Friday, June 29, 2012

Why I Do Not Read Fantasy

Having read this insightful post from Dave Cesarano, from about 17 months ago, I find myself puzzling over the question, why is it I do not read fantasy literature.  Because I don't.  Last year, I read through some R.E. Howard, and was struck - as I am always struck when I read books from my youth - with how truly juvenile it is.  While the praises falleth like gentle rain, I admit that I do not decry the stories; they were instrumental in my intellectual construction.  I would not want to live in a world where they did not exist.  That said, I'll probably never read them again.

I will certainly never read Tolkein again.  The Ring, the Hobbit, the Simarillion - I'm done with it.  Except for the Hobbit, reading the rest was more like an academic project than a thing done for joy.  I've read the Hobbit twice (once aloud to my daughter), and I've read the Lord of the Rings once.  It took six stabs at it to get through the entire book, and in the two tries I've made since, I got bored and quit.  That's eight altogether ... about the same number of times I've read Thucydides' Peloponnesian War cover-to-cover.

I've read the Simirillion twice, cover-to-cover ... for anyone who's read Tacitus or Livy, the 'Sim' is a cakewalk.  Alas, Tolkein for all his 'greatness' is but a patch upon Herodotus, whom he clearly tried to emulate - the result is something like comparing Edward Albee to Shakespeare.  There's certainly cleverness in the former, but it just doesn't - well, it just doesn't.

Not that anyone reads Herodotus, mind.  Both Tolkein and Albee are accessible.

I'm not fundamentally opposed to present-day fantasy.  I don't care that its scatological or violent or pornographic.  I don't care that its loaded with nihilism or depressive images.  If you're going to promote the reading of Camus, you can hardly take a position against themes which develop nihilism.  There is no subject matter and no character that does not have its place in the ongoing discussion that is art ... and anyone who takes a position that this theme, or that theme, is unworthy of a novel is a fool.  Not merely wrong, and not merely misguided - but a figure of such complete ignorance as to warrant pity.  One gives like pity to the drunk on the morning sidewalk railing at commuters on their way to work.  The drunk is so utterly out of the mainstream of life, pity is the only emotion one can feel.

Thus my distaste for fantasy does not stem from its theme.  Much of it is badly written, but I've no doubt much of it is written well - perhaps as well as anything I've read, though I confess that I wouldn't know which author to point at.  I am simply not driven to investigate the matter, a drive I lost from the experiences I had when once I did care to open a cover or two.

I think, honestly, it has more to do with the place I am than with the writing.  I simply don't "fantasize" that way.  The attempts I've made now and then - including the ill-fated abortion I began last year - to write fantasy suffers the same lack of interest as reading it.  I am not tuned to investigate supernatural phenomena thematically.  It brings me no messages of clarity or methodology; it does not inspire me to live my life differently; it offers no insight into other human beings with its prism.  It offers all that a dead horse on the side of the road might offer.  The flies are intriguing; the shape of the horse in its mortality compels the eye; the smell both offends and activates the senses; one is driven to look, and one is driven to turn away.  The shock may induce vomiting; it may induce realization that life or beauty is transient.  In the end, however, it is only a dead horse.  There are ten million horses in the country that are alive, and all ten million will one day be dead.  The presence of this horse at this time is not very significant.  The corpse cannot instruct me how better to see myself in terms of my longer span of life; it cannot aid me in negotiations with my daughter or my life partner; it cannot solve the nagging problem that remains in chapter 29 of my book.  It is there, and real, and of interest to someone, but my feeling is rather that I had walked from my origin to my destination without it being there.

At the end of the day, I cannot point to a single fantasy novel, from Dante's trilogy and Milton's Paradise Lost, up through Baum, Barrie and Lewis, without feeling that they've ceased to influence me.  Perhaps, possibly, my mind remaining open, I will stumble across something written in the fantasy genre that will leave me a different person upon exit than I was upon entry.  In the meantime I shall rely upon some unread novel by Fitzgerald or Eliot to manage that metamorphosis.  I shall save fantasy for when I enact its presence in the shape of the god I play while dungeon mastering.  It seems better suited for that medium.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Rules That Work

Yesterday, Scarbrow asked me to elaborate further on what rules work to make a game easier to learn, thus encouraging new players to get excited about the game.

I remember back in the summer of '82 (which, according to Scarbrow's last blog post, is coincidentally the year of his birth), I was playing in three campaigns - one I was the DM, and the other two in which I was a player.  We three DMs decided we would play a 24-hour session, from 4:00 in the afternoon until the next day ... and to make it interesting, we would play in four hour shifts, with each DM playing two shifts.

Seems to me in those days we played more intensely, with less interruptions, that I do today .... but it is probably senility that makes me think so.  I remember I ran the second shift, wrapping the encounter up at midnight, and a fellow name Asif took over.  I had known Asif for about three years - an intense power player who had a tendency to roll abnormally well.  I remember around that time that much of the conversation about his playing, when he was out of the room, was speculation on how he was cheating.

Unfortunately, Asif was interested in something called 'hit location' ... an example is shown in the link.  All it meant was that when anyone hit, a few extra dice were rolled to determine the location and, possibly, additional critical effects.

One wouldn't think that to be much of an issue - but shit, is it ever.  I mean, it is an issue like death is an issue.  Particularly during a combat you're having at 1:30 in the fucking morning.

See, the problem was that Asif had not memorized the tables.  We had not memorized the tables.  With six people playing, the combat dragged on, and on, and on.  I would have to reach for certain art & architecture lectures I was forced to attend for my degree to remember a more deeply boring moment of my life.  There is nothing more boring on this earth than waiting for a DM to look up something in a table, not understand it exactly, be forced to read something from a rule book on the spot, be challenged on the result, forcing more looking up and ultimately a twenty minute argument between a player who doesn't want to die and a DM who isn't really sure what he's doing.

