Thursday, February 28, 2013

Tuned to the Urban: Thieves

Yesterday I said that while an assassin knows people, a thief knows money.  That is, who has it, how much they have, where it is, where its going and where it hasn't gone in a long time.  A thief ought to be able to wander through a town and in two or three days ascertain where the new industry is and where the old isn't.


To begin with, by the level of emotion.  Consider that word, 'bustling.'  It's from a Middle English word, bresten, which means to rush or break, as in a flood of water that in smashing its way through a valley.  A bustling city is where things are happening; money has appeared, there's plenty of money to be made and there are opportunities everywhere.  One pretty much only has to hold out their hat to have it suddenly fill with money, there's so much of it moving about.

Money flows like a river - you just have to peel your eyes and watch.  Loaded carts creaking or rattling over the streets, coming from somewhere, going to somewhere ... a thief can follow along just to see both ends of the chain.  It isn't necessary that the thief do it in order to steal something on the fly - that's small potatoes.  What we're talking about is knowing where the walking trade is good; knowing who's up for giving the party money to hurry up into the hills and find something.  Who in town with money is adventurous, who sees and opportunity and is just looking for stalwart fellows to gamble on.

Screw rumors.  Rumors are things know-nothings babble to each other over bartables because they work crummy labor jobs for little or know pay.  What the party needs is inside information.  We've just recently figured out where the orcs are - we don't know what they've managed to collect up in those holes, but by GOD don't tell anyone because we'll have the whole goddamned town up there!

(I did say that despite all the things I said about dungeon illogic, I intended to ignore that for gaming purposes ... not that anyone commenting on that post listened)

So how does the party find out?  Well, there's a few too many mules in this stall today.  And there's a stack of sacks and tackle nearby.  What's more, there seems to be some sort of meeting going on in the stable's office, where there are men with swords.  What are they doing there?

You've got to picture the whole town in your mind's eye.  You've got to invest it with hundreds, thousands of people who are doing just what the party means to do.  Some of them are loading wagons to drag stuff long distances.  Some of them are sitting around wondering whether or not to start a bar fight.  And some of them are loading up to go kill orcs in the hills.  It is a matter of carefully observing what's going on.

Not that thieves do, generally.  It is all, "do I see a fat purse."  Short-sighted thinking.  There's no statement like, "Who runs the butcher's guild in this town, and where do they live."  Or, "Who's selling the guards their weapons?"  Or, "Are the streets regularly paid?  Is the town running a deficit?"

If the answer to that last one is no, the streets haven't been paved in months, the town's obviously broke ... the next question ought to be why?  If there's money coming in, why isn't it going to the town?  Who's hoarding it?

Well, no one.  Maybe this is a depressed community and there just isn't any.  Or maybe there's a petty merchant that's slowly starving the town to death for his own purposes.  Or maybe the long term labor shortage caused by the king's activities has succored the town into a permanent recession for lack of labor.

These things are not explained to parties for two reasons.  1) It would never occur to a party that the DM would be able to answer questions like this; and 2) it would never occur to a DM that anyone would ask.  It's one reason, really.  DMs, living in a present-day world, think that the social construction of a town is like a modern suburb.  People work.  People are paid.  People buy stuff with their pay.  And that is all.

The idea that money is power, and would be used to influence others, is a kind of amorphous Hollywoodization of the very rich and socially distant ... certainly not something a young DM from Pretty Place Rise outside Denver has any experience with.  His conception of power from money is if you don't have it, you have to suck up to get it.  And that is the motif that most middle class suburban players grow to understand.  They never really see how it is with rural, isolated communities ... where the real power is held by who supplies the shit everyone needs to live.

(Winter's Bone was only a revelation as a film because it was preaching to the upper middle class white suburban audience, who can't conceive that people who are poor are still wildly disparate where it comes to who holds the money)

No matter how poor a region is, there is always a separation between people with money and people without.  And the people without are always reduced to servitude because of their pathetic need to eat and be sheltered and clothed.  The people with money never, ever really care, because their tiny bit of power enables them to be comfortable and despotic.

The bigger the base population, the more intricate become the webs of who is lording who's little bit of power over whom.  It takes a clever DM to conceive of those webs, and just as clever a character to ask the questions that will spur the DM to creativity.  If you ask a really silly question like, "who's rich," you're letting the DM off too easy.  Obviously, whoever owns the big houses.

"WHY are they rich?" is better.  "How did they get their money?" is better still.  But the real bonus comes when the players ask, "How is that rich person getting his money TODAY?  Specifically, this very minute?"

That's where the thief comes in, and that's where the DM has to stretch.  "There's a big shipment coming in," says the DM.  "It's fourteen wagons of raw wool.  There's been a run on the market and while Mr. Big runs all the shops in town, he's running out of stock because there hasn't been any raw wool.  He wants that wool bad, and he's got fifty guards on the shipment to make sure it arrives."

Hm.  What if it doesn't?  Or better still, who in town would really like it not to?

That, my gentle readers, is an adventure.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Pete's Garage, Copy in Hand

Next stage achieved ... I have the book.

Tuned to the Urban: Assassins

Yesterday in the comments section, Lukas asked if there weren't classes who were as tuned to an urban environment as druids and rangers are to the wilderness.

Well, naturally.  Thieves and assassins.

To my mind, cities are divided along two foci ... people and money.  However the manner in which they are associated with the city, both pool in the same place and the problems of a city are the problems of having too many people and those people having too little money (often, just to suit themselves).

Money, obviously, falls into the thief's territory.  On the other hand, where it comes to studying people, watching them, following their patterns and motivations, knowing what to expect of them and where to find them when the time is right, that is certainly the assassin's territory.

Many DMs don't like assassins, and I think the reason is this:

"Lisa, if you don't watch the violence,
you'll never get desensitized to it."
The last thing I have any intention of doing is to Disneify the violence in my world, or the manner of play my players want to indulge in.  I don't care if players become murderers.  I don't care if they want to be Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men or Peter Kurten.  Yesterday also, jbeltman accused me of being firmly in the 'low fantasy' camp.  He's right, but not in the way he meant.  I don't believe there's any kind of fantasy for which I won't stoop low.

I like assassins.  I don't have many players play them, and usually they're played like a sort of poor, rambling thief who bothers to use their assassination skill every four levels (their choice, not mine), but personally I like having them in my world and I like the way they work.  They make excellent NPCs and they are scary as shit.  Just like real assassins are.

The other day I dug out my copy of Sydney Pollack's Three Days of the Condor, from 1975.  Unfortunately, I couldn't find a decent copy of the scene ... but there dialogue runs like this.  It is late in the film, and the main character Turner is talking to Joubert, the assassin:

   Turner: I'd like to go back to New York.
   Joubert: You have not much future there. It will happen this way. You may be walking. Maybe the first sunny day of the spring. And a car will slow beside you, and a door will open, and someone you know, maybe even trust, will get out of the car. And he will smile, a becoming smile. But he will leave open the door of the car and offer to give you a lift.
   Turner: You seem to understand it all so well. What would you suggest?
   Joubert: Personally, I prefer Europe.
   Turner: Europe?
   Joubert: Yes. Well, the fact is, what I do is not a bad occupation. Someone is always willing to pay.
   Turner: I would find it… tiring.
   Joubert: Oh, no — it's quite restful. It's… almost peaceful. No need to believe in either side, or any side. There is no cause. There's only yourself. The belief is in your own precision.

It's a simple presentation of an assassin who is not a gleeful killer or a nutjob, who is not sexually driven or depressed.  In other words, its a very rare Hollywood presentation.  There are good reasons for that.  Hollywood does not want to present sanity and cool-headedness mixed in with casual murder.  It scares Lisa.

(last night, watching this Ted Talk, in which the speaker earnestly wants to share the shit out of you, there's discussion of one of those scenes from the Bourne movies with forty people in a room packed with screens and computers, tracking the movement of everything on the planet ... except that it is terrorists manning the tools.  We don't see this in a movie because Americans don't want to see three Arabs sitting in a van tracking Bruce Willis using satellites that were privately launched in Sudan.  It's just a little too creepy)

Okay, let's go back to Joubert's character.  I particularly like the line where Turner says, "You seem to understand it so well ..."  To me, this is the crux of the good assassin.  Not the one that flies into the house and slaughters everything, no.  The one that watches the house for days, works out where the target sleeps in the house, what the target eats for breakfast, whether or not the target likes his job or is good at it, etcetera.  And in the larger sense, how the target's street identifies the target and all the target's friends, and how they're going to behave when the target is dead.  In short, how do people relate to each other, how do they function in the world?  In the grand scheme, an assassin ought to be able to stand at a corner, gaze at the crowd and work out which one of them loves his wife.

