Thursday, May 30, 2013

Two Kinds

Yesterday I left a teaser in my post. Today I intend to address it.

I am a novelist. I wrote my first very bad novel at 19; I wrote a better one at 22, and an even better one when I was 25. I wrote my first good one at 34. All these novels took a long time to write, and were written and rewritten many times. What I'm saying is that writing a novel takes commitment.

So does gaming. Not the sort of commitment of making a lot of maps or sketching out undergrround lairs or even producing a monster generating excel file. Those things are interesting and they take time, but they're not the sort of commitment I'm talking about. This may sound a little stupid to some of you, but what I'm talking about is love.

It was only recently that I wrote a different post about running one campaign, and I still feel I came short of the mark. There, I talked about developing rules ... but since I've been talking about detachment, I want to address the idea of loving the world you've made, and why you should.

It makes the world better.

There are two kinds of love. There's the love where you grip the thing so tightly that you strangle or smother it to death - where you, and you alone, are allowed to gain anything from that love. Its a common sort of love among young people. Its the love you have for someone you fear you'll lose, someone whose special and without whom you cannot imagine yourself living without. To make sure you'll never have to, you take steps to keep that love trapped in your Cleveland basement; you beat that love stupid so it understands it can't leave. You keep it in chains.

Then there is the other love, the one that leaves you humbled. You never imagine that you can control it. You dream that perhaps you'll be able to influence it, and if you're patient and giving and kind, hopefully that which you love will love you back. This is the sort of love that doesn't give you what you need ... its that which makes you a better person than you are, because you must change in order to measure up. When you wake in the morning, and see the person beside you whose life you've chosen to share, your single overriding thought is what do you have to do today to make this thing better. Really, to make yourself better.

Both kinds of love take commitment. The first takes a willingness to be uncompromisingly selfish and disturbingly inhuman. The second takes the willingness to admit you're not in control, you'll never be in control, and whatever the outcome, you're fine with it.

In the first, you act like a monster because you're afraid, and you don't want to be. In the second, you accept that fear is the operating principle. You put your children on a plane so they can live three thousand miles away and you accept that this is what you need to do, no matter how it makes you feel. You watch your partner put on their uniform, their baton and their gun every morning and kiss them as they walk out the door. You help them in and out of the bathtub, and on and off the toilet, for as long as you have to, because they need you and those are the circumstances. You question the bizarre, frustrating difficulty of it all, but you fight to beat yourself into the person who can do those things.

Very well. So whose world is it?

Dear gentle reader, what applies to one part of your life applies to everything. When you say you love your world, when you give over hundreds, thousands of hours of your life to it, the depth and reach of that love does not diminish because others think your decision to dedicate your life to a game is silly. Perhaps you should have 'loved' something else; perhaps you should be in Bolivia removing worms from children's feet, or patiently measuring the fluid in test tubes towards a cure for breast cancer. Maybe you should have taken more schooling and forced yourself to have greater skills that would let you do things for which other people would have more respect. Maybe. But the long and the short of it is that you love this ... this infantile, childish, moronic game. This escapist framework, that hardly contributes anything to the betterment of anyone.

Sadly, you haven't much choice about it, not if you really love the thing. Maybe others can put it down and walk away and find NASCAR more interesting ... but not you. You're the guy who fell in love with the fat chick in high school, whose smile fills you with warmth and happiness, but whom everyone else looks at and thinks, why is he with her? You're the woman who fell for the alcoholic. You didn't get to fall in love with politics, religion or quantum physics. You fell in love with D&D.

Well, how are you going to love it? Are you going to be the monster that grips the players throats, making them dance to your tune, or are you going to sacrifice yourself to the fear that they may do shit you're not ready for? I read a lot of fear on the boards and elsewhere, and I wonder what precisely is the motivating factor at those tables.

I would personally feel ill-used by a DM who announced every couple of months that the character I was running in the previous campaign is now null and void because that DM decided he or she would rather run a Traveller campaign now. I'd feel jerked around by a DM who looked at their world regularly and thought, "Fuck it, I don't like this," and suddenly proclaimed that clerics were no more, that no adventure was going to take place in a city, or that we were moving to, from, or back to some other gaming system that he or she just bought books for.

It must all seem over-dramatized to a lot of the gentle readers that I choose to couch such decisions in this frame of reference ... but you know, I slept and lived with some tremendously selfish bitches in my life, who at one time said they loved me and later changed their mind. I've counseled a lot of others who have slept and lived with bastards who did or said the same to them. The world is full of some really tremendously offensive people, who in a normal light seem as honest and forthright as anyone else. I don't think it does any good to soft-soap the reality, particularly with arguments that begin with, "Well, I'm not really hurting anyone because this is a game that doesn't matter anyway."

Offering the opinion that something "doesn't matter," though seeming to spend a helluva a lot of time and money at that thing, reminds me of all the men and women I've known over the years who dumped jobs and partners like yesterday's garbage. I guess for some people, no, it doesn't matter. It doesn't matter what your players want, or what they're doing, or the plans they're making ... because your world isn't working for YOU, so fuck it.

Here's what I suggest. Make your world work for your players. And if your world isn't "working" for you, question whether or not anything ever really will. Chances are, you're the sort of person whose really just getting a lot out of jerking people around.

If that's true, try this: change.

Some Carpathia, Some Libya

Before I get down to serious matters, I'd like to catch up with a couple of maps I've made lately.  In terms of viewership, these are not doing so well lately - but I've been told by some that they love 'em, so I'm more than happy to cater to a few fans.

The first is nothing special.  I've posted one like it before - this is merely updated for a more elaborate program, with a different color scheme, and with infrastructure numbers all over it.  It really sucks when a computer dies, and takes a program with it ... but I'm very well adjusted now to the updated publisher, and I like the additional features it offers.

Here's a map of Eastern Europe focused on the Carpathians:

Includes coniferous forest (dark green); deciduous forest (brown);
prairie (light yellow); and mixed deciduous and coniferous (olive green)
Patterned areas in mixed yellow and green, identified by
infrastructure numbers, indicate heavily settled areas

The other map is wholly new ... and mostly empty.  Where I have no details for a hex, the color of that hex uses the local vegetation as a default.  This is the central part of modern day Libya:

Green areas and unpatterned brown areas represent
arable land. Yellow areas along the coast are thin grasslands.
Ferrous red areas have thin scrubland, but no oases; some such
areas might have deep unknown water sources. Gray areas
are pure desert.

My favorite part of this process is being able to intensively map parts of the world - based on plotted cities and elevation numbers, vegetation maps and with some help from Google Earth - for which I have no maps.  Researching through Wikipedia reveals some gems, too.  It all comes together in the sort of map above, which is described as empty in most any map you'll find online of Libya.  It is, in reality ... because this represents about 300,000 square miles.  Even so, it has character now, where it had none before.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013


Near the end of my last post, I made reference to some of the trials my player's characters have been through, that has helped establish, for them, not merely a set of events but a living, breathing history.  They view their characters with a great deal of sentimentality; they identify with them, and like any character from a show or a series of films, where there has been time to get to know the character well, the loss or disappearance of the character would leave an emotional hole.

Several of the people who have read my book Pete's Garage have remarked on the characters in the book, how real they seem or how interesting they are ... and some have asked if I would write another book with the same characters, recognizing that this would only be a matter of creating a new situation, that would in turn affect them.  I imagine there's not a serious writer anywhere in the world who hasn't had to field this question.  No matter how many Harry Potter books there might be, no matter that the author who wrote James Bond is dead, the characters go on, and on, because people love them.  That is how my players feel about their characters.

