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."


Beedo said...

Listen, people. I just want you to know I'm going to be flying from the seat of my pants tonight... Let's play.

Most definitely the funniest rant I've read all week. Bravo. I won't run without putting in the work.

I'm still belly laughing, minutes after reading it.

YagamiFire said...

This is the dismissive attitude I've seen so very often, especially in this game.

The attitude that because someone gets a result then that means it is automatically equal to the result of someone else. After all, if I bake a cake by feeling and I get a half pound block of barely edible sludge, that is equivalent to the practiced baker that uses their experiences and a goddamn recipe they've carefully crafted (baking is chemistry, people) or adopted to make a cake that could be served to the Queen, right? I mean both are TECHNICALLY edible, so what's the difference?

The baker then, of course, drives a fondue fork into the face of the offensive troglodyte that would so insult his craft.

And that is really what we have here...insult. Oh it's gussied's made's even made socially acceptable...but it's still a fucking insult.

It is the insult that "my effort goes as far as yours even if they are in totally different proportions". It is the insult that "yes you have to do all that work, but I do it naturally".

Of course, I've run into this countless times not only in my own circle of friends but in game stores and such. Why is it that I can run long-running games that the players tell me are rewarding and that they return to week after week? Effort. Lots and lots of effort. Giving a fuck.

And yet, when it is flipped, I crack games open like eggs against a wall. I have been accused multiple times of "derailing" games...of course that actually means the game was on "rails" but we, somehow, gloss over that. I have been accused of "being difficult". And why? Because I do not stay within the tiny little box carefully (or not so carefully) crafted by the other DMs that have run for me.

Instead, I try to enjoy the same sort of freedom I work hard to try to give to my players. And the game crashes like a computer trying to load data that simply doesn't exist in it's memory. ERROR ERROR. Why? Because the only effort actually expended was in the masturbatory process of crafting a delightful little story for me to tromp along and enjoy. Or because the DM tried to give freedom but didn't do the due diligence that would allow it and then end up finding their improvisational skills lacking.


And so I become stuck DMing...forever and ever, amen.

I actually just wrote about this on the D&D boards.

We are in the age of socialist gaming. Everyone's efforts equal the same level of output. Somehow. May God (and Stalin) help us.

Anonymous said...

Well, Alexis, I have been called a sociopath before, myself. So I feel I am in good company when posting / reading your blog!

I think a more accurate way of describing the dichotomy (that is a false one) of "maths" vs. "experience" is "reason vs. intuition."

I abhor dualities though and thankfully modern neuropsychology has shed light on this so-called dualism. 1st: We all use 100% of our brain -- that old bunk about ~10% of our brain is a myth (started by a bad advertisement, actually). AND the difference between left-brained and right-brained processing is not as black-and-white as popular psychology and newage (pronounced 'sewage') has made it out to be.

Basically, this: Left brained thinking is more "trees" whereas Right brained thinking is more "forest." They're both still "thinking" and often processing the same exact information, but in slightly different ways.

Compare, in the parlance of popular psychology / self-"help": "thoughts" vs. "feelings." Feelings are thoughts, but just a Right brained processing of internal states. "Thoughts" are more Left brained processing of internal states.

So, in the case of world-building, DMing et cetera: The use of structure, creating structure to use, researching structures, experimenting with structure is Left brained activity in its minutiae. The use of sudden-insights, lateral-associations, free-associations, intuition is Right brained activity.

BOTH are creative processes. In fact, both -- when used optimally and in cooperation -- result in the best creative works. Hence, your astute note that structure begets art.

Saying "my experience" is different than "your maths" is like saying "my jazz riffing" is different than "your piano scales Saturday weekly practices." It's not even apple and oranges, it's more like "bushels of fruit" to "turnips."

Anonymous said...

I wonder what structure, if any, is available to us aside from math for expanding the game? Put another way, is there a better way to quantify or describe the "experience" or "intuition" we're either dismissing or taking for granted?

I believe the point you're making here with this essay, Alexis, "is don't tell me your world and mine are the same if you're not putting the work in" and I sympathize... but getting beyond that, math or bottoms-up world design only gets one so far, right?

"Soft skills" often get dismissed on the one hand or on the other chalked up to "some people got it, some people don't" because we often lack the ability to explain or quantify them. Ask a mathematician or engineer and they might tell you math isn't "flawed" by human intervention... but history, psychology, social sciences, and D&D are.

Math won't get you to waste resources on an NPC's life, nor will it make you want to wipe out a tribe of orcs and build a tower or care about whether your character makes it through the fight. Maybe on some micro-level we don't really understand yet, sure, but we're not really addressing that here.

If one's world allows for players to transcend the mundane, then what does it matter if their trade system is comprehensible? How does one teach or learn that?

joe said...