It's a difficult thing to hammer into a game mechanic.  So I'm willing to be flexible where it comes to the roleplay.  Still, there are things that can be calculated, and most of them come under this Infrastructure idea I've had for about a week now.

It's the assassin who ought to be able to tell you if the people are healthy or not.  It's the assassin who would know who are the toughest guards, or which one ought to be struck first in a fight.  Imagine having a character who can ask you, the DM, "which one has the most hit points?" and getting back an accurate answer, more accurate as the assassin increases in levels.  It is the assassin who would know if a lawyer was honest; or if the king ruled for real or as a puppet; or what the guards were doing when not on their rounds.  Want to find a good, safe inn with the best food?  Ask the assassin.  He or she would know just from looking at the people walking in and out.

To kill people, you have to know people.  You have to watch their little habits, their gestures, their tells.  The thief has his or her eye on the little pouch, and how well the carrier protects it ... but the assassin is watching the carrier's soul, and how well the carrier is protecting THAT.

That's the sort of theft that interests an assassin.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Downing the Disease Difficulty

So, let's do some simple design, just to get a handle on some new rules for disease.  Disease is one of those things in the game that everyone hates, players and DMs alike, because it is so random, so out of the blue and in turn so deadly, it seems grossly unfair to arrest a player in his or her tracks just because the percentile dice comes up '01.'

Looking at the vegetation map I posted for Dalmatian Lands yesterday (the second map down the page, mostly green and yellow), the gentle reader can see numbers that are black on white.  These are degrees of civilization, or what I was calling 'infrastructure' nine days ago.

(See?  There is method to my madness.  First, I introduce the math, then the data, and finally the purpose)

Let's take a wide variety of places.  We can pluck them all from southern Italy.  Hopefully, the reader can find Naples ... its in the middle of a bright yellow area in the lower left quadrant of the map.

Naples has an infrastructure (IS) of '3478' ... which is the highest number I could find anywhere that I've actually calculated.  Paris might be higher, but I haven't actually calculated it.  The number is based on the relative density, and in the middle ages, the density around Naples was HIGH.  It was, at that time, one of the most urban places on earth.

Above and to the right is a hex with Benevento, with an IS of '456.'  Two hexes to the upper right, the reader can see Lucera, with an IS of '88.'  One hex down and to the right of Lucera is an empty, dark green hex with an IS of '30.'  And up and to the right of Lucera is a empty, light green hex with an IS of '5.'

Let me blow up the relevant area so it's convenient.  The places I've described are makred with blue arrows.

Now, it can be seen that there is another small number in the right corner of every hex, in black.  In Naples, that number is 0.  In Benevento, it is 275.  In Lucera, it is 610.  Finally, in the dark green hex it is 2814 and in the light yellow hex (near San Severo) is 2109.  These are elevations, in feet.  On the original map, the reader can see that these elevations (and the low IS numbers accompanying them) follow the Apennine Mountains down the spine of Italy.

Let's take advantage of these numbers being based on density and lets say that the number itself, divided by 10,000, gives the % chance for becoming diseased if you spend a night in that hex.

WHOA!  A 35% chance for disease if you sleep in Naples?  Ridiculous! The population would all be dead!

Yes, that is probably correct, except for a few points I'd like to make.

First, I said becoming diseased, not catching a disease.  I'm arguing that you will contract something that first night ... but not that there is then again a 35% chance of catching something completely different the next night.  What I'm saying is that if you lie down in a gutter for three nights in Naples, then yes, by the end of the third night, you will probably be sick with something.

Second, I must rush to point out that in all probability, most persons in the medieval world probably were diseased ... with things we hardly think about: a wide variety of skin maladies, fungus, moderate pneumonia or tuberculosis, not to mention tape worms and other internal beasties, scabies, mild forms of disentary, scurvy and a host of vitamin deficiencies, etc.  All that and chronic malaria, for another thing, which was rife in 16th century southern Italy, particularly among the coastal urban population.

Finally, this is D&D ... so the reader should expect modifiers.  34.78% is just a base figure.

Note, however, that as one gets further and further from the city, climbing up into the mountains, the character actually becomes safer.  Don't want to die of disease?  Don't go to town.

Paladins, naturally, are immune from disease anyway, and they could keep the diseases of a small party fairly at bay.  But a lot of time spent in Naples could make cure disease as useful as cure light wounds.

Features that would prove useful combatants against disease would include public baths, the prevalence of falconers and rat catchers, wells for fresh water (if it was fresh - wells helped kill people of cholera in 19th century London), hospitals, apothecaries and gong pits (which would presume a steady effort to clean up).  Dug sewers, too, would be a feature which I hadn't mentioned before.

This is Naples, however, with a population exceeding half a million and surrounded by a million more in the surrounding cities and duchies.  So it can't be a question of whether or not Naples has sewers, gong farmers, a hospital and so on.  Obviously, it would have many hospitals, and lots of everything else besides.

What matters isn't the presence of these things, but the degree of presence.  And here we get to pull away from the flat numbers.  Has the town kept up the sewers?  Are the hospitals intelligently run, or are they warehouses for the dying?  Are there enough apothecaries, gong farmers and rat catchers?  Is the water in the wells very fresh or awfully tainted?  What standards apply to the baths, and are they in the best of maintenance?

Suppose we make a supposition that each feature (seven in total, baths, ratters, wells, hospitals, apothecaries, farmers and sewers) has the potential for reducing disease in that area by 18%.  Thus, the potential could be to eliminate disease in Naples.  More to the point, however, 3d6 are rolled for each feature to see what is effective, and how much.  The average says disease will be lowered, in toto, 73.5% ... but a couple of bad rolls could make Naples into a disastrous vacation choice.

The same rolls are applied to every hex ... that is, that has a town (please note that the danger of disease applies to staying anywhere in the given hex, not just the town itself - though you could double the number for the city and halve it for the country, if you like).  Benevento and Lucera are a lot smaller, so they have less of everything ... but they also have less disease to combat (Benevento a base of under 5% and Lucera with a base of under 1%).  All in all, both could be quite decently safe.

The hills, of course, could not have sewers or baths ... but 'hospital' is a fairly wide term and in any case, there could be a local physician, along with a local herbalist and rat catcher.  Overall, there would be slightly less reduction ... but there's also a lot less disease to reduce.

Now, once the party is informed of the principle, they would know what chances they were taking ... by actually assessing the local towns.  They'd be asking after hospitals.  They'd be tasting the water upon arrival.  "Is there any evidence of sewers?"  "Have I even seen a rat catcher today, or someone with a falcon?"  And so on.  Bang.  A town now is more than just a collection of houses.  The players care what the infrastructure is.

More to the point, it would be REALLY HARD to raise Naples' sewer system from your ... call it a 'mitigation' roll ... of 7% reduction to an 8% reduction.  That's a lot of time, labor and money, where it comes to rebuilding parts of disease-infested Naples.  But improving Lucera by 5% might be something a mid-level party could manage - now that there is some logic to what needs to be done and how it is to be done.  The town has one crappy hospital - build another.  The town's baths are basically three natural ponds.  Let's shore them up and make the townspeople appreciate us.  "Let's spend our money on something concrete, as opposed to just more armor!"  And let's have some adventures grow out of the struggle to overcome the miserable process of living ... when there are people out there to oppose or help our efforts.

You want an adventure?  There's an adventure.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Art at Last!

I extended the preview also.

The Process of Selling

Something I have to compel myself to do daily now is talk about my book, Pete's Garage.  And because I want to keep it real, and not turn into some hideous salesperson, I find myself struggling with the various aspects of talking about how I feel trying to hawk the book.

Several years ago, just prior to the height of the recession, I helped a debt consolidation specialist put together a technical manual that described what he did.  Basically, for those of you who do not know how debt consolidation works, I'll give a brief rundown.

You get into debt.  I mean, serious debt.  To the tune of several hundred thousand dollars.  You owe on everything, but the value of your property will cover the debt.  Usually, just.  At the end of your tether, you throw yourself on a debt consolidator.  He puts together a sum of money through a bank and with that money you pay off your cars, your credit cards, your mortgage, etc ... and then you owe just one payment to the bank.

Now, my client - we'll call him Doug, since being underground was about right for him - is relying on a simple reality.  If you were bad at paying your debts before, you're still bad at it now.  And in a few months, you're going to default on your debt consolidation payment and together with the bank, Doug will take everything you own.