It destroyed the session.  When Asif finally gave up at 4:00 a.m., and Mike took over, we were wrecked.  Mike tried gamely, but we just didn't give a shit anymore.  By the time I was supposed to take over at 8:00, we were eating breakfast at a Tim Horton's and swearing we'd never play hit location again.

And I haven't.

This is an extreme example - but it fundamentally describes the flaw in games that were advanced as the 80s progressed.  The same flaw I hear described as too many rule books in the 3rd edition universe.  There comes a point where all rules, no matter how clever or gritty, suck because they just aren't worth the effort to make them work.  No doubt somewhere there's a DM prepared to memorize a thousand rules, cold, and has the capacity to do so ... but the six players at the table won't do it, and that will put them at the DM's mercy.  What is very often missed in the "The DM can memorize anything" argument is that the game is not being "played" by the DM.  The DM is not a player.

Worse, there is inevitably one player who has gone further in remembering said vast rule set ... which puts all other players at that player's mercy.  Which really, holy fuck really, really sucks.

Try to think of any game you played as a kid with one of those fuckwit assholes who made up rules about baseball, soccer, football or what have you on the spur of the moment, in order to jack your ability to win.  Now imagine a recommended game design that supports the existence of that fuckwit.  Welcome to the wonderful world of modern roleplaying.

In order for a game to work well, it has to be A) easily learned; B) easily memorized; and C) fast-paced.  Back in my boardgame years, with Monopoly and Life and such, we learned by our teenage years to throw the dice to move while the previous player was wrapping up their turn.  If you have four people who have learned the rules, they don't need to contemplate for hours about whether or not to buy St. Charles' Place.  They know.  When they land on St. Charles' place, and they're reaching for the money to buy it, you don't have to wait until change is made and the property is in their hand before the next person throws dice.

This only works, however, if the process of deciding what happens after you throw dice takes ten seconds or less.  If it takes anything more than that, the game is dragging.  Ten seconds is plenty of time for a DM to record the drop in hit points, describe if the monster is dead or still dangerous, or roll a saving throw if necessary.  Then the NEXT player can go.  Anytime you go over that ten second limit, you're killing the momentum of your game.

Something can be done to encourage mages to learn their spells (and the rules, so if you ask the range they can produce it), and obviously there's a lot to be done in keeping the goddamn players sitting at the table (players are freaking cats, I swear to gawd).  The rules are ever the inherent problem, however ... and every additional number that must be adjusted in order to make a combat fly is multiplied by every character, then doubled or more by the DM having to keep track of the opponents without help.  So if there's going to be an additional number to be adjusted (damage reduced by armor, say), it better be simple-fucking-simon.  Otherwise you're looking for rules to see how much plate mail reduces the damage done by maces as opposed to halberds and daggers, not to mention how much damage the plate mail can sustain before it buys the farm.

The problem is, the more quickly the NEW rule can be managed in the game, the less important the new rule is to the overall experience.  Butch's example in the previous post, about armor ... it actually isn't much of an issue, time-wise.  In reality, however, it adds nothing to the game, except to change the balance of effect armor has (depending on how you play it), which is then an issue for everyone coming into your campaign that's never played that rule.  Wait, should I get scale mail now?  What do you mean chain sucks - how the hell am I supposed to know this?

Where it comes to game-grinding momentum-killing rules, the worst is any that allows the player to have a choice ... and the wider the choice, the worse the rule.  People, if you will forgive me, are bafflingly stupid where it comes to choice.  If you've ever worked in retail, where you had to serve people who just wanted to buy a fucking shirt, you know precisely what I mean.  People are awful.

Take the Monopoly example above.  If you're old enough to have played, how much time have you spent waiting for someone who, like a deer in headlights, can't make up their mind about buying Water Works?  Holy shit, guy, buy the damn thing or don't!  And here we're just talking about a choice of two options ... will or won't!  I can't believe people play skill point systems without killing each other at the table.

In the entire player character development process, there are three critical points where I want to strangle a player.

1)  Deciding what class they want to play.  I play early AD&D in this regard, so we are talking eleven choices.  And the dice usually eliminate three of those choices - paladin, illusionist and monk.  With new players, running their first character in my world, I usually insist they play either a fighter or a thief ... if they're especially bright, I might allow them to play a mage or cleric.  And still you're sitting there five, ten minutes while they can't decide if they want to kill things with a sword or a force of nature.  Still, this is usually something that gets sorted out by the time a player has tried most of the pantheon.

2)  Deciding what spells to use.  This is usually not very bad ... but it does kill a lot of time when you explain, again, what this spell does or what that spell does.  What I hate about this option is the spellcaster goes through this dilemma every fucking level.  You would think, I means seriously, they could read the goddamn list at some point while they're on the john holding up the damn game, before the next time they level!  But no ... the law is you have to wait for your next level before you read the damn spells, much less pick one.

3)  Weapons.  Frakking friggin' jesus-in-a-sidecar weapons.  What in the hell is wrong with people?  In all the years I've played, in all the experienced and novice characters I've walked through character creation, it is a very rare player indeed who just picks four damn weapons for their fighter or one damn weapon for their mage.  If they're not picking too few weapons - something you don't learn until they're 4th level - they're picking too damn many, or weapons their class can't use.  I had an incident a few months ago where a player who hadn't played in about six months started in regularly.  He was using a long bow, and for reasons unknown I thought he was playing a fighter.  Hey, it had been a long time.  Turns out, he was a thief ... who can't use a long bow.  I know at some point in the distant past I gave this guy a list of what weapons his thief could use, when the character was rolled up.  Apparently, the communication did not take.