Why?  What is it that compels them?  Why is it that some players fall in love with the characters they run, while others are indifferent, even contemptuous, of the fighters or mages they create?  What is the formula?

Detachment is a willing or unwilling disassociation with the emotional demands of living as a person in society.  There are those who are simply unable to do so - they are psychologically disordered, to the extent that they cannot make an emotional connection to any other person.  Everything they do, and all their relationships, are managed from a strictly operational perspective.  In many cases, this results from some form of trauma the individual has suffered, compelling them to draw back in order to protect themselves; in other cases, it is simply that the presence of emotions in others overwhelms the individual, to the point where they are too stressed to operate at all if they acknowledge the presence of emotions, no matter the source.

Alternately, there are those who are free to choose between detachment and connectivity - and they have chosen the former.  They prefer, from experience, to deal with matters from an outward perspective; to view emotional motivations as something not to be pursued or desired.  It is often a practical solution to operating in situations where there is a great deal of human suffering, such as in a war zone or a hospital, or where a cool, level head is more important than giving in to the immediate demands of emotion, such as in law enforcement or rescue.  Spending a long portion of one's day putting emotions on the back burner can produce an habitual attitude towards said emotions, so that it becomes difficult - or undesirable - to let those emotions in even when one is off-duty.

It would be the height of foolishness to presume that detachment is an all-or-nothing matter.  Individuals may be very emotional in many circumstances of their lives, while deliberately detached when participating in one specific activity.  A chessmaster might be emotionless and hard when playing; and a complete disaster emotionally otherwise.  Moreover, the degree to which one detaches from the present emotional environment is completely circumstantial.  I am probably more likely to get exhuberant or angry at home, where I can be assured that no one will misunderstand, than I am at work; I might scream things at a hockey game I'd never say in any other setting.  I might be willing to drop gloves and fight while playing hockey ... whereas in any other situation I would never contemplate raising my fists.  Detachment is wildly variant.

From that, we can assume there are those who deliberately detach themselves from their characters for reasons that are satisfactory to them.  One question would be, however, why that particularly?  Why would someone resist any identification with a fictional being?

I had a friend who was infuriated with the movie Cast Away, because of the relationship that developed between Chuck Noland, the main character, and the volleyball he began to call Wilson.  Her specific issue was her disbelief that anyone, ever, and certainly not her, could conceivably delude themselves to the point where they became emotionally attached to an inanimate object, which was so clearly inanimate.  A discussion after the movie - which I had shown her - did not in any manner change her mind, and it became clear after a time that she was operating from a position of supreme denial.

What's funny is the clear evidence that many people, not having been trapped on an island for four years with Wilson, are more than ready to identify Wilson as a legitimate character.  The volleyball has 'his' own IMDb page, and appears in the cast list of the movie on IMDb.  A bio for Wilson begins,

"Wilson the Volleyball is one of Hollywood's most loved volleyballs. His glittering career started when he became the only companion of Tom Hanks' Chuck Noland in Cast Away. Many say this is Wilson's best performance and he couldn't have given a better effort. He has made notable guest appearances on shows like Family Guy, where he was able to poke fun at his role in Cast Away ..."

So where is the disconnect?  From where does it derive?

My personal feeling is that everything boils down to fear.  My erstwhile friend (gone for other reasons) was probably more affected by the movie than she was prepared to accept.  Players who refuse absolutely to identify with their characters - very often on principle - are no doubt concerned that an emotional investment in the character would preclude them from having the freedom to simply walk away from the table without guilt or emotion.  Or, the obvious alternative, if the character dies, they just don't have to care.  Better to keep that detachment firmly in place than to find oneself going to a session because one can't bear that the loved character is now on a shelf, where it will never be able to play again.  More to the point, it would mean having to bend or shape oneself to other players, in order to keep their goodwill, so that the loved character isn't booted from the game along with the player.

The gentle reader may laugh at that proposal, but I think it is a very real concern.  It is much easier to walk away from a job that one hates than be fired from a career that one loves.  The world is full of people who deliberately resist 'getting involved,' because it would mean putting themselves in a situation where their happiness depended on the sympathy, even the tolerance, of others.  How many times have you seen someone suddenly spaz out, incensed at something inconsequential, when it wasn't hard to tell they were really just looking for an excuse to get out from under all that joint-participation?  One has to expect that a D&D party carries with it all the same expectations on a person's participation as any other association ... and it must be easier to stop showing up at a game when the character is just a sheet of paper, and not a person deeply cared for.

I've had many people appear at a session wanting to play some character they love, who came from another campaign, wanting that character to live and breathe again.  Presumably, the DM whom they played with is no longer playing, or in another city, or doesn't care about players and their characters.  It is doubly hard when the players choose to care, but the DM does not - but that is another post.

I don't let such characters in.  Everyone in my world starts fresh.  And I have had players view their characters with indifference, or deliberately run characters so different from themselves as to be unrecognizeable as human beings.  Detachment takes a lot of forms.

The best playing, I have always found, happens when the player identifies the character as themselves ... not in the sense, necessarily, that the character has the exact behavior of the player, but rather that the player is participating as they would if they were that character.  In other words, if they were transformed into that person, like the kid in Richard Corben's Den.  I name that particular series because Corben perceived himself as the kid ... and because Corben surely recognized as a writer that he could never BE Den except in fiction.  Nevertheless, there is a strong living sense that Den is a real person, because Corben infused his own personality into the circumstances and conditions of Den's strength and presence in that world.  That's what I think players should do with their characters.  "If Mary were a half-naked muscled male monk, what would she do?"  Not what would a monk that no one has ever met would do.

If a player who practices detachment towards their character steps into a game where all the other players are prepared to invest, the balance is usually fucked ... and strongly against the player who refuses to embrace.  After all, by refusing, that player does not only detach his or her self from the character, but from any point or drama set by the campaign itself, since their perspective is always unemotional ... thus the campaign, and those in the campaign who have drunk the kool-aid, are disposable.

Thus, detached players don't last.  I will go one step further, as a DM who loves emotionally involved players: detached players aren't wanted.

Too bad for them.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Walking Through The Session

Ozzie Pippenger, on my last post, offered the following (taken from a larger comment):

"Playing D&D is not a job. It's something you do to have fun. At a job, you put up with things you don't want to do, because you're trying to make money or accomplish some kind of important goal, but you don't "have" to do anything in D&D, except for what you and the players enjoy."

I wanted to talk about this, with all due respect to Ozzie; I don't intend to take it apart or attack it.  I've already answered it in context of the discussion we were having on that post.  I thought I might address another matter.

It seems I can never write anything about how to be a better DM without someone rushing to tell me that D&D is 'fun,' that it's a form of entertainment, or that everyone is there to have a good time, etcetera.  I must assume from this that many of my gentle readers have taken it into their head that I manage my games with a yardstick in hand, mercilessly cracking the knuckles of any player who dares to pick up a die at the wrong time, or whacking them on the head for speaking out of turn.  They must suppose that my players cower in my presence, humbly begging for my attention, fearing that I will slash into them violently for daring to have a thought or produce an opinion on any subject.  It must be a wonder to many readers why I have players at all, for why would anyone produce themselves only to face such a brutal taskmaster as myself.

Certainly, beyond question, no one at my table is having any fun.