Doing this, Doug gets very rich.

I spent a lot of time with Doug while we worked together.  He was a marvelous speaker, but his writing was for shit and he needed someone who could help with laying out pages.  He paid me a couple of thousand dollars for this, which he basically pulled out of his wallet and gave me in cash.  Doug was not strapped for cash.

What's particular about Doug was that he had ceased to be human.  Doug was a stuffed shirt full of salesman patter, and he could not turn it off - even when he was talking about mundane things like where he parked his car or how the scone with his coffee tasted.  There is a particular tone that sales people adopt, and eventually it just becomes who they are.  It's a disturbingly phony tone.  I've never understood how it works to sell people, but it does.  It has something to do with its cheery, confident, encouraging, non-judgmental manner.  And while I spent all this time with Doug, examining it and re-examining it as he talked about how he'd bought some $300,000 car that was waiting in Vegas for him, and how he and his friend were going to drive down and get it, and spend a week there in the meantime (just one of the many stories I heard), I began to understand how it convinces people to let Doug get his hooks into them.

He sounds harmless.  He sounds just a bit too stupid to be dangerous.  The phoniness actually convinces them that Doug can't really be a viper, he's just too obviously trying to sell them.

I never want to be like this.  I want you to buy my book.  I want you to consider all the tens of thousands of words on this blog, and consider how they demonstrate beyond a shadow that I can write, and that if I turn my mind to a fiction novel, it is going to be a good one.  I know that the world works in a way that I have to say to you, the reader, buy this thing.  It is worth your while.  It is cost of four coffees and the scones they come from.  I love this book.  I wasn't sure for awhile, but I did fall in love with it along the way.

From time to time I will want to reassure you.  This blog and this book are not two different things.  They are the same thing.  They are both me, the person speaking to you now.  And if you are the sort that can't get enough of what I've written today, there's 80,000 more words waiting for you.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Fleshing the Wilderness

So, I'm trying to follow up on this post on the placement of features in the wilderness, and finding already that I'm going to need a host of new rules.

For example, features such as armories, army camps and castles should increase the number of patrols a party is likely to encounter, doubling and even tripling them.  Some hexes it would be impossible to go to a tavern or a market without there being soldiers in evidence, much more so that there might be otherwise.  But what is the baseline?  The appearance of a patrol has always been inserted into an encounter table - but we know that patrols don't really work on a random basis.  They are variously regular, they cover the overall land surface and they're deliberately designed to enforce the law.

What is the baseline?  A patrol once per week per set area, so that a party staying in one place for an entire week should be met at least once.  Or perhaps, for the die's sake, a low patrolled area would be 1 in 8 days (instead of a week); various levels above that would be 1 in 4 days, every day, every 8 hours.  And the number of patrol might increase from 4 guards to 9 guards to 22 guards.

This is all assuming there are any guards at all.

Moreover, what is it exactly that the guards ought to expect?  A relaxed, very rural area would be more casual than a heavily patrolled region with castle and army camp.  Searches?  Questioning?  What defines an area as off-limits, and what is the medieval punishment for failing to be informed?  Attack; imprisonment; or just pushing off?  This isn't random - established militaries behave according to their presence and local importance.

Regarding something else.  If I add a black market to my trading table, what items does it provide?  Certainly addictive substances like tobacco, opium and distilled beverages; perhaps caviar; probably whale oil.  Weapons yes; perfumes maybe.  A definitive list has to be established, along with how much less it can be bought for, not to mention the possible danger in having said items once purchased.  I also think that some kind of % roll should be worked out for assassins and thieves in order to find the black market, increased by level.  Unless I want to say they can automatically do so.  That seems less than desireable.

A similar problem occurs with the presence of an auction house.  Cheap and sometimes damaged goods should be available - but probably not the sort of things seen in a modern auction on the road show.  This would be more along the line of estate sales ... specifically the house, or items such as wagons, horses and other livestock, ships and boats, land, workshops, mines, quarries and anything else large or that could be purchased in lots (as opposed to quaint artworks and label-oriented items).  Prior to the 18th century, few people were concerned or cared about a specific maker, so the auction house would mostly be there to move things that couldn't be put on a shelf.  A definitive list would need to be made.

Rules would also have to be established as to how damaged some of the lots were, and how that affected the final price.  Cheaper, certainly, but how much cheaper?  And if it was something like a resource lot, how is the price affected by the expected gain from said resource in the future?  All those have to be considered.

Some things are easier.  An almshouse would mean cheap, available unskilled labor, and plenty of it.  Apothecaries, guilds, fish wharves, blacksmiths and the like that are located outside market towns - where I limit my markets - would provide limited equipment lists in those specific fields.  The list I have for specialty places (so far) can be downloaded from my equipment list found here.  An archery range would mean available bow-using mercenaries; a barracks would mean hired footmen; an arsenal would mean sappers and artillerists.  In other words, you couldn't just hire all the mercenaries you wanted in the same walmart-o-rama.

And there are degrees of everything.  A courthouse might mean obtaining writs, hiring lawyers, resolving property issues or appealing for recognition of your status as a land owner or developer ... but not all courthouses everywhere would be able to handle all matters.  Local courthouses would do for local matters; but if something came up for high level characters, potentially involving the kingdom and foreign affairs, it would have to be a prestige court.  How does one begin to establish what and where and how much?  One step at a time, yes ... but it calls for imagination.

Has anyone ever come up with good rules for determining how much meat per day a ranger (vs. someone else) can gather from a given region per day?  And what if the area is well stocked, or the hunter is poaching a game reserve?  What is the difference between a good fish pond and a poor one?  Where are the rules that make it worthwhile for players to bother stopping to fish for a day in order to stock up, as opposed to simply buying their way through your world?  Which is the more romantic way of managing their supplies?

Up to now I have 58 general features; I'm just sketching out their general importance, but there's lots to do here.  Rules to make, aspects to consider, players to educate and encourage towards a whole new set of wilderness-oriented tactics.

It ain't just the survivor's boardgame any more.

Friday, February 22, 2013

When You Don't Know Jack

People do say the stupidest things.

Let me start with a technology that most would not see as a 'technology' ... double-entry bookkeeping.  This was a practice that was intiated in the late 13th century by a number of different individuals in Florence, Genoa and Bologna - expanding Italian mercantilist cities who were making a killing off the goods coming out of the Levant, unloading it mostly onto French and German buyers who could not get enough of the silks, spices, oils, perfumes, gems, dyestuffs and so on.  Italy was also nicely placed to take advantage of the new trade rushing out of North Africa, with the rise of distant, unknown kingdoms like Kano and Tombouctou, and the sea routes also proved to be the shortest for the furs and high quality timber pouring out of Russia through the Black Sea.

The problem was, with all these tremendous heaps of money to be made, and trade expanding outwardly both in terms of imagination and geography, keeping track of all the shit you had, all the shit coming in, all the shit going out, how much money it was all costing, etcetera ... and this added to new problems like promissary notes and credit, along with interest, financial partners, the new taxes that city governors were charging for stone roads and so on - if YOU wanted to be one of the people who didn't lose money to the fifty people under you ready to seize whatever they could get and start moving it themselves for fun and profit, you had to have a really good idea of what the hell you had.  So the idea of writing everything down more than once was wonderful!  Not only could you compare books, but you could have some people keeping the first set and others keeping the second, then you could hire more people who did nothing but make sure everyone's tallying added up.

Yes, that's right ... one of the greatest inventions ever created was middle management.

I'm sure a great many people scoffed.  I'm sure merchants who'd been doing things the old way fought the trend throughout the 14th century, laughing at those FOOLS who spent all their time counting money, actually paying people to count money someone else had counted.  What a waste!

I'm just as sure that slowly, surely, those detractors of the system were steadily crushed underfoot.

We've all known people who were trying to start businesses, even in the modern day, who weren't doing their accounting.  People who presumed that if they worked hard, the customers coming in would cover their costs in the long run and things would be fine.  If you're in business, and you deal with the matter of counting money on a daily basis, this idea does more than annoy you ... it gives you the night sweats.  It is really, truly hard to imagine people being more stupid.

The assumption is, of course, that all that extra work with keeping track of numbers and such is wasted effort, which can be better spent fixing things, serving the customers, getting a little shut-eye and so on.  "Hey," the fellow says.  "I'm an experienced cook!  I get along by having experience at this thing, and I don't need to bury myself in a lot of useless math."