If it wasn't for the fact that I like weapons, I'd limit the entire complement to four ... but that won't fly.  So I'll spend another ten or twenty days of my life waiting for players to pick weapons.

Here's my best advice:  if someone proposes a rule system that offers a choice to players, run.  Run as fast as you can.  A player reaching across the table has trouble picking between pretzels and cheezies.  They are not suitably equipped to making decisions about whether to concentrate on survival skills or streetwisery.  They need to be beaten with cattle prods into nice neat stalls where they can throw dice, get excited about hits and misses and occasionally be set free to buy equipment.

Which is, incidentally, the one choice I don't mind players making ... but only because this is the time in the game I use to go to the bathroom, look up my own shit, bake pies, call relatives in other cities, repair furniture, sleep, write novels, etcetera, etcetera.


This is my 888th post.  8's are pretty.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Propositions for Circumstances Regarding the Contact Between an Attacker's Weapons with a Defender's Weapon, Shield or Armor

Following the Steel post, I have had a few thoughts.

For those not aware, I run AD&D.  The suggestions below apply to that edition.

Faced with the task of comparing materials used to create weapons (and armor), the first task as I see it is to define when contact occurs.  It isn't enough to simply say this misses or hits ... a "miss" can still hit the defender's weapon or armor, or may miss entirely due to dexterity.

Consider - what is the difference between attacking an unarmed opponent (who can't parry), or an opponent without a weapon but with armor?  And when does a "hit" cause damage through armor, as opposed to around it?  Being hit on your chest plate with a mace hurts ... and it can damage the body and break the mace at the same time.

In trying to define when these things happen, I have constructed the following table:

What I am attempting to convey is the idea that strikes that "miss" an opponent do not miss the majority of the time due to the wielder being unable to make contact.  In a one minute round (or 12 seconds in my world), there's going to be plenty of contact in that period ... therefore, the attacker's weapon is going to strike the defender's weapon, armor or body - according to the above table, 95% of the time.  The other 5% indicates that the attacker has dropped ... and inherent in the table (though not specified) is an additional 5-20% chance of pure missing due to the defender having dexterity.

A drop, too, would indicate that the weapon struck something - that being the floor.  My rules on dropping can be read here.  I don't feel I need to extend them at present.

The exact ranges above are doubtlessly going to be a point of contention.  So far, I haven't had any chance to test anything of the above - so for the moment we'll call it Hegel's abstract begging for antithesis in pursuit of the concrete.

In the column "Defending Weapon," the attack (discounting a roll of '1,' which I shall not reference again) either hits the body or hits the defender's weapon.  If it hits the body, damage is done and the attacker's weapon is unaffected.  If it hits the defender's weapon, however, both weapons ought to make some kind of roll, possibly resulting in either or both being broken or not.  The balance could be adjusted by the effect of a hard weapon (steel) vs. a soft weapon (bronze).  Furthermore, either weapon may NOT break, but may be blunted ... which would mean the weapon continued to function as a weapon, but that it did perhaps a point of damage less, or the user was more likely to miss.

I have made no rules for this.  I am merely stipulating at which times said undeveloped rules would apply.

Now, as it happens, I am proposing that whenever the d20 rolled an "8," regardless of the level of the attacker, the two combatant's weapons would come into contact and their sturdiness would be challenged.  However, if it happened that a 3rd level fighter rolled an 8 against an unarmed opponent, we all know that would "Hit" and the fighter would cause damage.  For the remainder of this post, please consider the possibility that the hit would occur, and would do damage, but that it was damage done against the weapon arm/body of the defender.  In other words, yes, I hit your sword; the contact sent a shock down your arm and the shock did damage.  I hit your sword because I rolled an 8.  I did damage because my level hit the equivalent of your armor class.

I hope that's clear.

As such, no matter what the opponent's armor class is, if they are unarmored, and you roll anything between a 2 and a 9, you hit their weapon and not their body - and physics does the damage.

In the column "Padded," it must be noted the defending armor overlaps the defending weapon, whenever a 7, 8 or 9 is rolled on a d20.  It is assumed that IF the defender has a weapon, then a roll of 7, 8 or 9 hits that weapon; and if the opponent does not have a weapon, then a roll of 7, 8, 9 or 10 hits the defender's armor.  The armor, then, is more beneficial if you've lost your weapon; with your weapon, it only improves your resistance to damage by 5% ... which is in keeping with the spirit of the pre-existing combat system.

Now, it should also be noted that the existence of a shield is a special condition.  On the table I am proposing that, like the armor, the defender's weapon will block hits between 2 and 6 ... and that if the defender does not possess a weapon, but has a shield, the shield will block hits between 2 and 6.  HOWEVER, if the opponent does not have a shield, and does not have a weapon, a die roll of 2 to 6 on a d20 will hit the defender's body and cause damage!

This is not in keeping with the pre-existing combat system.

Nevertheless, it does address something the combat system never addressed - how does the lack of a weapon or sword improve the attacker's chance to hit?  It ought to, after all ... but without vastly reworking the entire convenient system as designed, how is that accounted for?

Well, as I suggest above.  I think its a fairly good idea, myself.  Why does it matter that a low die roll hits as opposed to a high one, if you change the situation?  A percentage is a percentage, right?

If the defender has a shield, then the weapon and the shield must both roll for breaking or destruction.  And this brings up a salient point.  If an 10 is rolled, which hits the padded armor as stipulated above, that TOO should affect either the armor or the weapon.  While padded armor seems unlikely to break a weapon, there may be other considerations (getting the weapon somehow hooked or caught by the armor) - and certainly the armor is not indestructible.