I actually do recite that last bit to my players before most sessions. Though my version is more truncated, self-depreciating, and profanity laced.

Alexis Smolensk said...

James, your words,

I believe the point you're making here with this essay, Alexis, "is don't tell me your world and mine are the same if you're not putting the work in"

Are not the point of this argument. That was the point of Yagami's addition, which I assume was because he just needed to share.

MY POINT was that we already do everything. I do run my world from experience. I do use math. I use humour and intimidation and sometimes outright abuse.

Your term "soft skills" is an annoying engineering term, which means, "skills which technicians don't think are important."

This isn't directed at you, James. But I'm going to put this in caps because people seem to keep missing it.

Sorry, just needed to say that.

James, I am not arguing that math solves everything. I said it is "a" tool, not "the" tool.

My argument was to point out the stupid flaw in people who think that NOT using math is somehow an improvement. Let's be clear: not using ANYTHING is NOT an improvement. Deciding that this thing, anything, no matter what it is, that we can imagine with our minds, is something that shouldn't be applied to a D&D world is where the problem starts.

Now, your question about transcending the mundane. Let me start another comment.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Transcending the mundane:

Don't be it. That's a start.

Daily, I am faced everywhere I go with this expectation humans have for one another that we will act this way or do this thing or answer as expected. I have to consciously fight to conform to all this bullshit most of the time I am out because I want things like income and the lack of police officers with clubs.

But I don't buy into that. And I spent a lot of time reading books and investigating why I don't buy into that. It wasn't enough just to be a rebel. The question was, why is it that I am, and why is it that I prefer to be?

This whole process of investigation educated me regarding what OTHER people want and why they don't desire to rock the boat. It also educated me as to what floats their boat, what drives them, what shakes them to the core. This investigation also educated me as to how to do this.

I could have written a remarkable post praising Keith and explaining to him why his answer was thoroughly wise and how it demonstrated him to be a really remarkable, on the ball sort of person. I could have used all the phrases to pump up his ego and puff him to the moon ... but while this would have made Keith all happy, it would have sickened the poor Reverend and Yagami there.

I love this blog because I love being able to be honest, and say what I really feel. But I CAN lie. And I do. Constantly.

The place where I lie a lot is when I play D&D. Let us remember V for Vendetta. Artists tell lies in order to reveal the truth.

Now, if you want to learn what I learned, and educate yourself like I educated myself, take something you believe ... that you really believe ... and then tear it apart. Define for yourself exactly why you believe it, what you believe about it, and how far you'd go to make others believe it.

Ask yourself, "If I believe this, then why shouldn't everyone?"

Then ask, "If I believe this, then why doesn't everyone?"

Don't just ask yourself. Ask everyone.

If you don't begin to doubt what you believe in this process, you're not asking HARD enough.

See, because what you're really asking, James, is WHY am I not wiser? How can I be wiser?

To be wiser, one begins by distrusting what must be true, and - for brief periods - living your life according to what cannot be true.

It's not enough to say, "I know I know nothing." It's cute, but it's shit. What you have to do is think, "I'll pretend this is true and see what happens."

When you see what happens, you'll be wiser.

YagamiFire said...

I am reminded of two painters. One of whom knows and can use a number of different brushes, paints, styles, compositions and mediums...and the other that claims to be able to output the same amount & range of work with just one brush, one paint, one style, one composition and one medium...all of which the former painter also knows.

I am simultaneously reminded of an artist and an arrogant twit...

Hmm. Funny that. Best part is, often the twit thinks they're being oh-so enlightened and chummy to make their dismissive remark.

YagamiFire said...

Funny how many parallels there are between the discussion here and one I am involved in on the WOTC I mean forums.

Someone asked for advice on advice I could start out by giving them was to be willing to disregard any advice they receive, including from me. But also to be willing to re-evaluate, at the drop of the hat, previously disregarded advice.

Learning is a process.

I also believe that if someone truly believed what they're doing is the best way to DM and to approach D&D, that they'd be shouting it at everyone to make everyone understand and enjoy it.

When they aren't doing that it makes me highly dubious of their convictions. Even more so when they try to equalize all approaches, in effect immunizing themselves from criticism since, after all, everything is the same no? Poppycock.

I will gladly tell anyone that will listen that my approach to the game is the best. I will even explain to them why it is the best. Are all my practices the best? No, certainly not. However, my approach is the best. If I did not think so, why would I do it? Why would I be doing something I did not find to be the best?

Simultaneously, I'm willing to discard what I'm doing for a better way...I've already done it multiple times in my life. Like tying shoes, I used to use two bunny-ears...because it was easier and, at the time, it was the best way for me to do it. Then I learned better.