My game begins, typically, around about five p.m. Friday evening.  Oh, I don't mean that's when the players show up, I mean that's when I get home from work and I start thinking about the game.  The groceries get shopped for around that time too, stocking up pop and foodstuffs to buttress the appetites of the young people who will be coming the next day.  My thoughts are fairly scattered - and for some hours I will relax and contemplate the game, going over the motivations of the various NPCs and what guesses I have for what the party might do.  I try to run through their patterns of behavior, much like a general guessing at the tactics an enemy might employ, so as to be ready.  I'm sometimes surprised, but not generally ... the party usually follows an expected pattern of behavior, usually making a beeline for the largest pile of treasure known to them, or away from the greatest enemy they've collected.

I have a number of low-attention activities I participate in that let me think about that, from resting in the bath to some form of physical labor that needs doing.

Saturday, I concentrate mostly on material having nothing to do with the campaign.  I used to spend a lot of time creating NPCs that I knew would be needed, or sketching out a map of some combat ground ... and sometimes I still do this.  Mostly, however, I find I can create an NPC pretty quickly out of the air using my generator, or sketching a map as we go through the campaign.  It depends dearly upon how difficult I want that ground of combat to be.  A few rooms are a piece of cake; a series of cliff ledges and rope ladders takes more time, and I'll do some sketching for something like that.  Often, I'll be motivated to sketch out something like that for the future - but without any expectation even of what side of the map the party will approach from.  I don't see that as prepping a railroad - only of having a scene where the combat might occur in an area very unusual.  What might fight there, or why, will reveal itself in time, when things seem right.

My primary goal throughout Saturday is to relax.  This is the hardest sort of preparation I have to do.  A week's stress from work, the various matters of living, things that have recently gone wrong, and knowing the night I'm going to have, coupled with the fact that I'm now almost 49, all takes a toll on my mental state ... and the one thing I cannot have come game time is my head in some other space.  I need to let everything go.  This is best accomplished, I find, with some sort of creative D&D work through the day, such as map-making, followed by an hour or two of a turn-based video game, something I can contemplate, that takes me out of the real world for awhile.

I clean, my wife Tamara cleans, we get the place sorted, ice made, etc., just as one would do for a party.  This is every week, and I don't think that differs much from anyone else.

The players show up around four o'clock in the afternoon.  They live with and close to each other; they consist of a pair of girls who live together, M & KP, of my daughter and her eight-year common-law husband KB, her second cousin (and my first cousin by my first marriage), H, and sometimes a girl who lives out of town, A.  It's been depleted in recent years to that after one girl and her boyfriend, who both played, split from each other, and another fellow decided a life of drugs was preferable to D&D.  It used to be KB's brother would play too, but he's spending his winters snowboarding and his summers in a wide variety of extreme sports, including skydiving and summer ski-jumping.  He may come back if he breaks something.

With this is my partner Tamara, so there are typically seven or eight of us all told.  Note, however, that I have a completely different party consisting of Tamara and a husband and wife, J & J, that I run once a month, where the dynamic differs from the below.  It's calmer and more intellectual, while the bigger party is loud, passionate and highly unstable.

As they roll in, they bring food and drink, having typically come from the local grocery store, and very quickly food is stacked everywhere.  I get them to help me setting up the two tables and the desk, filling the living room, as these people all have many notes and all need a lot of space for computers and such.  While they proceed to devour a farm or two, to build up their energy level, I set up my lap top, connected to two monitors which are directed at the party, so that everyone in the twelve foot diameter half circle can see.  These monitors are set up so that everything on my desk top can be seen as I type or look up things. They are convenient for showing maps, details about various things, stats for permanent and temporary party-followers, that sort of thing.

Behind me, I have a large four foot by three foot whiteboard where I try to visually demonstrate the shape of things, occasionally trying my hand at art to show how a clearing or a setting looks, what kind of thing they might be looking at, calculating math, writing what treasure is available and sorting things like that out, as well as anything on the spur of the moment that is easier to write on a big board than on a computer.

Having set all that up, I have something to eat too.  Everyone simply makes themselves at home, tearing through my kitchen, cooking, storing stuff in the fridge or freezer, etcetera.  The place, typically, looks like a bomb has gone off.  A bomb full of dice.

Usually, it's visiting time for the next two hours.  I try to get the campaign started at six p.m., but sometimes we can clear up some of the paper work before then if anyone is so inclined.  People ask me questions, but we debate politics, show videos we've seen lately that are funny, discuss movies and recent events, and generally catch up.  It's relaxed and friendly, but as most of these people are in their twenties, it has moments of great frantic activity.  Sometimes there is wrestling.

When people start to get settled, characters spread out, details addressed, we get down to running.  This usually begins with my reminding them of what is the last thing they've seen.  Then they start asking the sort of questions that begin to apply directly to the campaign; how much do they need, where is such and such, have they heard anything from this or that, etc ... for the next 90-120 minutes I field questions, debate rules, deliberate, pontificate, do a little role-play, and try to get these people as emotionally involved as I can.

Once upon a time, I did this until I hit a point of exhaustion, usually four or five hours before starting ... but beginning this last year, I've begun to realize that after three hours the tension and expectation to produce mental brilliance begins to push me to an edge where my impatience rises, sometimes severely.  This, I realize, is something that has come from age.  Now I force myself to take breaks which once I didn't need, and the evening goes smoother, albeit with more interruptions.

The players get very involved with the game, but they are also a group of terrifically sarcastic, cynical, clever people, and it is their nature to twist or turn everything into a joke or an observation.  These are often so funny that the game is destroyed for five or ten minutes, and I have had to break in order to catch my breath from laughing.  One recent proposal, made in a circumstance where the party could pass through a portal only one at a time, was that perhaps the druid could turn into a really large snake, swallow half the party, then disgorge them on the other side.  This became the "Anaconda Bus" and we were pretty useless for awhile after that.  The role-playing game Salmon was another such instance.

Regularly, I haul the players back into the campaign, returning their mindset to whatever's happening, or the ongoing combat, or connecting them again to the problem they've made for themselves.  Often I can leave the room, shake things off and such while they're talking, but mostly I'm looking things up or preparing while they debate among themselves.  The party makes about eight to ten fairly important decisions among themselves each running, though they're hardly aware of it.  Sometimes it's a strategy thing, cooked up on the moment after someone has taken 40 damage (the bard was drop-kicked into a bad situation with the last combat), or preceding a combat.  There are the inevitable questions of who gets what, and of course who knows what (determined by die) about a thing they are witnessing.  There are always more questions ... and as I don't sanction any rule that says when anyone is allowed to talk, I generally get questions from two or three people simultaneously.  I have long learned how to manage this - I don't hesitate to be rude, particularly when I am interrupted by person B when explaining something to person A, because person B wasn't listening and has just had a brilliant insight.  But this is the game.  Nobody cares that I'm rude, because no one gives a shit about anything except what I'm saying.  How I am saying it seems to matter about as much as it would if you were standing on a field and your friend was screaming at you to kill the orc leader first.  You wouldn't care that he was screaming.  You'd be busy doing what your friend said.

There's too much going on, too many opinions, loudly stated, too much arguing, for anyone to care about the things I am sometimes accused of on this blog.  These players have had some of these characters for six plus years.  They have fought, bled, agonized over the life and death of these characters a dozen times; they have pulled these characters from the brink, rescued characters from donjons in the literal location of Hell, lost crucial items of magic, seen enemies stormed and destroyed, staggered across barren icy wastes up to ankle-deep in freezing water, been stolen from, been imprisoned and beaten, been threatened and tricked and trapped.  They have lived.  They are alive to these players, and they do not go into anything lightly; and where things get dangerous, where the moments get gruesome or uncertain, these players shout, they yell, they get mad at each other, they nit-pick and sullenly accuse and get downright mean.