So for the remainder of columns, in each case the armor covers more of the range of possible rolls (without changing the existing system's specifications regarding damage).  The greater the armor, the more likely it is that the attacker will hit it - so that it will have to roll again and again in order to endure.  The armor may take constant pounding on the center of the breastplate - but how long can a clasp, a rivet or a joint hold before it breaks and reduces the armor one degree in defense?  These too are rules I haven't written - but it seems to me the above table explains when they would apply.

The shield, when it does defend regardless of the weapon, is considered as according to the pre-existing system to lay overtop the armor - so that if the defender is in plate, the shield is hit on an 18, if the defender is in ring mail, the shield is hit on a 14, and so on.  The reason why it is done this way, rather than to presume the shield is always hit on a 10, is that the system must be flexible to allow for when the defender does not have a shield.  Exactly as in the game, if the defender is in ring without a shield, the 14 hits the defender's body.

Obviously, dexterity is stacked on top of the shield, reducing hits to the body that are rolled above 9.  What this means from the above is that if the defender had plate and shield, and a 16 dexterity, and possessed a weapon, then no attack would EVER hit the defender's body.  But the reader will please note, as I have explained above, it is not necessary to hit the body in order to cause damage.  A bent piece of shield, a bent weapon or the rent pieces of the armor itself, driven into the defender's body with your mace, will kill quite effectively without your mace ever actually touching flesh.

It's just a matter of the way you look at the problem.

Mirth and Me

When thinking of things beyond my control, I must include a distressing reality about the way cartoons now affect me, being nearly 48 years old.  I no longer laugh.  Watching Bugs Bunny or Goofy, I am conscious that a given moment is meant to be funny.  I see how it was constructed to be funny.  And I remember clearly when I thought it was funny.  Nevertheless, I do not laugh.

This is not, I think, because I have I have seen these cartoons many dozens of times, from the age of five onwards.  Granted, there never seem to be any cartoons I have not seen ... but for some, it has been ten or twenty years.  There should remain a novelty, in that I can't remember every scene, or every clever line.  And still, the same cartoons that shaped me once cannot wring a smile out of me.

I am awfully jaded.

It is a similar experience I have with modern "comedies."  I don't find them funny.  I watch and I recognize the points where the writer intended humour.  I almost envision a red square appearing at the bottom of the screen with the benign, somewhat subdued message, "laugh now."  There's no doubt that others are finding these scenes funny ... they are laughing all around me.

I do not think it is because I have become a mirthless person.  Just this morning I laughed so hard I blew coffee onto my computer, which had to be wiped up and which included the use of canned air to ensure the keyboard continues to function.  It took a good five minutes for me to stop laughing.

The source was an odd one.  I mean, truly odd.  If I were to randomly gather people together, it would probably take a thousand or so bodies to find one that vaguely saw the humour.  The humour, o gentle reader, is the sort that derives from having read a great deal, and recognizing the absurdity in things most would view with bovine disregard.  I am speaking of dry wit ... with the rejoiner that my morning's laugh came from a source I can hardly reconcile with normal daily culture.

See, reader - and here I speak to the very rare reader who can appreciate the source - I have been listening to a collection of audio books featuring Robert Whitfield, produced by Blackstone.  The one this morning was titled, Hume in 90 Minutes.

I've listened to three of these so far - Schopenhauer and Hegel would be the other two.  The writing by Paul Strathern is profoundly abusive of the subject in a way I have never heard.  It titillates me to hear anyone speaking of an undeniable genius such as Hume in such positively insulting terms.  There is no genuflection here.  My gawd is it refreshing!

It must, however, be a very small number of people who would appreciate a thing like this ... and what slice of my readers who have familiarity with David Hume, much less the audiobook, I cannot know.  A very small slice, no doubt; a larger slice, I hope, than might be found on other blogs.

When I consider that I cannot laugh any more at a bunny in drag, but I can laugh at the description of an English general (upon whom Hume attended) decided to attack France without map, plan or actual knowledge of where France might be ... it is no wonder that in a theatre I am always experiencing one of two scenarios:

1) Either everyone is laughing mildly, and I am bored,
2) Or I am killing myself laughing amid dead silence.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The Passive Aggressive Adventure

In yesterday's post I proposed a moral dilemma: if there are two adjacent cultures possessing markedly different technologies, so that one is vastly superior militarily than the other, what action might a D&D party in a campaign take?  Should the party distribute weapons to the destitute culture, or should the party work towards keeping the status quo?  It should be noted that choosing to do nothing is in fact choosing the second option.

The DM can make this more uncomfortable by having the party witness a slaughter of the weapons-inferior culture by the weapons-superior culture.  The DM can make it more uncomfortable if it is made clear that the weapons-inferior culture appears to be more ethically in line with the players' view of the world (not the characters, mind, but the actual players at the table).

It's also easier to back the weapons-superior culture if the weapons-inferior culture is "evil" ... nobody minds crossing the border and killing a group of orcs.  However ...

If you really want to screw up a party, consider:

What if the weapons-inferior culture is simultaneously harmless and yet morally reprehensible?  If I propose a culture in which incest is commonplace, abandonment of babies is widespread, prostitution and drug use is rampant and local political unrest/corruption is in the mainstream, what then?  Should a loathsome culture be tolerated and defended because it is obstensibly harmless?  What if the "harmless" element of this proposed culture refers only to its military ambitions?  To what degree does one accept the transmission of sexually transmitted diseases or the smuggling of narcotics into the military-superior culture?  And what if all attempts to peaceably educate the inferior culture end in dismal failure?  How does one stop emigration, and thus the spread of inferior morality and ideas?  At what point do you decide that genocide against helpless people is an acceptable choice?