Uh, yeah.

Here is something the gentle reader won't hear me saying.  I won't say, "Well, you run your world your way, and that's fine, and I'm sure that we both achieve the same results ... just differently."

Keith S said it just two days ago:  "... Maybe we're doing the same thing you and I.  Your world arises from mathematically-modeled data points, and mine from experience."

What's really interesting about this statement is that it makes two remarkable assumptions, and they're both really, really stupid.  Sorry, Keith, but they are.

The first assumption is that the actual world doesn't arise from mathematically-modeled data points.  It's stunning that in the 21st century we still don't acknowledge as a culture that absolutely everything in existence, both that which we have made and that which defines what we CAN make, does not fall under the express governance of mathematics.  The subatomic particles that define the energy that comprises all that we see or feel or conceive are all ruled by mathematical data points, which we use to make all this miasma of equations into a world that enables me to bitch slap Keith this morning.  My world doesn't "arise" from data because I simply willed data onto my system and presto-chango, its a math world.  No, what's happening is that I am choosing to adapt math as a TOOL that has existed all along and apply it to my world the way any person would a pencil, a desk light or my chair.  Taking the position that math is, well, anathema to creation is, well ... I'm sorry, I can't begin to qualify the word.  It's just really stupid.

The second assumption is that somehow, because I have adopted math as a tool, that my world doesn't arise from my experience.  As if to say, somehow, five minutes before my world begins, a team of brilliant surgeons rush to the head of my kitchen table, carefully perform a lobotomy, remove all my memory, then stand by to put that shit back after I've somehow run my world without it.  (They have to put that shit back so I can use my experience to write this blog).  I can't imagine how I'm able to run my world without all that experience, but then I'm not able - due to this experience - to evaluate how it is going.

Pedantic?  Perhaps.  But for the love of six dead mice in a shit bucket, how in the FUCK do you run a world without the use of your experience?  That's just really stupid, too.

I'm sorry, I've got to say it again.  My world arises from my experience with mathematics and the way it influences everything, including me, plus my experience with humor, my experiences with people, my experience being alive 48 years, my experience playing the game for 33 years, my experience as a writer and a scholar and a goddamn sociopath.

I'm sure this sounded really smart to Keith when he wrote it.  I'm sure he just meant to propose that somehow we can agree to disagree, that I am all about the math and he's all about the 'feeling' ... which is all experience is in that context.  But see, when I hear someone trying to tell me that I do something one way, and they do it another, what I hear is, "You do this in a way I can't or won't."  But to bolster their own ego, they throw in some bullshit phrase that suggests they're doing something, and thus tacked onto the end of their laziness is "... and mine from experience."

In other words, you build bridges by having them designed (with math), employing a lot of people, using stone and concrete and metals, while I look at rivers sometime and imagining doing that.

I think what people really fail to grasp is that saying that shit out loud just makes them sound really stupid.  They should stop saying that shit out loud.  Seriously.  If they don't want to do the work, they should stop drawing attention to the fact that they're not doing it.

I had a dinner last night with a long-time friend and ex-roommate, a musician.  He started learning the violin when his age was in single digits, and now he's a blues player in his fifties, pretty much doing nothing else but.  We sat around spitballing the various ways to sell his most recent projects and my most recent project (Pete's Garage!), and as ever we spent a fair amount of time keeping ourselves encouraged by talking about what other people don't do.

He has people from his audience all the time who approach him and say, "Jeez, I'd really like to be able to play like that.  Can you tell me how?"  And my friend answers, "Well, the first thing you have to do is get yourself a metronome."

Now, if you're a musician, you've had two reactions to that.  The first is, "Fuck yes.  They haven't got one already?"  And the second is, "What the fuck for?"

One of the great detriments to human accomplishment is the absolute failure to recognize that creating from a structure is the only means to creating well.  Obviously, you're not going to take a metronome onto the stage.  But until you learn to sweat and strain and beat your particular failure to be rhythmic into a rhythm, human beings - built like human beings are - will hear what you play and helplessly wince.  It isn't because they don't appreciate your efforts to be clever or creative or out-of-the-box, or whatever you call yourself, its because the human ear just finds a-rhythmic things remarkably difficult to listen to.  It's our biological construct.  And here's the thing - if you're a musician, you won't be able to TELL if you sound like something that is corkscrewing our backs if you don't play against a metronome.

You don't have to do it.  You don't have to play well, either.  But once again, if you stand there and say, "I don't have to play with a metronome because that's not the kind of musician I am," everyone in the world will just hear, "I'm stupid.  I'm really stupid.  I'm unbelievably stupid, and I don't know that I am."

Swear to Gawd.  That's what we will all think.  And most of the time, we won't tell you.

Well, I'll tell you.  Sociopath, remember?  My honesty arises from my sociopathology.

Listen, all you out there who think your world arises from experience, and who think that math and a lot of other things I beat to death on this blog aren't really of value to you, here's what I want you to do this weekend.  I know you won't do it, but here's what I WANT you to do.

Before you start running, I want you to say to your party, "Listen, people.  I just want you to know I'm going to be flying from the seat of my pants tonight.  It wasn't because I didn't have time to work at my world this last week, its just that I couldn't be fucking bothered.  Because, well, you're all not worth it.  It isn't worth it for me to learn anything about difficult things like math or design or creativity in order to make my world better, because I've found that you guys will just suck up whatever shit I lay down for you.  See, I don't respect you, and I often refer to that lack of respect by bolstering what a great DM I am for being able to jack my world on the fly.  Just wanted to let you all know.  Let's play."

Wednesday, February 20, 2013


In the previous comments field, James C. expresses the following:  "I'm not speaking out in defense of fun ... I've played on and off (mostly on) for over 25 years now and I still struggle explaining to people what the point of D&D is."

All right.  I'll confess.  The purpose of D&D is to have fun.  But for the record, let me just as that someone has to be about as dumb as toast to think needs to be said, pointed out, explained, elaborated upon or added to the beginning of a book about D&D just so "everyone knows."  Yes, D&D is fun, the Earth is round, Lady Gaga was a marketing tool for a somewhat brilliant designer and 50 Shades of Gray is a really, really shitty book.  Is there anything else patently obvious that needs to be said?

James' struggle isn't defining the 'point' of D&D ... it is defining the value of D&D.  That, my dear readers, is an entirely different problem.

The value of D&D is not to be found in how fun it is.  Many things are fun.  One does not choose this fun thing over that fun thing on the basis of a graph measuring 'fun-ness.'  The reason why a person plays D&D, as opposed to doing any other fun thing on a particular given night, has more to do with what else it offers apart from its ability to make us have a good time.

See, as shocking as this is, for many people D&D isn't FUN.  In fact, it fails quantifiably on ever conceiveable measure of fun for most of the population on this earth.  I know that a lot of D&D players would like to think that if everyone could just sit down long enough to have it completely explained to them, they would recognize how fun the game was and they would change their mind.  Sad to say it, but no.  No, they've tried the game, they've understood the game, they've dipped their feet in the water and they think you'd have to be a CLASS A moron to think this is a good way to spend your time.  For them, the game of D&D has no value.  Period.

Why, then, does it have value for you?  That is, presuming it does, which is a fair presumption since you're reading this blog.

As it happens, I want to go a long way around the barn on this one, so if the reader could please be patient, I'll get you back to the hen house and we can see what's what.

Back in the 1990s, I was struggling with the creation of my trade tables - specifically, how did trade work, what were the calculations necessary and how would the whole come together in order to produce a single, viable, practical system.  I could not follow the systems existing in macroeconomic textbooks, because I did not have any serviceable data for 17th century Europe.  No one does.  We don't have a universal list, for every object in every location - or even one location - for any time prior to the 19th century.  And the system I needed had to be universal, and it had to be for a pre-Industrial society.

It isn't as if I could just look in textbooks until I found the answer.  I had to invent the answer.  I had to believe that I had the capability of inventing the answer.  I had already had several dozen tries at a system, all of which either failed to be universal or failed to produce rational results.  By 1998, I knew at least how to produce the base data I needed, but the formula was a complete mystery.  There just wasn't one.

Between 1998 and 2004 I would think about it.  I don't mean I would sketch out a process and try it ... I mean that I had sketched out so many processes that the whole problem had ceased to be something I could do with paper and was now fully constructed in my brain.  So what I would do would be to walk down to the river, sit on a bench, and think.  Or I would run the bath, turn out all the lights, stuff towels under the door to stop any light from seeping in, and soak for several hours.  During these times I would turn it over and over.  I would say to my partner Tamara, "I'm going to go think about the problem."  And she would know I was going to be lost in thought for a long time.