And what keeps the game going through all that is me.  I am responsible for stirring up their emotions; I am responsible for having produced the circumstances they fought and struggled through, and I am responsible for making sure that when the end of the night comes, around midnight or so, they haven't felt like their time was wasted.  I'm responsible for their well-being.  This is not something I view lightly.

If I seem cold and emotionless and dour while I write these blog posts, the reader should recognize that, not now being in the game, my concern is for making the game something greater than just bullshit to fill between six and midnight.  I am stern here because here I am talking about the measure I apply to myself, not that which I apply to the party.  They're not responsible, because they are not the dungeon master.  They're busy enough, keeping themselves alive and in one piece, striving for a bit more success session by session.  They need someone else to have their hand on the machine, to keep all the shit level, so that when emotionally they are scattered there's someone who is clear, sharp and on the ball.  That's my role.

What I get out of that is fairly the same as what I've gotten out of any artistic performance - the solid, grateful feeling that I've done my part well.  The certainty that I've stretched myself to the utmost; that I've spent all my energy, as best I can, to produce an experience for others who cannot produce it for themselves.  Is that serious?

I think that is deadly serious.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Player Compromise & Respect

Of late, since the long debate on party agency and game preparation that took place on this blog a few weeks ago, I've been asked to comment on party dynamics, or how party members relate to each other, rather than to the DM.  Specifically, about parties who cannot get together to agree upon a single goal, and parties with are dominated, even pushed around, by one or two players.  It is a problem I've been contemplating regarding an essay in my struggling book, and a problem which - I must confess - I have more trouble proscribing a solution for than enacting that solution.

I have always known what to say or do where it comes to managing my games ... which is not to say that I'm an especially nice guy, or that people get what they want.  No, what I would say is that I'm an expecially FAIR judge, and that I don't give a shit what people want where it comes to the way people speak or treat one another.  This works for my games because I don't have an agenda ... but before I explain how that works, I want to talk about power.

In the second episode of Adam Curtis' All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace, that I posted about earlier today, the social communes which were founded by egalitarians four decades ago mostly failed because of how human beings operate.  Here is Curtis talking about the communes from that episode:

"They all failed.  Most lasted no more than three years.  Some, for less than six months.  And what tore them all apart was the very thing that was supposed to have been banished - power.  The commune members discovered that some people were more free than others.  Strong personalities came to dominate the weaker members of the group ... but the rules of the self-organizing system refused to allow any organized opposition to the suppression.  The failure of the commune movement ... shows the limitations of the self-organizing model.  It cannot deal with the central dynamic forces of human society: politics and power.  The hippies took up the idea of the networks as a society, because they were disillusioned with politics.  They believed that this alternative way of ordering the world was good, because it was based on the underlying order of nature.  But this was a fantasy."

Hearing that, I was suddenly struck by an understanding of why politics - or rather, systemized control by some human beings over others, beginning with chiefs and moving up through monarchies and democracies - was necessary to curtail the power of individuals like myself, who had the capacity not merely to dominate others, but to lie and manipulate other persons in such a manner as to play them off against each other, and to keep track of all those lies and to even concoct new lies in the spur of the moment to deflect attention or anger against themselves.

This is what is happening at your gaming table, even if you are not aware of it.  If we take any two random persons and have them sit opposite each other, with the expectation that they will 'sort it out,' alone and without any comment from others, you may bet beyond a shadow of a doubt that the stronger-willed individual will influence the weaker-willed individual so that the sorting falls clearly in the favor of the stronger.  If both individuals are quite weak willed, nothing will be sorted out because neither individual will firmly declare their intention to do anything.  If both individuals are very strong, it may take a long, long time to sort anything out, and its probable that both will become angry and resistant to change on principle long before anything is settled.

Social groups as they developed small villages ten thousand years ago must have already inherently understood this dynamic, and understood that the one counteraction to this dynamic is the involvement of others.  What absolutely cannot be allowed to happen in any discourse, ever, is everyone else keeping the hell out of it and minding their own business.  The business of the group is everyone's business, for it is only in organized opposition to the strongest personalities in the group can those personalities be compelled to accept what is best for everyone.  This is a central organizing principle in society ... it must be the central organizing principle of your gaming group.

If you have one individual who snaps at the involvement of anyone in something they consider a "personal matter" between themselves and a given member of the group, what you are watching is an individual cutting someone weak from the herd in order to manage that one individual with the least amount of opposition.  This can never be allowed to happen.  Everyone at the table must be encouraged to speak to every matter, regardless of the matter, and that includes you, the DM.  In fact, that includes you most of all.

Gygax & Co. believed that the gaming group needed one spokesperson who would serve as an intermediary between the members of the party and the DM ... in effect, trying to impose a monarchy so as to curtail the expected conflict in the group.  Monarchies work as social systems because either a) the Monarch is the smartest person in the room, and the title precludes the need for manipulation and deviance (though it occurs anyway, so it goes), or b) the Monarch being fairly stupid but having loads of power serves as a restraint on the smarter people, as the Monarch might at a whim kill the smart person just because (makes the smart people keep their head down).

The common alternative is to have parties vote on everything, imposing the majority over the minority, and that works because the smart person who supposely 'wins' is still reduced to having to create a general single perception on the part of a lot of people who probably don't really understand what they're supporting ... which makes a tenuous situation at best.  When the opposition is real, and everyone is capable of changing their mind, this is quite effective, but if everyone in the government moves to a single agenda, and that agenda no longer depends on a majority of the population, then you get on the road to disaster.

A good example at your gaming table is where you have two or three people who are of like mind, who all happen to be the stronger personalities, who in turn push around everyone else.  A very tricky situation, at best.

The deadlock can only be broken if there is someone who a) has a strong personality and position and b) has no agenda.  The strong people at the table always have an agenda.  Their position presence at the table can be a boon if they happen to be of a gracious personality, if they don't need things to go their way or they don't need to be the 'strongest' or most fitted playing.  But then, that is their agenda.  Most times, it does not work that way.  Most times, the strong people want as much as they can get, and they don't care to be gracious.

This is why it is so important that the DM not be one of those persons who are invested emotionally in what results at the table.  The DM can be terrifically emotional in the presentation of events; the DM can be deeply involved with the events as they are unfolding; but the DM must now, absolutely must not, care how it turns out.  If they party saunters through the dungeon, if the party is slaughtered, it cannot matter to the DM one way or the other.  This is not to say that the DM is unfeeling or cold ... far from it.  A DM, to make the experience a pleasure, must be as gracious as the player we were discussing before.  The DM can afford to be gracious; he or she has nothing to lose, as well as nothing to gain, and if a tweak here or there lets a character live who might have died, and the overall party is served, all the better.  But the DM cannot bend the values of the game for the players, nor can he or she compromise on rolls of the dice, which are a power greater than the DM.  That is one of the reason more and more DMs are coming out from behind the screen, because it is a growing recognition that the must be a final say on everything that happens in the game ... and that final say must be rolled where everyone can see it.

I make players wait until I am a witness to see their character stat rolls - it is in their rights to make me wait until they are a witness to the rolls I make that determine the life or death of their characters.

So where there are players who are lording it over other players, DMs, hear me in this - get involved.  Get in their face.  Back them down.  Make them sit in their fucking chairs and listen.  Encourage others to give their opinions on what's happening.  Make it a group discussion.  No one gets to make judgements on others - a Good DM will make sure the players are vocal about what he or she is doing as well.  That DM must be held to a standard of Impartiality just as the players must be held to a standard of good interactive play.

