it; screw you, its my armor, I found it; well, you can go if you want to, but I'm staying here; fine, you stay here, I'm going.  And so on.

I don't have any sympathy for these players.  Most of the time they are so bullheaded, selfish and dumb that they don't last long; or they quickly get upset with not being given their special place in the sun that they pack their books and head home.  I've had a party enter a dungeon with one player who steadfastly refused to go in - so I ran the party that went down the stairs, all night.  The one recalcitrant player sat around for four hours, sulking, reading or otherwise amusing himself, ignored by the rest of the party - good for them! - and ignored by me.  He never came back.

What he expected, of course, was that I would put the other four people on hold and invent some wonderful adventure solely for him.

This last is an example where number 2 above, people who WON'T do something, applies to the character's action in the campaign.  Rarely, however, this applies to the rules themselves - those same calcified rules I've gotten used to playing.

These are people who haven't quite gotten comfortable with the DM having control over their own game.  They want to play by certain rules that they are comfortable with, and when they find those rules aren't established in the campaign, these players "exercise their option" to walk out of your campaign - always, of course, with the mandatory apology for "having wasted your time."

Now, as a DM, you're going to run into this issue, and there are things you should keep in mind.

First, anyone who approaches, enters and runs in your campaign, with the idea firmly in their mind that leaving at any time is an option, is going to be trouble.  As Mark Twain said, "Never allow someone to be your priority while allowing yourself to be their option."  It would never occur to most DMs to have it in mind that booting a player from a campaign on the turn of a rule was an acceptable practice.  As a DM, you take it upon yourself to be responsible for your players; you organize the campaign for them; you create circumstances in which they can succeed or fail; and you attempt to do this without taking advantage of the player's vulnerability, nor lording your supposed power as DM over them.  If a player makes a mistake, do you scream at them, demand to know what the fuck is wrong with them, then boot them from your campaign?

No.  But you will have players do this to YOU.  They will declare that you've broken player trust or that you've deliberately ruined their chances or some other ridiculous accusation - any of which, if true, would have probably been due to the DM making a mistake somewhere along the way, a mistake that could certainly be fixed within the structure of the game.  DMs make mistakes.  Everyone makes mistakes.  But if the mistake made by a player carries with it the understanding of the dungeon master, it follows that a mistake made by the dungeon master ought to be understood by the player.

The other thing you must understand is that your rules will undergo criticism from time to time.  Remember that players will, it is sad to say, come and go.  Those who are not happy with your rules will find someone's rules they are happy with, or will settle down and make a world of their own.  But your world will be in your possession for a long, long time; and you should play by the rules that make you comfortable and happy.  The game cannot be played without you; but you can play your game without a given player.  So do not become too upset if a given player doesn't see things your way.  You've been working on this world since the beginning.  They've only been here for a few weeks.

While they will be sorry for having "wasted your time," you need not be sorry for having wasted theirs.  After all, their time is only wasted because they made the choice to pitch the time they spent on a frivolous bit of stubborn selfishness.  Save your apologies for when you - irrationally - turn to a player and decide you don't like the cut of their jib:  "Hit the road, buddy.  Sorry I wasted your time."


That's a good place to end the post, but this one isn't quite done yet.  I've had some trouble with players on the net lately, the kind of trouble I haven't had since I used to run strangers at conventions ... and wow, do I hate conventions.  I've had three particularly troublesome players in the last two years, and being that I'm a scientist at heart, I've got enough of a sampling now to make a hypothesis.

(Mind you, that's a hypothesis: a deductive prediction of the outcome to be determined from collecting data.  I don't say this is fact.  Please take note of the English words I use)

I am noticing certain elements which I feel might be used to determine who is a bad player.  I don't suppose I've ever deduced these elements before, because I've almost always had good players - i.e., I've stayed away from conventions.  Here are some warning signs I'd like to advance:

1)  Consistent dissatisfaction with the entire character generating process, particularly with incorporated advice on how it might be done differently, how other games manage the process, and comments upon things your particular process has or doesn't have.

2)  An unusual number of questions about your campaign which can't possibly be relevant to a first-time, first-level player.  If the player is entering your world, knows they are running with a low-level party, and is filling the character creation process with questions about what sorts of men-at-arms they'll get when their ninth level, or whether or not there are oliphants in your world and if they can be ridden, the player is almost certainly going to prove extraordinarily demanding and expectant where it comes to treasure/reward.

3)  A preoccupation with the amount of armor/number of weapons available to the player.  This is particularly so in reference to how concerned the character is with the possibility of being hit.  If you point out that the character's chance of being hit in battle is only 15% - and they express dissatisfaction with that - expect trouble.

4)  A clear disinterest in many peripheral details about the character that you've included but which don't seem to make much of an impression; this could be anything, really, as it depends on your world.  But if you as DM think that something is important, and the player fails to notice despite several statements on your part, a serious disconnect will occur.

5)  Strong dissatisfaction is expressed regarding scarcity - too few hit points, too little wealth, too few magic items, not enough combat, too much difficulty in obtaining supplies, or the player has generally too much trouble with the ordinary business of surviving ... anything beyond an infrequent complaint about any of these or other scarcities suggests a problem.  Everyone has a right to complain.  Most people know when to stop.

6)  Any pervading preoccupation or obsession with things that happened previously in the campaign; players who don't live in the NOW, but continue to concern themselves with mistakes they made once upon a time, and the need to atone for those mistakes.  Atonement is a terrible, cloying thing that is never really possible, but will nevertheless effectively kill a player's ability to enjoy the campaign.

I think in the future, if and when I ask for online players, instead of asking what they'll do with their characters, I will instead ask their opinions on the above six points.