Ultimately, that's how I solved it.  No one gave me any new data.  There was no creek moment.  I did not leap out of the bath and shout "EUREKA!"  Instead, I very patiently and carefully sat down over a series of weeks and wrote out the calculations necessary, designing a table in a series of steps that would account for and compare those calculations, to produce what finally became my trade table.

Somewhere about 1987 I had conceived of doing something that, to the best of my knowledge, no one had conceived of - or thought was important.  Yet I could see all sorts of value added results, none of which I could achieve without solving the problem.  It wasn't that I was working out how to build and atomic bomb or solve the energy crisis or anything, but this was important to me and I felt driven to manage it.  I felt driven to overcome something which, by all appearances, was impossible.  In reality, I was going somewhere that no one had gone before.  I have every reason to believe that I have come up with something here that NO ONE on this earth has come up with.  It is a unique experience.  It is ego fuel, and it challenges my mind to a degree that nothing else does.  And I have the sort of mind that must be challenged.

I did not have any interest in law or medicine or engineering.  I liked the idea of cartography, but micro-management cartography bored me silly.  The physical process of laboratory experimentation did not appeal to me, and I don't have the mind necessary to do three dimensional calculus - so physics was a dead loss.  All the social sciences intrigue me, as do the humanities, but university showed me that most of it is an awful rehash flipped and re-flipped by whatever is the latest intellectual fad.  I preferred fiction writing to pseudo-practical psychology or sociology, and education was a bust because of the conception that a child's innocence is more important than a child's real knowledge.

D&D, on the other hand, had value for me, because I made the rules.  I built the system.  Like writing, I was in charge of the parameters and if I wanted to construct something that hadn't been done, I could.  Moreover, I could enable others to pursue lives they couldn't possibly live in a world that couldn't possibly exist, so that they could USE that world to fabricate - on the scale of players - their own achievements and results.

The value of D&D is freedom.  Freedom of action, freedom of thought, freedom to attack a vista and transform it according to one's own mind.  That's why I fight so hard against railroading.  It disrupts the players from laying their own tracks, or living according to their own needs and seizing the opportunities that interest THEM.

Of course that's fun.  It is also life.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Tobiah Panshin

I only just stumbled across an online book by Tobiah Panshin called The Game Master.  I know, I know, I should know all about it by now, but the fact is that I'm really not up on the "popular" D&D material that's out there and online.  I don't go looking for it.

As you know, I'm just in the preliminary phase of my own DMing book ... and having gotten through the first thirty pages of Panshin's book, I want to say:  I can do better than this.

Before I go any further, I have a question.  Panshin keeps making statements like, "The second goal is for each character to conform to the trappings of the setting, as well as its themes."  Then he goes on to explain what a setting is, what a character is, what trappings are and what a theme is, but he never seems to actually explain how to achieve the goal he's just identified.

Does he ever change this pattern?  Because, like I say, I'm 30 pages in and that's all I see.

Selling Out?

Gentle Reader,

I would like to float a different question regarding the content of this blog.  There is a poll on the sidebar.  Please answer it.

Some of you may as yet be unaware that I have published a book, and that I am in the process of preparing to promote it.  This is going to take a great deal of my time, but more importantly, it is going to take money.  As such, I am interested in raising as much as possible through sales and and any other means.

It has been explained to me that given the amount of readership this blog obtains, there is available to me a meaningful amount of money which I could be earning, approximately the equivalent I could expect to earn from a part-time job, two nights a week.  This could be done through blogger's adsense.

However, I am very concerned that by employing advertising, I would be undermining the reader's enjoyment of the blog, and compromising the very thing that has made this blog popular.  This I would never want to do.  Therefore I am asking the reader what the reader thinks of this idea.

The content of the blog would not change.  I doubt I would stop swearing and ranting, for instance.  I certainly would not stop any other content that I already produce.

Some that I've asked in the real world tell me that no one pays much attention to advertisements on pages anyway, that this is so common that no one would really care.  But I wish to ask.  Please find the poll and tell me what you think.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Infrastructure Perspective

Okay, this one is going to seem strange to some people.

To me, a lot of the trouble that people have where it comes to "designing their world" is that they don't know what to design.  The default is to design things that are very small - buildings, streets, dungeon hallways and rooms, etc.  These could be termed 'microdesign' in that they serve to apply to the immediate needs of the party, in terms of what is five feet to their right and fifteen feet to their left.  Useful, obviously.  But apart from the immediate, these things don't help much where the party decides to march off in a direction, say a large open landscape where they're going to see two thousand acres in a day.  You can design one small part of one acre, but you can't really get a sense for the scale.

What is needed, then, is 'macrodesign.'  Here, I think, the game and most of the players are notably lacking, because they just don't know how to approach the problem.

To try and sketch out a method, I'm going to return to an image I once used to describe my trade system: the map of Hothior, from the old game Divine Right!

Ah, so familiar, so conveniently neutral.  I am going to use this to demonstrate a system which really works better on the maps on my world, but for the general audience I think it would be best to simplify that so that anyone can apply this.

That does mean I will need to add some information to the above to make my system work.  To start with, I need to give a population figure to each of the above cities, Port Lork, Tadafat, Lapspell and Farnot.  I also need to establish a population for the region.

If the hexes are 20 miles across, the above region is about the same size as modern day Bosnia (without Hercegovina).  Recognizing that there really ought to be more than four cities in an area this size, I'm going to identify the population at 2,000 per hex (there are 50 hexes, counting all those on the water as a full hex).  Total, 100,000.

For city populations, we'll say Port Lork has 8,000 people; Lapspell, 6,000; Tadafat, 4,000 and Farnot, 2,000.

I'm introducing these numbers so that you, in your world, can take the probable size of cities that already exist.  Obviously, the population isn't going to be distributed evenly throughout the countryside.  More importantly, neither is the infrastructure ... and what I mean to do is produce some infrastructure numbers we can work with.

Let's take the total value of the cities (20,000) and divide it into the total population.  From that, we can presume that each city influences 5x its base population:  Port Lork, 40,000; Lapspell, 30,000; etc.

Let's further divide these bigger numbers by 259 (persons per square mile).  We'll call this the BASE Infrastructure Number.  For Port Lork it is 155; for Lapspell, 116; for Tadafat, 77 and for Farnot, 39.  Let me add those numbers to the map just for convenience.  In addition, I'll color code what amount is coming from which centre:

Now, let's say that for every hex away from the core hexes, the cities themselves, the Infrastructure Number is halved.  Let's also say that if the adjacent hex is a forest, the number is cut to one third.  If hills, the number is cut to one quarter.  And finally, if mountains, the number is cut to one fifth.  The number is always rounded off to the nearest whole number before calculating the next hex.

Let's just work out the hexes immediately next to the core cities:

The important thing here is that where an overlap occurs, the numbers should be added together.  The hex between Farnot and Port Lork, therefore, adds 20 and 78 together.  The gentle reader may also notice I didn't extend the Port Lork number into the hex adjacent to the water ... that is because this infrastructure system is measured overland, except where overland is impossible.  Also, because this is infrastructure and not actual population density, the whole seashore is counted as one hex, even if not all that hex is land.

The influence of all the cities are ultimately expanded outward until they cannot be anymore.  As well, each city's influence affects the actual hexes of other cities.  So, even though its messy, let's expand all city's influences out to their maximum:

That's annoyingly difficult to read (and I hope done accurately) ... but it shows the pattern distributed from each of the four cities.  Usually I would do one city at a time and add up the numbers as I went along, but this is for demonstration.

Let's add up the numbers to get a single total for each hex:

Now, let me stress.  This is simplified from what I usually do.  I usually have more cities; I have elevations for every hex which influence the total distribution and son on. 
Also, I don't suggest that what we have here are any surprises.  Obviously the mountains and Bad Axe forest were going to be empty.  Obviously there was going to be higher numbers around Port Lork.

What's interesting here is we have exact numbers.  We could say that these were % die rolls for whether or not there was an Inn in the hex.  We could use the inverse number for the likelihood of bandits.  Or a measure for how good the roads are.  A minimum number could indicate a ferry (50) or a bridge (100).  A forest hex with 60+ could have industry; 30+, gameskeepers; and less than that, thieves or brigands. 