Remember, this is D&D!  Hitler had to invent reasons to kill gypsies and jews; but you have it in your power as DM to create a race of creatures - call them 'the Mesta' or whatever you want - that actually HAVE these characteristics.  If its possible to conceive of pixies and elves, chimera and lizard men ... then why not moral deviants and creatures that are biologically irredeemable?  Every conceivable moral trait chosen by the human species can be inculcated into a race of creatures ... but does that make it okay to kill or imprison them if they are not outwardly aggressive?

Where is the party prepared to draw the line?

Let us suppose they stumble across a group of nomads who are outwardly friendly and generous.  The party is invited to join their fire, to share in their food, to hear a few stories.  But as the evening goes on, and the nomads grow drunk, things begin to get out of hand.  One of the cooks accidentally breaks one of the party's lanterns.  The party discovers someone has thrown up in one of their backpacks.  A horse goes missing and an apologetic nomad brings the horse back, saying he just wanted to 'try it out' ... but now the horse is lame.  The party thinks about leaving, but the nomads get a bit miffed and insist angrily the party MUST stay and eat a little more.  The nomads have NO agenda!  They are simply incredibly inconsiderate ... to the point that they begin to follow the party, and they keep turning up again and again, to wreck plans for the party, to insult people the party happens to meet, to slip into the party's camp to "borrow" things or accidentally kick a burning log on the fire into the mage's spellbook.

How long would a party let this go on?  Especially if the nomads are NEVER aggressive, not in the least bit.  It's just the little problem that they will not listen to reason.

And what about a shopkeeper who won't sell something to the party the party desperately needs?  Not because he wants more money, but simply because he doesn't like the party's skin color - or their foreign-backgrounds, or the fact that they ride horses?  What happens when the party is constantly thwarted in clean, decent behavior because the locals are simply too irrational to understand that horses CAN'T go about without shoes (despite a local ordinance about the use of metal for "luxury," as defined by the town council), or that healing potion ISN'T an intoxicating beverage, or that your female character isn't willing to cut her hair because this is the local rule?  How many stupid and inconvenient requests have to mount up before your party begins to recognize that not every aggressive action starts with using a weapon?  And what if, when the party pulls out their swords, everyone flees?  Is it okay for the party to use that aggression to start bossing everyone around?  It's an excellent opportunity to bring up the might makes right question - after all, who is in the right here?

These are difficult adventures to run - but oh so engaging!  There's nothing like a party so frustrated they're ready to start screaming, while at the same time restraining themselves from hauling out sword and commencing to butcher.  It's equally pleasant to let them do it, since that gives you, the manipulative DM, the moral high ground in whatever comes next - that is, the inevitable justice that must descend for a moment of poor judgment on the party's part.  I can tell you from experience ... there's no moment more pleasant than having the moral high-ground over a party when they KNOW you deserve it.

(sadly, there are many DM's who simply co-opt that position ... but that's another post)

My point is that passive aggressiveness can be a nasty turn in your world, in that it always compels a decision, but never a clear cut decision.  Just as you can't decide how much longer you're going to tolerate the antics of your roommate or life partner, tolerating a village or harmless group of NPCs can drive a party crazy to the extreme.

It can also be a lot of fun - as while the fighter is getting his backpack filled with vomit, the mage and cleric gain a moment to enjoy the "at least it's not me" perspective.  Watching bad things happen to other people is always a laugh riot.

Monday, June 25, 2012


It is the rare culture that develops steel.  It is first required that the culture develops metal manufacture early, in that it takes many, many generations to develop the intensive design elements of working with metal and creating alloys.  The culture demands an extensive fuel source.  The culture demands that there exists an abundance of food supply,, in order to support the existence of metalworking specialists who do not contribute directly to that food supply.  And finally it requires a large and varied cultural landscape, filled with war, that encourages the culture to develop methods of tool manufacture that would never be required in a peaceful, passive society.

The primary motivation for creating steel is that it is a far superior metal for use in war

Oh, obviously it has other uses which make it superior also ... but those are historically uses that were devised after the invention of steel.  An individual observed the capacity steel had in reference to a particular problem, and applied steel to that problem - railroad tracks, for instance.  Natural application resulting for observation.

Craving the hardness of something that did not yet exist, however, the discovery of steel was pressed for as an answer to swords and other weapons that were too brittle not to break, or too heavy to wield comfortably, or too soft to take an edge and keep it over a long battle.  Curiously, the culture that discovers the solution seems to be the culture most warlike, and most readily able to adapt the solution in terms of its cultural appreciation for human slaughter ... Europe, for instance.

But what of a culture that cannot manufacture steel?  To begin with, because it does not have enough skill, enough knowledge about the elements, enough resources ... and because it has no access to the creation of fire.

The first rule in the manufacture of metals is fire.  Fire requires wood.  There's always magical fire, but I have no examples of any sustained magic fire - metalworking requires days - and in any case, an interesting magical source would hardly be widespread throughout your campaign.

So how do orcs smelt metal weapons?  Obviously, they have iron ... presuming they'd bother hammering ore out of the cave walls when they have no means of burning a fire long enough to separate the metal from it's rock prison.  The same question comes to mind about a number of other metal-weapon using races listed throughout the game.  Where do these swords come from?  And why are they never constructed of bronze, so that they break the first time the party's steel swords connect with them?  Why is it that every culture, from every corner of the world, has the knowledge to make steel as well as every other culture?