Now, let's talk about the other side of this - not where someone is necessarily bossing others around, but where the party simply cannot agree on what the party was doing.  This came up a lot with reference to the Opening Module, where people said the party would be sitting there three weeks later, without making any agreement.

Let us take a situation, where you have four players at your table and they are discussing the matter.  Two wish to participate in some action that could be termed 'evil' ... they want to raid caravans.  The other two refuse, categorically, to ever involve themselves in any action that's evil.  Both sides spend all night arguing and coming to no conclusion.  What do you do?

It's not like this isn't common.  Four seniors sit down to design the Prom, and the matter of the Prom's theme comes up.  Two decide they want it to be a political theme - freedom of oppressed people everywhere.  The other two decide that it ought to be fun, celebrating spring and happiness.  The debate bogs down.  Neither side will budge.  What do you do?

Well ... I usually find that these sorts of arguments break down between a group that wants to do something and a group that refuses to do something.  But the second example, that of the Prom, I've worded so as to emphasize that both groups have a desire.  Usually, in such cases, a teacher tells them, "Make up your minds, or I will."  That's because the teacher understands what the DM must understand:  that an inability to compromise, for any reason, is a sign of immaturity.

Whether you will do something or you won't do something, every individual in the party must understand that sometimes, you just don't get what you want.  This is the sort of speech that, as a DM, I would deliver at a time like this.  So you don't want to be evil, so you absolutely must sack caravans, well ... I need you to both realize that these are not the only possible things you can do.  And if you two don't want this, and you two don't want that, then grow the fuck up, realize you haven't come up with the thing yet that all four of you can agree on, and stop reiterating this one dead issue.

Frankly, I am not a fan of any member of a party who has a strict closed door policy on any action the party in general may wish to take.  Maybe the door might be stuck, maybe it might take some talking or some compromising, but I feel everyone should at least acknowledge that their personal position includes flexibility.  My best advice for a DM who finds a consistently inflexible person at their gaming table would be to boot them.  That person is ruining your game.  Give them notice, let them know their inflexibility is unacceptable, but if that doesn't work, show them the door.

If you have the party split down the middle, and they absolutely will not agree on anything, make it clear that you're going to boot two of them if they can't change their minds.  I have no tolerance whatsoever for people who cannot change their minds.  It's infantile, it's imbecilic, it's detrimental to a fluid campaign and it's just a huge pain in the ass.  Frankly, I'd rather run with two people who can clearly define what they want to do, and do it, than run with four squabbling people who cannot get their shit together.  This, too, I would simply make clear:

"Let me say this.  I am here to run a world.  I don't care what you do, but do something - else, I can find better things to do.  Get your shit together, act like adults, or I'm going to roll a die.  If it's a six, you two can go home.  If it's a one, then its you two.  If its a 2 through 5, I'm going to roll again.  If you don't like that, if you think that's unfair, you can get up and stomp out now.  If you think I don't have to roll this fucking die, because you're grown up enough to work it out, then I'll put down the die and give you another half an hour.  I don't care.  But I'm not sitting here forever and letting this go on.  Understood?"

It's like I've said before.  Scare them.

Be warned.  You will lose friends this way.  But if you draw the line on the behavior you have a right to expect - just as every person does in every situation they're in - you will have a great world.  You will have a cleaner, more straightforward life.  And those who stay with you, who acknowledge and respect your call in these situations, will be the best players you've ever had.

They will be the best friends you've ever had, too.

Curtis' All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace

I suppose what I like about Adam Curtis is that he takes a great many apparently disparate events from recent history and draws connections that reveal patterns or causality that wouldn't normally occur to people ... and I find myself doing that all the time.  To some, I'm sure, the conclusions seem "questionable," and of course to some degree they are, just as all interpretation of data is questionable to some extent.  What is not questionable is the core facts being presented - the various persons whom Curtis follows or references really did say the things they said, or took the actions they took - those things are a matter of record.  The only thing left to be questioned is whether or not you choose to believe that the actions of a person based on their philosophy has an effect.   I think it has.  I think it is long overdue that that effect is examined and debated.

There are a number of his films that I will eventually include in this series of documentaries (which seems to be the focus of the blog of late - though the reader shouldn't worry, as those docs I feel are worth posting has a finite number).  The one I'm starting with, All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace, is a three part series which largely examines - apart from what other sources say - how fucked up we all are due to the philosophical theories of a few driven, somewhat deranged individuals:  Ayn Rand, Arthur Tansley, Jay Forrester, William Hamilton and so on.  None of these people could be called 'stupid' ... yet all were to some degree more interested in making the data fit the theory rather than the theory fitting the data, as Curtis patiently relates.

I want to say a few words about Ayn Rand.  I have always felt that she made a terrific diagnostician.  For me, she has always had the ability to go straight to the heart of the problem and identify it.   The most mediocre people, prepared to concern themselves with gain rather than achievement, gain the greatest notariety; the incapable resent the capable; the weakest, most useless people demand the greatest amount of energy; people, by and large, seek to find their own value in the attention and opinion of others; and so on.

She is, however, a really shitty therapist.  The prescription she offers is pure, unmitigated bunk, and because it is bunk the actual value of anything she might have said otherwise is overshadowed by the satisfaction her detractors gain in dancing naked on the ludicrous grave of her proactive philosophy.  Which is a shame, really.  But that's how it goes - she herself describes exactly how it goes that way.

For those who watch the first episode and take glee in the light that is cast upon her by her actions and strangeness, I'd only point out that she does nothing in the throes of love that millions of people haven't also done - millions of people whose lives are not examined for fault because of a book they've written or an opinion they've had.  But if you put yourself out there, you have to prepare yourself for the shit-storm ... which, if you're really significant, will continue long after you're dead.

There are things I want to say about communes that only just occurred to me as I was watching the second show of the series last week ... but I'm saving it, and its relationship to dungeon mastering, for my next post.

If you want to see this, its not hard to find ... google videos will take you there.  Still, the best links can be found here, here and here.

I am curious to know if anyone out there is following along with the documentaries you haven't seen as I post these.  Please let me know.


Thursday, May 23, 2013

Adventures II

I'm never really sure if Americans are seeing the same Google I am seeing ... the image today commemorates the 140th anniversary of the North-West Mounted Police, founded May 23, 1873.  In Canadian terms, that means only that an act of government was passed.  You may believe there wasn't a single officer of the cloth anywhere in the country on that day.

I bring this up because of another event that is also due to have it's 140th anniversary a week tomorrow, on June 1st, 1873 ... eight days after the act was passed.  I notice none of the links immediately connected to the Google page makes the event clear.

In the late winter of 1873 a number of events culminated in an area along Battle Creek in southern Saskatchewan.  There were two whiskey forts in the valley (there were many strung along the Canadian border, but there were two relevant to this area), operated by Abel Farwell and Moses Solomon.  In May, two groups descended on the area.  The first were some 300 Nakoda natives who appeared, starving, desperate for supplies and poorly set for valuables with which to pay.  The forts, given the time of year, were short-supplied themselves, but some stores were given, enough to keep the Nakoda alive.

At the same time, a group of American wolfers led by John Evans and Thomas Hardwicke were moving north in pursuit - so they believed - of those who had stolen their horses in Montana.  A wolfer is a wolf-hunter, generally considered to be of low character, largely in how they tended to operate.  They were wild, scruffy men, sometimes employed by ranchers to kill wolves and sometimes working independently for bounty.  A common trick was to kill one wolf, poison the carcass, then expose it for other wolves to come and eat.  Often up to 30 wolves could be taken this way without a shot, whereas the pelts were undamaged.  Skinning wolves was a dirty job, and obviously a bath was a rare thing, particularly in winter ... so one may imagine this group of wolfers as they entered the Battle Creek valley were pretty whiff.