It's really up to you how you want to assign values, and what for.  If you want your cities to be more metropolitan, increase the penalty for infrastructure in adjacent hexes (divide by three or four or whatever you wish for each hex out).  Add a penalty for crossing a river.  Roll a die and make "evil" hexes that severely lower the numbers.  What's important here is that you find a way to measure a lot of blank hexes in some way that establishes a frame upon which you can build up all the little pieces I spoke about in my last post.  How many points does a hex have to have before there's a hospital?  A school?  How little does there need to be for the party to be able to have a free hand in the area?  Where does management and government hold the greatest power?  You have a yardstick to give all that space a greater integrity.  Call it a sort of "infrastructure perspective."

Go have fun.

Floating a Wilderness Balloon

I had this idea last week for D&D, that locks into another process that I've been doing for some years now. Basically, its like this.

There are a lot of "services" that can exist in a D&D world that are not necessarily associated with trade (or specifically, the price of things): inns, warehouses, water wells, hospitals, naval & army posts, arsenals, bridges vs. ferries, stone roads vs. earthen ones, town halls, baths, money lenders, churches, cathedrals, guilds vs. free artisans, barns, schools, auction houses, the black market, almshouses, workhouses, fishing ponds, etc.

It seems to me that what's wanted is a scale that says, first, this exists or doesn't exists - followed by, if it exists, then this, and if it doesn't exist, then this. Introduce a series of grays in there and you have the skeleton of a more gritty wilderness crawl.

For example, there is a clean water supply, i.e. wells, which reduce the likelihood of disease. If there are no wells, then the likelihood of disease is higher.

That's just one consequence - potentially, there could be fifty or sixth, each of which would indicate this hex would make a better jumping off point than that - for solid, defineable reasons.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Pete's Garage

Here, then, is the book I've written:

Seriously, all, you have to believe me.  It is a good book.  There's a preview on the link above, and those of you who know me should know from this blog that the Alexis can write.

It is about music.  It is about fantasy.  It is funny.  You will not think the money was wasted.  This is not just a book written by a blogger.  I'd put it toe to toe with anything.

Buy my book.

The Paradox of Choice

I'm sorry to keep doing this to you people out there who haven't the opportunity to see these videos wherever you may happen to be, but lately I've just been feeling very visual, I've been seeking out lecture videos on youtube (which is a marvelous, time-consuming exercise) and its terribly convenient to be able to point out to people, "See, I'm not crazy, really brilliant people think so too!"

A fellow asked me recently why it was that I was driven to create this complicated environment for my players, in depth and elaborate in the extreme, but I continued to embrace the sort of clumsy cardboard framework of character classes.

I explained that the reason for this had a lot to do with choice.

It is generally believed by the friendly fuckwits at WOTC, and the many, many fools who frolic there, that increasing 'choice' into the fabric of the game cannot help but improve the game.  This is a natural extension of a lot of different sociological factors that began with the Me Decade of the 1970s and carried forward into marketing and so on ... an ever accelerating process which is loosely connected to the subject we've been talking about the past few days, that being market research.  Generally, market research was designed to identify what people wanted, so that markets could then produce those wants and therefore target people's needs in a way that would make them very happy.  The introduction of 3.0 and 3.5, concentrating as it did upon many classes and many races, along with skill sets that offered hundreds of ways in which to fabricate a character for YOU personally, was a natural extension of something that was exploding in the marketing culture.

(Here you thought D&D was an 'underground' phenomenon.  Shame on you)

This has backfired.  Of course, I don't expect you to believe me that it's backfired, so let me have Barry Schwartz explain it to you:

In general, for those who can't hear the video, Schwartz makes two fundamental points.  The first is that having choices - a great many choices - produces paralysis.  People feel, particularly where they have little or nothing to base a choice upon, that they are almost certain to make the wrong choice.  This has the consequence of making them feel inadequate in the face of change, causing them to either make choices for the sake of just getting past making the choice (and being disappointed) or of making no choice at all.  In D&D, this is commonly expressed in farming the choice out to someone at the table, usually the DM, who has far more experience than the player.  Depending upon the DM, this can be either a good thing or a bad thing, but the principle issue is that it isn't the player making the choice.

Schwartz's other point is that increased number of choices causes individuals to concentrate more upon the choices they did not make rather than the ones they did.  So the character who, as part of the creation of their character, has decided upon the skill of making armor, discovers too late that fishing would have been more useful and valuable given the campaign they're in, and are therefore dissatisfied with their choice to the point where they blame their own shortcomings.  This is a much bigger problem than most campaigns realize, as the words "I've been fucking stupid," are somewhat anathema to the game, producing players who are sullen and unhappy with the characters they had the freedom to create.

I would argue, for anyone familiar with the original class system, and familiar with the later skill-choice system, that their memories of the game are that people in general, particularly less experienced players, are much less happy with the characters they ran in 3.5 than characters in earlier game-systems.

Look at the elements of human nature.  We as people are almost entirely unable to choose who we are.  The skill sets we have when we reach the age of 18 are largely those things which our families happened to know.  If your father was not a great cook, you're probably not much good in the kitchen.  If your mother was wild about fishing, and took you into the woods to fish every summer, you probably know quite a lot about fishing.  For the most part, you're just not familiar with things that haven't been dangled in front of you, and this is even more true of someone growing up three generations ahead of you, who did not have access to most modern media.

So who you are and what you know is something you simply have as you become a young adult, and except for some envy issues you probably have about friends who get given cars by their rich parents, you're probably content that you know how to play hockey or basketball or curling or what have you.  Yes, you may not know how to sail, but you're not bitter about it when you first encounter a sailboat.  You never got the chance to learn.  It's not your fault.

So if the game includes a powerful restriction on who you are - i.e., a rigorous class structure of fighter or mage or thief - you're prepared to live with that.  Moreover, every fighter is the same, every mage is close to the same (the hard part is choosing spells) and every thief is the same.  You're not punished for not picking the "right" elements of the fighter that lets you fight differently from other fighters.  And once you're used to fighters, a fairly shallow learning curve, you're comfortable playing them.

The world, on the other hand, for you in reality, is a wide open vista.  You don't want to live in a cage.  You want a big, massive, complicated world because that is the world you live with everyday.  Having a million choices in the world is more comfortable for you, because the world actually offers you a million choices.  Yes, sometimes you'll make the wrong choice, but since you're not identifying your personality on the choices you make in the world, you're more comfortable when you make the wrong choice.

So in general, it is better to make the character creation process more stale and predictable, because your players will be happier.  And it makes more sense to make the actual game world more elaborate and complex, because your players will be happier.  Those players who are familiar with the variety of choices, who have parsed them out in depth, will grumble about the lack of their choices, but the base line for ALL your players will be improved.

Schwartz is talking to an audience in the hope of making the whole world understand this entirely proveable concept against their gut instinct, which is making all of us - daily - less happy.  But for your world to improve on the basis of his argument, the only person who needs to believe this is YOU.

I really liked this one:

Thursday, February 14, 2013


Well, here it is.  A facebook page.

May Nietzsche forgive me.


Continuing this question about DMs versus players, and the value of player input, and the manner in which the game is played.

Let me pull up a document from William Nolte, former director of education and training in the office of the Director of National Intelligence.  The paper, Keeping Pace with the Revolution in Military Affairs, discusses the decision making process and improvisation with the following quote:

"Music provides a useful analogy. Musicians, even in a classical setting with its emphasis on noting every tonal marking to the most calibrated point, may be able to adjust to a loss of beat on the part of the conductor. A baritone may realize that his tenor is experiencing vocal difficulties and increase his volume in a key duet, or even cover for the tenor in a climactic high note. But such adaptability is not the same as the jazz musician's bone-deep understanding that the marks on the sheet music (if he's even looking at sheet music) are not intended to limit improvisation. His or her permission to improvise is not contingent on making the best of a situation in which something has gone wrong. His 'permission' is much broader, much more inherent in the intent of his performance. Improvisation in this context is neither intuitive nor fortuitous; it is developed technique."

You can hear a deeper interpretation of this by Jeff "Skunk" Baxter, of Steely Dan and The Doobie Brothers (one of the strangest musicians, ever) here (starting 18:30):

A few quotes from Baxter ...

"I gotta be honest with you folks, I am not interested in being an equal opportunity employer.  The stakes are too big.  I want talent.  I don't want to make this a game that's open for everybody."

"Improvisation means that, number one, you're willing to take a chance; number two, you're willing to push the envelope and number three, explore new possibilities; and number four, the most important, is that you're willing to fail."