Your world's culture and economy has an opportunity to be defined by the placement, abundance, invention and use of metal weapons.  A careful reading of Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel, mixed with some careful geographical distinctions of the parts of your world can create a "sword-running" climate that will provide years of meaningful outdoor adventures for your party.  It will establish dynasties and prejudices, define critical borderlands, give meaning to vast migrations, institutionalize slavery (and promote the need to abolish it) and so on.  The movement and manufacture of steel weapons can provide a solid ethical background to your world on a level you may never have considered.

What happens when one group can make weapons of the greatest destruction at will ... while another cannot beg, borrow or steal them?  Pun intended.  Consider how that is played out - and consider which side the players may be expected to take.  Is gunrunning acceptable?  Or is it better to support a culture free to slaughter its enemies at will?  Which is the redeeming point of view?

All from a simple thing like steel.  Your world is made right there.

Thursday, June 21, 2012


Honestly, I weep for the gaming community.

I recently received an email from Wizards of the Coast, addressed to my name, asking me to use this blog to encourage my readers to join in their online playtesting.  Obviously, I'm not the only person to receive such a request.  Obviously, WOTC is made of such profoundly stupid people that they never bothered to read this blog or discover what my opinion about their company might be.  It's awfully shoddy to be hoping the "community" will rush to your support without first gauging what the "community" might think of you.

Then again, that's more or less what I'd expect from any industry that caters to fan boys.

I get awfully sick of fanboy "culture."  I think what's bothered me these last three decades with its development is the manner in which it has co-opted genius, to ascribe ability and talent where neither exists.

Allow me to explain, as I have done a few times these past few weeks since putting this together.  In 1984, 20th Century Fox allowed an insignificant production company, Interscope Communications, to make a mid-budget B-picture for just $8 million, its first motion picture.  With the help of an upcoming director, Jeff Kanew, and a good deal of PR - college films were usually good draws - a little movie about outcasts was made called Revenge of the Nerds.  The film was primarily about a group of boys, not well-liked (or respected) by the university social establishment, who didn't actually give a fuck about that establishment.  These boys did not pretend to like the establishment, they did not have a whole lot of respect for either rules or the law (basically committing acts in the movie that would land them potential years in jail) and in general they had characteristics that - to some degree - justified the hatred that so-called jocks, principles, figures of authority and indeed drivers on highways had.

In other words, they were Nerds, and being Nerds, they were in large part disgusting, rude, incomprehensible and filled with unsatisfied lust for the opposite sex.  They also happened to be really smart and capable, and they happened to be somewhat naive regarding the ways of the world.

Revenge of the Nerds took in $40 million at the box office, five times its investment, and immediately became a game-changing meme for teen movie plots in the 1980s.  There had been other nerds in other movies - notably the immortal Spaz in 1979's Meatballs - but no movie had been previously made where the entire protagonist cast - without a single "prettyboy" hollywood implant - was made up of bonified, undeniable Nerds.

And there never would be again.

The reason, you see, is that while Revenge of the Nerds was about boys who couldn't get laid or get respect because they were just too fucking weird to be liked, every other nerd movie that came thereafter was about perfectly normal looking kids who thought about sex in a truly Disney fashion while sporting bad hair cuts.  While the Nerds Curtis Armstrong and Timothy Busfield humped whatever girls came into reach or had spontaneous orgasms, later nerds would stutter a little or look shy when it came to the opposite gender.  Revenge of the Nerds had a few plot-important or joke-important references to high intelligence and genius - but the movie was far more about not being liked and not getting laid than it was about them "fitting in."  None of the Nerds wanted to fit in.  In fact, by not fitting in, they kicked everyone's ass ... until in the end, the establishment was reduced to physical attacks.  The movie is a demonstration of stupid people having to resort to fists when they run out of arguments.

ALL other later nerd movies are about fitting in.  All other later nerd movies are about nerds being smart.  Worst of all, nerds appearing in the movies after 1990 are all FANBOYS.

I challenge you to find a "fan" reference made by any Nerd in the early 80s.  The Nerds in Real Genius, Just One of the Guys, Sixteen Candles, Back to School and Meatballs don't talk about Star Wars or Battlestar Galactica, they don't collect action figures or even the appropriate movie posters.  They are not fascinated with lasers because they want to build their own light-sabres, and they don't fill every speech they make with cultural references.

This is something that happened LATER ... when Hollywood, I think, realized that there were nerds who collected a lot of action figures and movie posters and other Hollywood memorabilia ... and that by incorporating such people into the media under the heading "nerds" they could have characters sell this shit by talking about it continuously.  This is why some nerds, like those in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, don't talk product placement until the 6th season, when their ratings start to slide and their budgets need a shot in the arm.

Need to sell some shit?  Put a nerd in your movie.

What bothers me is that we've now come to the rationale that ALL "nerds" collect figures and bad sci fi/horror movies, and that they scream bloody murder online about the characters in Heroes and Lost - and that they all play Dungeons & Dragons.  Somehow, though, all these fan-boy fuckers, who haven't got a brain in their heads, manage to retain the cachet of being geniuses and talented ... when clearly they just are not.  If one of them had ever learned anything about filmmaking or screenwriting or marketing, they'd know without being told just what fucking shills fan boys really are.

Exactly the kind of shill Wizards of the Coast thinks I am, because I play D&D.

That really, really, really pisses me off.

So fuck them and their playtesting fuckfest.  And fuck you, O Gentle Reader, if you're interested in it.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Talking About It

Continuing to play the extreme sport of mentioning that I play D&D while at work, I discovered that one of the women gave up the game in high school because, as she put it, "the DM was awkwardly in love with me."

Would that this were rare.