At this point, the Wikipedia entry for the event picks up.  The wolfers would contend that another of their horses, belonging to one George Hammond, had gone missing, and that the Nakoda had stolen it.  Anger fueled by whiskey would lead to more than a dozen wolfers, supported by some of the residents of the whiskey forts (the metis freighters mentioned in the Wikipedia article), attacking the Nakoda camp and slaughtering a great number.  Wikipedia calls it 23 dead, but I've seen reports that give much higher numbers.

(About six years ago, mid-2007, I worked on a proposal to Telefilm Canada, with screenplay attached, as a contract I did for a would-be director.  It was turned down, but that may have been because the CBC already had a miniseries on the event in the works.  This is where my research is coming from).

Wikipedia also doesn't mention that the fact that many of those performing the massacre were Americans - and many of them ex-confederate soldiers - led directly to the March West of the newly formed NWMP.  At the time of the massacre, there was no real law west of Fort Garry.  By 1875, the whiskey forts were smashed, Americans interlopers were pushed back across the border and order was established on the prairie.  The NWMP did that in a remarkably short time.

We wouldn't want to waste all this, however ... so think of the possible D&D adventures:

1) The party encounters a group of 300 refugees, either tribesmen, pilgrims or dispossed peasants, who are desperately low on food ... they have perhaps enough to feed them all for only a few days.  The party obviously isn't carrying enough for them all; but apart from finding them food (if the party chooses to do so), there's also the matter of keeping any locals from considering the group dangerous, a nuisance or merely undesirable.  Naturally, if the party attempts to obtain food at a nearby village or town, with the refugees in tow, there is bound to be friction between the group and the local residents ...

2) The party encounters a group of bulletters, who are bound for an obscure valley to make again the vast sum of money they've made before (supposedly, they do this every year).  The trick is to kill one bullette, then poison it with a combination of toxin and a perfume that works on other bullettes like catnip.  Naturally, they tell the party that once you kill the first bullette, the rest is a breeze.  The only thing is, the bulletters are lying ... they've never done this before, they haven't got the combination right and so the bullettes who come to eat the carcass don't die.  However, there are a lot of them and they are really, really drunk ... so all hell breaks loose.

3) The party comes across an area of lawlessless, preferably quite a large one, which they might have to get across for some reason in order to achieve their goals (that's up to them).  Staying alive is one thing, but when they come across a group of slaughtered merchants killed by rabid devil dogs, there's four cartloads of free, undamaged barrels of liquor that fall into their possession.  Naturally, the party's good fortune isn't in a vacuum, and there are others who know the liquor is lost somewhere out there on the prairie.  The party is always free to leave it behind, but who can resist the potential for thousands of dollars of free profit?  And knowledge itself is a dangerous thing ... does the party lie about it's location?  Does the party destroy the liquor for the good of the locals who are plagued by the damage the liquor is doing?  Does the party fight off all comers to move and sell the liquor for the profit?  Only the party knows.

Just a few ideas off the top of my head.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The Popularity Argument

I find this funny.

No attacks meant towards Cyclopeatron nor his latest post regarding the relative popularities of OSR Games (on Google+).  That which is in brackets was not part of Cyclopeatron's title ... the measuring stick is not worthy of the bigger font, true to advertising dictum.

But since he asks, "If G+ community size is any indicator..." I might as well ask, if Google search is any indicator ...

searching "Swords & Wizardry"  ... 1,050,000 results
searching "Dungeons & Dragons"  ... 9,600,000 results

The actual answer to either question is, of course, no.  No, all the numbers are in fact bullshit, and in fact indicate nothing regarding the implication that either game is 'better' or even 'more popular.'  It is, as always in these cases, a little anal number pulling, that may get a post up on the net but really, honestly, isn't more than a few shiny turds to mollify the easily distracted.

I am 100% certain that R.D. Reed of Cyclopeatron knows this.

It must be really aggravating for those poor souls who have embraced S&W, or any of the other myriad rpg farts through the years, that they're doomed forever to be slapped with the D&D label on a game they pedantically insist has nothing whatsoever to do with D&D.  I imagine they've spent years now having to explain to complete strangers - those who have even heard of roleplaying - that NO, this is not D&D.

"Swords & Wizardry?  That's like D&D, right?"  Cue aggravated, deadpan look.

It's right up there with the number of times I've had to explain through my life that no, I'm not Polish, or all the people with Limbaugh as a last name who are now quite tired of saying they're no relation to Rush.  It is just one of those things.  Nuance lacks a certain verisimilitude for the average human, so the detection of it often fails to launch.  So its perfectly natural to try an attach some kind of number to a thing, to delineate between this and that, even where the number is a reach-around of the most desperate order.

This is why, when I wrote of the number of players in D&D a short while ago, I was sure to get an actual journalistic source ... not because I felt the journalist had any credibility whatsoever, but merely to distance myself from having to pick a bullshit number out of the air.  See?  I'll let that guy pull a number, so when you want to bitch about it, you're bitching at that guy and not me.

I know the number is bullshit.

This is the fundamental problem with trying to define the value of anything according to its 'popularity.'  Not simply because a lot of really stupid people can like a thing (let's compare S&W with NASCAR), but because any number that defines even the number of people who walk into something like PAX is highly suspect.  How many people who came in the door are actually sneering at everything?  How many had a good time?  How many are now swearing that this is the last convention they will ever, ever go to?  How many are so young and so naive, so completely unjaded, that the threshold to 'astound' them ranks around the level of online banking?

Think of what used to astound you when you were young and dumb.

So is the thing popular because it has value and depth, or does it just shine really bright and have a lot of moving parts?  Because where it comes to the popularity argument, advertising has shown that depth as a selling tool is difficult, expensive and unreliable, where as glitz gives spectacular results easily for not much money.

That may seem obvious, even redundant, to you, the gentle reader.  But ask yourself how many conventions you've been do - or how much advertising you've encountered in any form - that seeks to appeal to 'depth' as opposed to 'shinyness.'  Hell, even those making  material with depth have learned it can't be sold on that basis.

This may help explain why you don't encounter many older-than-forty people at gaming conventions who haven't in some way involved themselves with the money-making angle of such events.  Sure, I'm there if I have a game I'm selling in a booth, or if I'm helping organize one of the events.  The speakers are there.  But random old people?  I see someone in their fifties at such an event, who hasn't got an angle, and I'm wondering how their kid is involved.

That's because the old are jaded ... we've seen the glitz and the shiny, and we know what it hides.  We've heard the popularity argument day in and day out, and we're not buying into it.  The numbers don't mean much, since so many of them refer to people who just haven't learned all the lessons yet.

S&W beating D&D on G+?  Big whup.

Find me some numbers on how many old guys out there have been running S&W for 30 years.  Find me evidence of a notariety where S&W is so big, that when I say to someone I play D&D, I get back the answer, "That's like Swords & Wizardry, right?"  Get me some substance on the debate, something that makes me think for two seconds that there's a significant influence on roleplaying that doesn't begin and end with a lot of googling glitz.

Otherwise, you're just the silly fellow trying to convince me Pepsi is better than Coke.

Burns' Civil War

Let me start by saying that a regular reader of this blog is from Oklahoma.  Are you out there, joe?  I'm not sure where you said you were in OK, but I think you said Oklahoma City.