"We are all as musicians, we come from the past.  My music, my guitar playing, is a conglomeration of everything from Charlie Parker's saxophone playing to Ludwig von Beethoven to Howard Roberts to B.B. King ... deconstructed so I could understand it, and then synthesized so I could create something new from it."

"There are two kinds of musical entities that we want to talk about.  One is a symphony orchestra ... and no disrespect to the incredible talent of the first violinist in the Los Angeles  Philharmonic or the guy who plays second bassoon in the Philharmonic, but mostly, orchestras are trained seals.  They're not stupid, but they're trained seals in the sense that their input into the music is basically reading what's written and follow the conductor ... it's his call.  So all information to the audience on the musical composition is going through this one choke point."

"What's the antithesis of that?  Is [sic] the jazz quintet.  Jazz is simple in the fact that it has some basic, basic tenets.  You start off with a theme, you end with a theme, and everything in the middle is improvisation."

What the general reader has to understand about me is that, like Baxter, I am a synthesis of a lot of different shit coming from a lot of different places.  And when I hear the genius of something like this above, I'm not concerned with quibbling things like my disagreements with Baxter's 'hard-wired' theory.  What I am interested in is his description of jazz versus the philharmonic ... and BAM!  Does that shit define a sandbox game or what?

How is it that I really know whether my players are enjoying the game or not?  It is the complete freaking ABSENCE of any division between what I am doing as DM and what they are doing as players.  If the player is riffing, and I am letting the player riff, then I'm not 'mastering' the player, I'm 'enabling' him.  I'm letting that player take risks, I'm letting that player get the shit out there so he or she can try something new, I'm backing that player up.  In short, I am getting the fuck out of the player's way.  And I know, down in the bottom of my soul, that this is working for the player because the player is cheering, the player is shouting, the player is sweating the possibility or failure or the player is urging on one of his or her buddies.  The evidence is in the GAME ... and I don't need handwritten vouchers from the players to find out if they're having a good time or what they're experiencing.  I am paying attention!

I've seen a lot of DMs, trapped behind their screens, buried there, managing their furtive little plans, organizing the various options they've chosen to offer the players.  When I wrote my little post about treating Rail Rodders decently, one of the chief arguments I received back, mostly on the forum, was that it was too damn much WORK to create more than one option for a party, and that there'd be work WASTED if the party chose to go the other way.

Can you imagine Dizzy Gillespie or Duke Ellington bitching that because the mood of the piece changed halfway through a jam, the sequence they'd been planning to play was 'wasted'?  What the hell?  The crime here isn't that the party isn't choosing the set of obstacles the DM has painstakingly created, the crime is that the DM can't create a set of obstacles in a few minutes during the campaign!

Cause I gotta tell you ... it is a LOT harder to teach yourself to improvise in a jazz combo, what with all the practice and brain-training you have to do, than it is to draw six rooms in sequence and populate those rooms with monsters, traps and treasure.  Seriously.  Do you want to learn how to play this fucking game or not?  Because I gotta tell you, I'm not interested in giving you poor sufferin' bastards any respect you ain't earned.  It's too damn important.  "I don't want to make this a game that's open for everybody."

Some of you are going to take that a bit hard.  Some of you are so used to everything in your lives being democratic, you're going to take a position that no matter how crappy you are at DMing, you have a right to do it so long as you have players.  Maybe.  Maybe.  It's your garage and its your band and if you want to tell yourselves you're the Clash because you feel you can thrash no matter how shit you are at it, I guess I gotta step back and say, great, you all have fun now.

But this ain't your garage.  This is the public eye, now, and when you vomit your simple-minded crap all over your blog, it ain't your buddies reading it.  It is all of us out here.  And we ain't your buds.  We ain't your families.  We don't have to be nice to you.

Where the conversation turns on what has to be done to make this game better, the DMs who want to run brilliantly, who want their worlds to reverberate like Barrett Deems playing with Louis Armstrong, it's time to recognize that if you're not going to do the work, you're out.  You're not needed.  You're fluff.  You're immaterial.  YOU DON'T COUNT.

This is a tough game, for tough people.  And I think that too often I waste too much time explaining things like economics to people who barely have a high school understanding of it, or geography to people who haven't got a clue where Iraq is, or game design to people who still think RISK is worth playing all afternoon (Sorry, I know that's going to hurt).  Truth be told, I played the hell out of RISK.  I played thousands of hours of RISK.  But it ain't holding my attention now, you know?  I haven't got the time.

Stop wasting your time doing a half-assed job.  Get better at this game.  Get rid of your DMs screen and get dirty with the players.  Roll the damn dice in front of them.  Show them that you can riff, and get them to riff with you.  Because when you stop treating them like mice in a maze - when you start letting them make the maze themselves - you're going to find you're not asking bullshit questions like, "Do my players like my world?" or "What about my world is it my players like?"

You will fucking know.  It won't be a mystery.  It will be balls-to-the-wall obvious.  What they like about your world is that it isn't YOUR world.

It's theirs.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Wednesday Wiki Wound Up #1

As it happened, four pages a day turned out to be a bit of a reach.  I did not actually manage two pages a day.

Those going to the New Wiki will have noticed that there are several pages that are without content.  This is simply because if I'm working on a page (say, characters) and I make a reference to weapon proficiencies, its easier to create a blank page I can link to now rather than going through old pages looking for references to proficiencies later.  This way, when I do sit down to write out the proficiencies, the links are already there.  This process is going to go on for a fair time ... but at least they give some idea of new pages I mean to create at some point in the near future.

Here's a list of pages created this last week that are worth a look:

Multi-Class Characters
Racial Limits
Rolling Characters
Habsburg Zones
Ottoman Empire - Balkan Zones
Croatian Lands
Horseback Riding
Wind Speed
Fiume Market
Overland Travel
Ship Travel

For those of you not interested in economics, I'd stay away from the 'zones' assets.  The Fiume market is missing the price for things that are not available, but it is a complete list of my present equipment (very extensive).  The Croatian Lands link is a group of three maps.

I thought I would start putting the huge maps from the Same Universe Wiki on this one in quarter-sections.  Doesn't give the full picture, but once there are a lot of them, readers can line them up on any graphic design program and enjoy the larger map surfaces.  Since my old computer died last summer, it has been painfully slow to update my many maps, so these are going to go on the wiki slowly - I can do about one a week just about indefinitely.

Regarding the weird, unpopular statisticals stuff ... there's going to be a lot of that.  I guess what I have to say about it is this:  yes, most players would never have any use for it.  Yes, to some degree it is information that is not of immediate use even to me.  But I have a theory that if something is THERE, someone, somewhere may find a use for it that simply never occurred to me or to you, the reader ... and that therefore, that information is the real value in a sandbox.

That is, that in a sandbox, the owner of the box is not the only person who decides how a sandcastle is made, or what the sand can be used for.

The Opinions Of Players

In the comments thread of my last post, Ozzie Pippenger wants to know why it is that there are so many few players producing blogs, and seems to propose that there's an intellectual disconnect between DMs and players (ie., DMs don't represent enough the player point of view).  I would recommend that you read all three of Ozzie's comments, but here's a part:

"There are so many different theories about what players like and why the [sic] like it. Maybe a way to settle it would be to actually ask them. I've told all my players to write essays of a few hundred words about why they play the game, which I then plan to post on my blog. I don't expect all of them to do it, but the ones who don't I plan to talk to and report what they say."


To begin with, there's a terrific assumption here that suggests that I haven't asked them.  That is to say, that in 30+ years of playing as a DM, it has never occurred to me to say, "So, what do you think?"  In effect, Ozzie seems to suggest that we here writing blogs and running worlds are smashing around in the dark, coming up with our 'theories' as if players were incomprehensible baboons living on a distant dark continent, difficult to observe in their natural surroundings and obviously ignored where it comes to the deconstruction of the game.

It's a lot of nonsense, but let's start with asking the question, why don't players write blogs?

I'm sure some of them do.  Truth be told, I don't read blogs, not usually, and when I have tried to follow another bloggers content I usually find myself reading about some point that was settled thirty years ago, or about the reinvention of the wheel, where the blogger has reconstructed spells or elements of the combat system or some other thing, for no other reason that that the blogger's idea is different.  Such changes never seem to fix any actual problems.

So other blogs bore me, rather.  But I'm going to go way out on a limb and suggest that the reason so many blogs are written by DMs and not players is because DMs are activity working on D&D in between sessions, while players are not.