Sadly, I can remember when I inviegled a group of girls to come play in my world (cleverly fielding an invite while in the school cafeteria) ... and the disastrous wag-fest that followed when eight very nerdish social lepers blocked and passed pathetically at three young waifs.  Worse still when the waifs made up their minds and all hell broke loose.  Ah, 1985, what a year that was.

I have it on good authority that you still can't mention D&D on the job.  People really don't allow it on the level of say, Nascar or craft shows ... which I suppose has something to do with the extreme nerdiness of the participants out there.  There's one girl at a tea shop that serves me occasionally, who is so deep in e4 that the air turns noxious once she gets going.  She's blissfully unaware that there is another edition coming, because she is non-Internet based.

The gentle reader cannot imagine how many non-internet based D&D players are out there.  I know of one group here in town representing 400 players (so they told me) without any internet presence--no email, no website.  That has to be the kookiest thing I've heard this last year.

Anyway.  Everyone I work with knows I play D&D.  They occasionally ask if that's what I'm doing for the weekend.  I don't talk about the games; I don't describe what happens.  I don't even try to explain what the game is.  Why bother?  All I say is that I play it and it takes up my time.

Which is as much as most people can handle.  Shame more talkative players don't get that.

Friday, June 8, 2012


Very well:

"Fun is the enjoyment of pleasure ... Fun may be encountered in many human activities during work, social functions, recreation and play, and even seemingly mundane activities of daily living.  Fun may often have little or no logical basis, and opinions on whether or not an activity is fun may differ.  The distinction between enjoyment and fun is difficult to articulate but real, fun being a more spontaneous, playful or active event."

Remembering that pleasure is a positive feedback mechanism, either mental or physical, and that it is rarely something we can "force" ourselves to experience, it should be evident to anyone who can read and keep definitions of words in their head that "fun" is descriptive of activity which does not depend upon deep thought.  Any moron can have fun.  Anyone having fun usually has the volume of their mental activity tuned to moron.  This is a good thing.  We can't use our brains all the time - and not using our brains can be a fucking riot.

"Fun," however, is tempermental, unreliable, inconsistent and most of all, exhausting.  Fun is NOT addictive.  The more fun you have, the less fun you want.  If a particular activity is fun for you, and you chance to do it as much as you want, it ceases to be fun.  Rushing out to ski in the mountains every weekend is fun - it is a welcome break from your crummy, annoying, stress-driven job, and as long as you have that job, getting the fuck away from it and flying down a mountain is fun.

It loses its appeal, however, when skiing becomes your crummy, annoying, stress-driven job, because you landed work at a chalet for eight months.  The "fun" part of it dies.  That's why a lot of ski-fanatics get spiritual; they lose their giddiness and replace it with something more consuming.

Some people think that won't happen to them.  Some people stupidly think that if they can get a job doing the thing they really love to do on the weekends with their mates, it will be the BEST ... THING ... EVER.  Such people are usually very young.  Such people usually hate everything except the one thing they think is fun.

Consider addictions and addictive behaviors.  Smoking is not fun.  Heroin is not fun.  The 300 million people crawling from bed every morning to wrestle with the coffee machine are not being playful.  Coffee is serious fucking business.  Get between me and my coffee at certain hours of the day and you'll find out just how goddamn serious it is.

Companies do not sell coffee based on its fun-factor.  People shooting up heroin do not usually bounce around with joy.  The pathetic createres haunting the porticos of office buildings are not gleefully taking drag after drag.  Addiction is not fun.  It is more important than fun.

Dungeons and Dragons is addictive.  It can be fun.  If it is continuously fun, without breaks for more serious elements of the game, it rapidly becomes stupid and tiresome.  Players who insist that everything the DM says must be transformed into something fun are the most fucking annoying people players have ever been cursed with.  "Fun"-driven campaigns are lively and wonderful for a night or two ... but the appeal soon wanes.

There is no substance in fun.  It is crash and flash, it releases energy, it smooths out the vicissitudes of life and it is absolutely necessary for sanity.  But it's empty.  We have libraries full of books describing how empty fun is.  There will always be an element too dumb and inexperienced to know this; there will always be some lid-banger shouting how important it is that the inclusion of fun must not be forgotten.

This in light of the fact that fun is EASY.  Surprisingly, it is particularly easy for people with intellect.  The creation of fun is like shooting fish in a barrel.  There is fun in everything.  There is fun everywhere.  Nothing EVER has to be pre-planned to include fun.  In fact, pre-planning is the worst thing that can be done.  Fun will occur spontaneously without anyone's conscious help, because that is the way human beings are built.

So when I say, don't fucking design your world to include fun, I mean don't fucking design your world to have something that doesn't need design.

To all the dumb, blind losers out there who just don't get it ... fun doesn't need your help.  Fun has never needed your help.  And if you think it always has, then you're too dumb to know you're the least fun person among the group of morons you hang with.

And they all know it.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Don't Believe Me

"My own suspicion is that the universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose."

Watching a Q.I. Episode from two years ago, I laughed as Stephen Fry tried to convince his panel about the nature of gravity ... specifically that the bullet fired from a level gun will hit the ground at the same time as a bullet simultaneously dropped from the other hand (discussion begins at 18:40 into the video).

Fry rightly begins by saying that his panel won't believe him; then adds that he can't quite believe it himself, though he knows it to be true.  What follows is the usual amount of doubt that is to be expected, which carries on intermittently for the remainder of the program.

Something that must be understood with knowledge is that the more you know, the weirder the universe becomes.  This is not just true of physics and biology - it is true of everything.  As you approach the hard facts about things, the more difficult it becomes to reconcile those facts with things you once took for granted when you were ignorant.