I'm sort of warming up today, had a long weekend that ended yesterday, haven't posted anything since Friday and I'm sort of trying to remember how (yes, its that bad).  Saw the pics of the tornado that blew through Moore and I'm reminded how much more of this we're going to see as the world average temperatures slowly increase.  Going to be a rough ride.

So for the time being I'll post another documentary - there are going to be a lot of these until I run out, particularly as I get through those which are ten episodes long.

Today's would be the doc that launched a thousand really crappy documentaries:  The Civil War.

Ken Burns exploded onto the scene with this massive work that runs 680 minutes, and in the process pretty much defined the 'new way' to produce a documentary.  The method had been done before, but not with nearly so much eloquence as Burns managed it ... but nevertheless he's been copied and copied by people who are absolute shit at producing documentaries.  Burns managed to bring alive the Civil War with images and actors reading contemporary documents, seeded with experts giving commentary and a strong, well-applied soundtrack.

Burns himself was not able to duplicate the grand effort of the work, though he's tried and tried since.  Whereas some works have been fairly decent - notably Baseball and America's Best Idea - by and large the depth of the work that was the Civil War hasn't been there.  I think there are a couple of reasons for that.  The strongest would be Shelby Foote:

I've read the book he wrote that was the backbone of the documentary and the man was an absolute genius.  Never has a documentary had the benefit of so much good source material.  Added to that would be the extraordinary diaries of others who were used in the film, George Templeton Strong and Elisha Hunt Rhodes (I love the 19th century use of all three names), both of which I've read through, being in the university library here in Calgary.

The use of maps and the use of art added a lot to my enjoyment of the series as well.  The maps are well-rendered and clear, the descriptions of the battles involved and without rhetoric, and the overall feel of the documentary is a presentation of events without the need to comment overmuch on the morality of those events (there's a professor in the documentary that drives me crazy with her pontificating, but that can be overlooked).

The Antietam Battlefield

The "Hornet's Nest" at Shiloh

The problem has been, I think, the proliferation of present-day documentaries that feature what I like to call 'talking heads,' where the narrator has just said something, and then four talking heads in a row all repeat the same material.  What works with the Civil War is that there is a LOT of information here, enough to overfill the minutes of documentary (provided by Foote and a great many others), and the documentary retains interest because there is so much to take in.  No matter how much other, later, poorer docs may attempt to make the material exciting, if there isn't very much research done, the documentary just falls flat.

In other words, Burns taught a lot of people how to fake their way into making a documentary appear meaningful - without actually realizing that appearance doesn't mean much if there's no meat for the table.

Disappointingly, I couldn't find all of the series online ... and what I could find was put up by someone who included a lot of junk on the screen.  I own the series, so I've seen it all the way through; and Burns is quite adamant about keeping his stuff off the free net.  You may find it today, but it will be gone tomorrow.  Still, you can see the first three episodes of the series here, here and here.  The fourth episode, apparently, went up today ... it wasn't there Friday, and as I write this it has 1 view on youtube.  You can find it here.  I wouldn't wait very long.  Truly, this is a series you should try to buy, though it will probably cost you around $100.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Ambitions Big And Clumsy

Yesterday, I failed to answer a question that Arduin had asked ... "You have, on the old wiki, a collection of Behavior Codes of which I'm rather fond. Obviously these suffer as much as would be expected of a semi-random table, but I just wanted to know if it was an idea you had abandoned, or if they still saw some measure of play at your table ..."  The codes he refers to can be read here.

No, the idea is not dead.  I was struggling with the idea of at least expanding the number of possible 'motivations' from rolled encounters based on each creature's intelligence.  Non-intelligent creatures would be limited to one direct action.  In the case of something like a grey ooze, this would be a 'steady approach' ... in effect, a head-on attack, as the creature would be too stupid to attack any other way.  Skeletons and zombies would do the same, but were restricted to the areas they defended; large spiders would attack prey that had disturbed their nets; ankhkegs would emerge from their buried state to snatch prey and run ... and so on.

Creatures with an intelligence of 1 (animal intelligence) would be given a second possible response.  A bighorn sheep would probably be "non-aggressive," except at certain times of the year when they would be in "rut" and therefore very dangerous.  An encountered leviathan might either try directly to destroy a ship it found on the ocean surface, or it might merely circle the ship and hamper navigation, only to then disappear again - unless those aboard ship were willing to attempt to kill it.

My desire was to restrict these creatures to these limited forms of action due to their intelligence.  They could not take other action, because they simply were not mentally capable of the free will necessary to do otherwise.  Greater NPC choice was a mark of higher intelligence.  In effect, I was trying to codify a creature's behavior in order to limit my power as a DM, forcing me to adhere to the context of the creature's ability, and not my personal inclinations at a given moment.  By establishing a set framework for monsters of a given intelligence, this would in turn offer consistency to the world to which the players could adapt.  Knowing that a stag was dangerous to approach in the month of November, the party ranger could say to his or her fellows, "Stags are always dangerous in November," without my needing to confirm the fact.

The number of actions was based, as many elements of my world are, upon the Fibonacci series, minus 1.  Thus, (1, 2, 4, 7, 12, 20 and so on).  What this would mean was that the number of actions increased exponentially as intelligence scaled upwards, so that creatures with a 2 intelligence would be capable of performing four actions; a creature with 3 intelligence, seven actions, etcetera.

I had begun to work my way up through creatures with semi-intelligence, using the logic that most carnivores would have an intelligence of 2, primates an intelligence of 3, and monsters from the books with a semi-intelligence (that did not exist in reality) would have an intelligence of 4.  I then intended to begin working on creatures of low intelligence and so forth.  Part of what would make it possible was that most of the higher intelligence creatures would still do many of the things lower intelligence creatures would do ... so that I wasn't creating 20 new things for an intelligence of '5' from scratch.

This did begin to collapse under its own weight, but not for the reasons the reader might think.  The actual problem was keeping track of all the possible results for all the possible monsters, once the number of results began to mount up ... along with all the other details for the monsters I was attempting to keep.  Speaking only in clerical terms, I decided to step back in order to revision how the material would be managed, once it expanded further - then lost interest and never went back.

It's worth doing, I'm sure.  And if I really work at it, I'm sure I can get the necessary comprehensive data base together.  I understand that Microsoft's Access is supposed to be good for this sort of thing, but frankly I tried it, watched videos on it, and my brain simply isn't built to understand it without a real life teacher.  In the meantime, I may try this summer to beat the idea into some sort of shape.

Thank you, Arduin, for reminding me of a task that needs doing.  Sometimes our ambitions get the better of us ... that's no reason not to keep trying.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Don't Forget the Garage!

Here's a spectacular review of my book, Pete's Garage, posted by Vlad on my last post:

"I bought your book! ... I kind of found it every now and then, then more often, and even lost half a day of work because I couldn't keep my eyes from it ...

And it is very, very good! And then some.

Easy to follow, very pleasant to read, clear and yet quite deep ...

This real, breathing world, full of interactions and pieces coming slowly together, very interesting characters, a touch of fantasy of the right kind for the theme, behind a curtain of "normality" (reminding me of Neil Gaiman) ..."
That's fantastic.  Vlad found me on facebook last night, long enough to share a few words.  He's a habitant of France ... so Pete's Garage has world appeal!