That's a real hard thing to grasp, so I'll go slowly.  DMs have to create some kind of world.  This world is for players to run in.  This world requires maps and charts.  A DM records many notes about his or her world.  A DM spends a lot of time writing these things down.  It is quite easy to rewrite these notes into a blog, so they can be shared with other DMs writing other notes.  So the actual groundwork behind the blog content is going to be created by the DM anyway.  Thus, the blog is just another place to record it, so other people can see.

Players, on the other hand, who are not also DMs, don't write anything except things pertaining to their characters.  In between sessions, players are very passive where it comes to D&D.  Oh, they might design the castle they hope their fighter someday builds, but aside from rare things like that, almost ALL of a players' note-taking applies to their character.

This doesn't create a lot of blog content.  Here is my character.  See his pretty armor?  See his pretty bow?  My character has a +1 bow.  He got it last week.  Isn't that interesting?  Don't you want to keep reading about my character?

IF the player ALSO has a lot of ideas about how D&D should be designed and played, usually the  player will be the proactive sort that actually tries to put a world together and be a DM.  If the player isn't that proactive, it tends to dampen somewhat the respect other DMs have for the player.  Why should I listen to someone who TELLS me how to design a world if they're not actually doing the work themselves?  Surely, this is obvious.  It wouldn't be much of a mechanic that didn't actually fix cars.

What Ozzie doesn't seem to understand is that there is no fixed line between a player and a DM.  Anyone can DM.  Anyone can play.  There's a shop not far from where I live that has D&D games on Wednesdays and Sunday afternoons.  If I were interested, I could go play tonight.  I'm not interested.  I've met those people and they are morons.  They're running railroaded games.  But I could play if I wanted to.  It's not a huge mental shift.  Fact is, I'm a very good player.  I know the books about as well as anyone, I know better than most how to manipulate the rules and I've had two hundred players in my world these past thirty years, so I've got a massive background in watching other players fuck with me.  So it wouldn't be hard to take that knowledge and cram it into a character sheet.

Now, here's the fun part.

Ozzie says he is encouraging players to "write essays" describing why they play the game.  Ozzie, as per the usual crowd who still thinks this is a practical method to learn anything, hasn't been keeping up with up-to-date sociological evidence.

The following is a speech by Malcolm Gladwell, offered for the promotion of his book Blink.  in the video (long, 48 minutes), he describes several circumstances in which people are simply incapable of rationally describing why they like anything.  In his book he uses extensive source material to support this theory.  Have a watch:

See, in effect, the majority of human beings do not possess the language or the interpretive skill to accurately express WHY they like a thing.  They know they "like" something; but where it comes to the use of language to describe that like, they fall short.  And the very bizarre result of this is that human beings have been shown to say they "like" a thing because it is something they CAN describe.

For example, let us say that I am not Alexis.  I like Mozart, but I know very little about Mozart, and even less about music theory, so if you ask my WHY I like Mozart, I'm going to be stumped.  I like him, but I can't tell you why.   So in reality, it is a whole lot easier for me to say that I DON'T like him, because then I'm not under any obligation to explain anything.  Saying I don't like someone is easy - I just don't like him.  As a default, then, I am more likely to say I don't like something I don't understand, than to say I like something I don't understand.

This is PSYCHOLOGY.  It may not seem entirely rational to you, but it has been demonstrated over and over and over again.  Sociologists pretend it isn't true.  Psychologists pretend it isn't true.  Market researchers and Hollywood executives pretend it isn't true.  And as a result they keep fucking up their business success over and over again, because they think putting a bunch of people in a room to explain why they like or don't like a thing is a good idea.

It isn't.  And it has been shown not to be.  But the funny thing about evidence, it can take literally decades to make something understood to the general population even where life and death is involved.  Want an example for that?  How long was it between understanding that soap killed disease and the universal willingness of people to "wash up" before eating?

Hasn't yet.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Free Lunches

If we're going to spend this much time talking about how to play, the question has to come up again and again - why do we play this silly game in the first place?

The first answer is going to be, "Fun."  We all know the internet and we know that's the knee-jerk answer.  I don't dispute it.  But "fun" applies to a lot of things - there are a lot of ways to have it?  Why this way?  Why this particular game?

Doesn't it seem a strange way to have fun?  After all, there are books that have to be read and reread, much like study, and sheets that need to be filled with details and notes, much like study.  Sheets that get full and complicated and need to be reorganized and painstakingly copied, bound together in notebooks and folders, or collected into computer files to be tagged and edited.  Much like study.  What part of that would you normally associate with "fun"?

Don't say because its enriching and complicated, and therefore involving, because so is the law, chemistry, social history and a host of other subjects, which the gentle reader probably took in school and which were probably did not gazed over in near as much wonder as the papers from this game.  I could be in error, but I don't see it nearly as likely that the reader rushed to his or her Friday study group with the eagerness with which a D&D session is viewed.

Very well, interaction then, with friends and cohorts.  The reader does know, however, that it IS possible to have fun and interaction at the local pub, along with drink, music, attractive members of the opposite species and wet-tshirt contests.  It's also possible to have all this fun without having to select one member of the group to be the Grand Poobah who gets to sit in smug judgement over others.  It's nearly the same dynamic, except that pleasant creatures jump to your orders and bring you foods and liquor for which to slather your brain and inner body with (not to mention pleasantly steeping your liver).

Course, D&D is sort of cheaper.  Chances are, where you'd drop $80-120 at the bar, at worst you'd drop $30 at the local Meyers or Safeway or Piggly Wiggly buying your cheezies and power drinks.  So there's that.

But are we saying that the principal reason D&D is "fun" is because it costs less money?  That seems an absurd justification of there being hundreds of blogs about the game, consisting of thousands of hours of people waxing poetically and somewhat onanistically about this game.  Hm.  I don't know.  Seems a bit weak.

So maybe "fun" isn't really the right definition.  People do pretty much everything in their off hours for merely fun.  People eat pizza pockets for fun.  One assumes on some level that if you're talking about something you choose to do in a special way, its because it provides a sort of fun that isn't available with three and a half minutes and a microwave.  So what is it?

I have a theory ... but it is just a theory, mind.  It considers that, given that there are tens of thousands of ways to have fun, and that many of these ways are both cheap and include interacting with other human beings, that this game offers to a select few something they can't get anywhere else.

The chance to be an asshole.

Oh, I don't mean the way your boss is an asshole.  I don't mean lording your superiority over other people ... though of course there are people in the game who ARE assholes like your boss, and who do lord their superiority.  I mean an entirely different sort of asshole.  I mean the sort that doesn't give a rat's ass what anyone else thinks.  I mean the really superior bastard or bitch who - whether he or she is saving the princess or smacking her around - just really doesn't give a shit about right and wrong.  Right is whatever I happen to do with my sword that gets me out of this situation, and wrong happens when I fuck it up.  And there ain't no Mrs. Grundy around to tell me what's so and what ain't.

A couple weeks ago some guy with a nick on one of the passive aggressive forums had the nick 'tanstaafl.'  For those of you who are not familiar with Robert A. Heinlein, this was his personal code for get off your ass and do the thing yourself.  It stands for There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Lunch.

In this day and age, it really takes a special sort of person to stand proud and slap people with those words.  Heinlein got away with it in his personal life by having lived in a time when many, many people believed it.  This isn't true anymore.  I don't know about the rest of you - it could come from being embedded in the corporate sector, like a reporter in a war zone - but I can't move ten feet without banging into a charity of some sort or other.  I can't turn on talk radio without being subjected to another sob story from someone who happens to come from one of a thousand social backgrounds - geographical, religious, political, academic, sexual - and the list goes on and on.  The message is clear.  These people have not got a free lunch, and they need one.

I am, fundamentally, a liberal.  I don't believe so much in a free lunch as a shared lunch, rationally organized by a disinterested government in a benign and generous manner.  To me, charity and sympathy aren't so much a plague on the culture as a result of those who are suffering, but as a result of the opportunities given to those prepared to exploit the suffering.

Exploitation is such a clear and easy thing in D&D.  Kill the exploiter.  Disregard the exploited.  Be utterly, unaccountably selfish and aggressively ambitious.  Wallow in it.  Keep accounts and charts in order to measure the degree of one's own personal achievements, and fuck all the creatures who died to make those achievements remarkable and plentiful.  There ain't no free lunch for anyone ... there's just the trough I've built with my sword, my fireball spell and my incessant willingness to kill without mercy.

But as I say, its just a theory.  There might be something to the argument that D&D is really only gambling with an ersatz stake in the form of a emotionally identified quanta taking the place of an actual pile of money.  But that's a post for another day.