I'll give another example, one that is close to my heart.  I live in a city - Calgary - that is understood by geologists to sit in an area of "low" seismic activity, as indicated by this map:

Calgary is in the dark green area covering the upper left corner.  For most people, low seismic would suggest an absence of earthquakes, or at least that an earthquake occurred infrequently.  Certainly, by the dates indicated on the maps of big earthquakes, it would seem Calgary hasn't had an earthquake since the province was explored around the 1860s (no date is indicated).

As it happens, however, Calgary experiences between two and three hundred earthquakes per day.  They really do.  I've watched the seismograph that used to be kept in the basement of what was Gulf Canada Square (when I worked there in the 80s), and seen the earthquakes happening.  I was assured it was not "traffic" or some other man-created phenomena.

These earthquakes occur so low upon the richter scale (in the neighborhood of 1.1 to 1.3) that they're undetectable.  The earth doesn't shake.  Buildings don't collapse.  People don't "feel" anything ... or so they think.  Sometimes, if you live here and you know what's happening, you can get a feeling of nausea that lasts less than a second; the higher you are, the more evident the feeling is.  Of course, people have no idea where it came from, and presume it is something in them.

There's other evidence for the occurrence of these earthquakes, but the evidence is overlooked or misunderstood.  Calgary's streets and sidewalks are in a constant state of repair; people here view that as a sign that the city is responsible, and that they're replacing old streets from a desire to keep the city modern and neat.  Sometimes, it is supposed the cold weather cracks the pavement.  The culprit is constant daily vibration.  Edmonton, 180 miles north of here, and Regina, 500 miles east, do very well with paving that manages to hold up for thirty or forty years - even though the weather is in fact colder.  Calgary needs new paving on its major streets every ten.

I knew an artist who moved to Calgary from Edmonton who could not understand why her pictures would not hang straight.  She had hundreds of pictures, which studded her house.  In Edmonton, she never had any trouble ... but since moving to Calgary, she constantly had to straighten her pictures.  She could not understand it.

Sometimes, if you load dishes into a sink all higgledy-piggledy, and leave them, they'll sit for hours without moving.  Then suddenly they'll shift, dropping in place.  People around here are apt to say a dish "lost its grip."  My mother used to say that.  It's ridiculous, of course, but ordinary human observation doesn't allow for a better explanation.

I have tried to explain hundreds of times to people who live here this simple reality about their environment, but of course most don't believe me.  Why should they?  Their experience doesn't account for movements of the earth they can't feel in their toes.   Therefore, by definition, the earth does NOT move.

As I say, all knowledge is like this.  The more you know, and the more you talk about what you know, the crazier and crazier you appear to other people.  That is why I've argued that Dr. Seuss's book, Horton Hears A Who, is really about a scientist who has discovered something that others believe doesn't exist, that Horton is nuts, and that the matter must be crushed from everyone's mind, lest they be polluted  (the horrendous movie, predictably, missed this point and was thus dreck).

I am duty bound to provide a D&D example.  This is a D&D blog, and those who read me regularly know that I will eventually drag this jaunt around the barn back to the subject at hand.  It follows that D&D is something about which knowledge can be gained.  I argue that knowledge about D&D also possesses that circumstance described above.  If you know something more than the ordinary player about this game, the ordinary player will think you're full of shit.

Yes, yes, this all seems like a clever bait-and-switch.  A number of gentle readers will by now have their tongue firmly stuck in their cheek, waiting for the cheap, cruddy bit of knowledge I've built this argument up to justify.  Really, it is as if I couldn't simply write a post saying, "Orcs are fucking stupid," and add to that, "Shove it up your ass if you don't agree."  After all, this is all that 98.5% of blogs do (you can rely on that statistic), albeit more politely.  I'm not duty bound to prove anything to my audience in a field where most don't bother ... and in any case, I presume my reader is intelligent enough to know what bullshit looks like.

Look, I know I'm smarter than a lot of people.  I know because there are books full of proven, actual knowledge, and because I believe those books.  Most don't.  When they don't, I'm quite aware of how stupid they are.  Anyone knowing a bit about physics, geology, math or medicine knows very clearly how profoundly fucking stupid people really, really are.

After 33 years of playing this game, and 29 years of hearing A LOT of praise for my world and my ability to DM, from many, many people, I know I'm good at this.  I work hard at it and I'm critical and cynical enough that I'm uncomfortable with taking things at face value.  I don't trust face value, anymore than I trust people who think a earthquake only exists when it's described as 5.0 or more.  Ever wonder why you never hear on the news, "An earthquake of 2.1 struck Memphis today ..."

No, I suppose most don't.

Ah, fuck it.  A D&D example:

I've said it before, without the preamble.  D&D should not be played for laughs.  It can be played for laughs ... and if you've never played it any other way, it will seem like playing it for laughs feels exactly right.  If that's your whole experience, you'll crow about your playing-it-for-fun game until your brain pops free from your butt and goes to market for toilet paper.  You'll never guess that you're wrong, because you've got shit for brains and brown seems like a damn good color.

"Fun" - for those who don't know it - is measured in little blobs of chemical released into your brain.  They're nice blobs ... they make you feel nice.  But they're just one kind of blob your brain has on tap.  Where it comes down to what you could feel, you haven't begun to break open bottles at your personal built-in pharmacy.  You've got fear, terror, pride and a hundred other manic hypos ready to launch straight into your cortex.  Delusion, confidence, bravery, dependence, brilliance and a whole mess of certifiable paranoias just wait to be injected into your game ... but you haven't got a clue how that's done, because over and over you just keep going back to that bottle marked eff-you-en.  You poor, ignorant sap, you.