Also, Alexis, bonus points for mentioning V For Vendetta. I do love much of Moore's work. I'm also reminded of the king that can only accept honest criticisms from his court jester because anyone else would be reprimanded. After all, the jester can be dismissed by the king as a fool to spare his own ego. Truly though, in that case, the fool doesn't perform before the throne but, instead, sits upon it.

I like this blog because I do not feel like I have a clown performing to entertain me while, occasionally, trying to slip in some truth for my benefit. Instead, I feel like an adult being addressed by an adult in an adult exchange of ideas. Is it stark? Is it blunt? Is it some times jarring? Yup. Such is reality.

" was my integrity that was important. Is that so selfish? It sells for so little, but it's all we have left in this place. It is the very last inch of us...but within that inch we are free."

I'll take an inch of integrity here over a mile of bullshit peddled from Hasbro.

Incidentally, this discussion also touches upon about my favorite quote from V.

Why is it that I'm always trying to improve as a DM? Because I don't allow myself to be happy with how I'm doing. I know I can always do better and I always want to do better.

"You were already in a prison. You've been in a prison all your life. Happiness is a prison, Evey. Happiness is the most insidious prison of all."

Happiness would trap me in being satisfied with how I am doing. Happiness would make me stop trying to improve. Make me stagnate. Accept mediocrity. Plateau.

If that is the alternative, I will happily be unhappy for the rest of my life in regards to how well I DM and how well I play D&D. Tomorrow I will be better than I was today, but it will never be good enough.

Anonymous said...

Alexis, I'm struggling to see where we appear to have disagreed on something. I wasn't implying you weren't those things (fiction writer, a good DM who can build drama and transcend the mundane, etc...), I was clearly (I thought, at least) asking how one could convey those things as easily as one can convey the concretes of math.

The technicians, as you call them, that dismiss so-called "soft skills" do so because they don't understand them. They're tougher things to quantify. Other than giving the advice "live your life, question everything" is there something concrete in approach... some tool that could be described like math is. I was posing a different question, not refuting your previous answer.

JDJarvis said...

Results depend on skills, technology, and experience. I did plenty of hobbyist programming in the past and many a person would see my little programs and ask: "How can I do that?","How can I program an RPG?", "How can I program a First Person Shooter?", "How can I program a MMORPG?" and I tell them they have to learn to program using multiple tools, they have to learn the picky boring stuff, the have to learn the math and they have to start programming things like pong and Eliza to get down the foundation skills... most don't want to do that becasue it's "boring" or "somebody else did that years ago". To me that just means they are indeed ignorant, probably lazy and will never be programming a complete game of their own (not not realizing most professional games aren't made by anyone on their own).

The same thing happens with drawing and animation. "How can I do that" ..easy pick up a pencil and a pad of paper start drawing and studying, 20-40 years from now you'll be as good or better. I draw as I do from spending thousands of hours learning how to draw and how others draw.

I concur that to become really good at virtually any field requires understanding the basic skills and the utility of the math involved.

Alexis Smolensk said...

My apologies, James. It did sound to me as though you characterized my argument as what Yagami was saying. And I was not making any distinction in my post regarding the value of one skill vs. another. It was, I think, the implication of my infatuation with math that got under my skin there, as in, "you've got to be able to do soft skills too."

Once again, my apologies.

Antonio said...

As Pierre de Fermat would answer to people asking him "Why do you study math?" - "because even a magistrate needs to be able to reason correctly."

Keith S said...

Alexis, we are of similar ages, and have similar amounts of gaming experience. Beyond your blog, and the comments I've made on your blog, we really have no way of knowing one another. So, we may rely upon assumptions at times. Perhaps to the detriment of both of us, or at least our attempts at communication.

I am not a professional writer. I endeavor to be succinct and have some kind of point when I comment on a blog. Not always successfully.

I understand that the world is underpinned by mathematics. I totally get that you have spent a lot of time and experience crafting mathematical models that you use as tools for running your game. I put a lot of effort into my game-mastering too. I read blogs about games, looking for ways to improve my game-mastering.

The meaning, for me, of the comment that I posted was that we have different methods in our approach to game-mastering, and while I respect your right to assert that your method is superior, I reject the idea that by not creating rigorous mathematical models for world behavior I am somehow doing less work. (In fact, it might be that without the efficiencies provided by mathematics, I'm doing more work.) The relative stupidity of my methods is certainly open to judgement in the court of criticism.

I collect images, quotes, links, read books, write short scenes, make little sketches, and collect all this data together to form models for various aspects of my game world. I refer to this data prior to sessions in which it is likely to be used, and I have it available on my computer to call upon during sessions. I get a feel for how something should be, and try to convey that to my players when they inquire.

Thanks for taking the time and effort to host a dialog about gaming and game-mastering (among your many other interests.)

Alexis Smolensk said...

I am giving Keith the last word on this subject. I will not be accepting any further comments here.

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