Good news!
Now, another friend of mine tells me that I ought to mention that there are fantasy elements to the book, the sort which a D&D player would really appreciate.  The word on that is out a bit, but I've been intentionally keeping that under wraps.  I don't want to spoil the book.
Now go buy this thing.  Only $9 as an e-book.  Excellent quality press otherwise.  It really won't cost much, and so far, I have yet to hear a single bad review.

Isaacs' The World At War

There are many who would disagree with me, but I feel The World At War is the best series ever done on the Second World War.  There are certain elements that are swept over briefly, notably the Balkans, the American involvement in China and China in general, the Vichy Government and so on ... but the war is well organized in the 26 episodes offered, and gives a strong feeling of the War's impact.  For a long time, episode 20 gave the most straightforward description of the holocaust one could find.

I have many favorite episodes, notably the 8th (North Africa campaign), the 9th (Stalingrad), the 11th (Russia's rise), the 13th (Italy) and the 14th (Burma).  But every episode is a solid presentation of both ideas and events.

There are two quotes that I consider memorable from the series, and both from the 11th episode.  The first, a writer expressing the attitude of the Russians towards the Germans:

"One can bear anything, the plague, hunger and death, but one cannot bear the Germans. One cannot bear these fish-eyed oafs contemptuously snorting at everything Russian. We cannot live as long as these grey-green slugs are alive. Today there are no books, today there are no stars in the sky, today there is only one thought: kill the Germans. Kill them all, and dig them into the earth. Then we can go to sleep. Then we can think again of life, and books, and girls, and happiness. We shall kill them all. But we must do it quickly or they will desecrate the whole of Russia and torture to death millions more people."

The other is a poem, as spoken by a Russian soldier to his love:

"Wait for me, and I’ll return.  Only wait ... very hard.  Wait as you are filled with sorrow as you watch the yellow rain.  Wait when the winds sweep the snowdrifts.  Wait in the sweltering heat.  Wait when others have stopped waiting, forgetting their yesterdays.  Wait even when from afar no letters come to you.  Wait even when others are tired of waiting.  Wait even when my mother and son think I am no more.  And when friends sit around the fire drinking to my memory, wait, and do not hurry to drink to my memory too.  Wait, for I’ll return, defying every death.  And let those who do not wait say that I was lucky.  They never will understand that in the midst of death, you, with your waiting, saved me.  Only you and I will know how I survived.  It’s because you waited, as no one else did."

These are both spoken by the most consummate of performers, and unquestionably the best voice ever offered a documentary:  Sir Laurence Olivier.  His presentation (though of course you never see him) is exquisite, lively ... and unimaginably touching at points.

Sir Jeremy Isaacs, who is nearly invisible as the producer of the series, founded BBC Channel 4.  I have great respect for him, for his contribution to culture and to the BBC.

The entirety of the show can be watched from this site.  The service is finicky and annoying, but I've just watched it all the way through so I can tell you every episode works.  If you haven't seen it, set aside the necessary time; turn off your television and watch what a 1973 documentary can offer.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

20,000 Results

When I'm having a bad day, I just have to remember a few simple things to put it all right for me.  Once upon a time I worked as a cook and then later as a chef, between various gigs on magazines and in the theatre.  So, when I look around me, I remember than I'm not standing, mostly on a greasy, slippery floor, with a sharp blade in my hand, around other people with sharp blades in their hand, in a 115 degree kitchen, being shouted at by servers, sweating, greasy, and moving faster than any sane person would in that environment, for $11 an hour (which was the wage then).

Sort of puts life into perspective.

I originally decided after university that someday it might be a good idea to own a restaurant, and a friend suggested I work as a prep cook to learn the industry inside out.  Another fellow - who took a dim view of the business - suggested I read George Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London to get a proper view of what restaurants were like.  I did read that book, and I can say from practical, hard-earned experience, most of what Orwell describes is true.  He worked as a plongeur in Paris in the 1930s, when they still used to toss down straw to keep the kitchen floor from being slippery - and by end of shift Orwell describes the mulch of oil and food parts and garbage and straw getting to be ankle deep.  No, that I haven't experienced.  But people picking food up off the floor and serving it?  'Cross-contamination'?  Wiping plates with a dirty apron so they could be used for food?  Really, really bad accidents?  Yes.  I've seen all that.

I think, honestly, that if people knew what went on in kitchens, many would never eat in restaurants again.  Restaurants work on such a fine profit margin that they can't afford to throw away food that someone has happened to drop - so the cooks scoop it up off the floor, wash it and move on.  I remember working for one place, which would subsequently go out of business, that was shocked and horrified that anyone would do that.  By chance, I learned that because I was making a burger for myself to eat on my break, and the bun bounced off the counter onto the floor.  I cheerily picked it up, to finish my burger, and the effect from the  other fellow on the line was ... memorable.

Believe me, if you've eaten out more than ten times in your life, you've eaten dropped food.

Well, this is a blog about D&D, so I should pull the subject around to that.  I could profess to giving some insight into the eating habits of player characters, the insides of inns and taverns, etc., but really, I'm not interested.  No, what I'm really doing is giving a long, rambling introduction that has nothing at all to do with the post ... for no particular reason.

This post was intended to be about how you can really tell someone is reaching for straws in an argument by the uncommonly stupid things they say.  I can pull together the intro for this with that point by saying that during my twelve years in kitchens, I met and worked daily with some extraordinarily stupid people.  Profoundly, bogglingly, stubbornly stupid people who truly failed to meet the standards one would normally expect for cognitive intelligence.  Some of those in positions of management ... which will naturally surprise no one, certainly no one with restaurant experience.

The recent grabbed-for straw seems to be an argument that "a random table doesn't work to create a sandbox, because the DM chooses the possible results of the table."

I suppose that for those who are gifted with deep, abiding stupidity, that sounds rational.  I mean, after all, since the results are in fact made up, it's clearly evident that all the results are therefore subject to the subjectivity of the DM, who would, undoubtedly, only choose results that absolutely balance the game towards whatever it is the DM wants or desires.  Obviously.

I don't suppose anyone who makes this argument realizes that anyone who makes a table in the game, for anything, puts down as many possible results as come to mind.  If we had another idea - any idea - that seemed like something a creature might do, we're going to rebuild the table for that idea.  Because we want more and more possible results.  The last thing any of us want is a table where we get the same result over and over.

This is why so many of the tables in the books are so crappy.  It's also the reason why so many other tables, those found online, are equally crappy.  We don't want a table with 20 results.  We want a table with 20,000 results.  And we want every result to be something interesting and profound.  And it would be nice if the options on the table evaporated as soon as they were implemented.

Sadly, however, my previous attempts to produce tables with those kind of totals have been frustrating and - well - useless.  The more results you add to a table, the less likely the added results will be something that actually makes sense in the instance for which you're rolling.  Or the results get more and more cosmetic, while in fact making very little difference.  Look around the net for the number of examples where - like this from Roles, Rules, and Rolls - someone has to save or suffer from "gutworm infestation."  Roger of that site is not to blame ... there just are so many variants on the do-this-get-that result that mean something in a campaign.  And once you've had any one of those variants, having it again, or another of the same ilk, is tiresome.

Tables suck.  Everyone who knows this game knows that the suckage of tables is a reason so many drift into the railroading vortex ... because at least you don't have to roll on any sucky tables.  I personally don't feel that's a justification.  What's really called for is a different way to look at tables ... and at the game in toto.

See, it doesn't matter what the result is.  I roll that there's an obstacle on the road, I draw from some source what that obstacle is and I apply it.  What must be understood is that the obstacle is irrelevant.  What matters is how that obstacle is presented, and what is expected of the players.

For example, my game produces a wolf pack for the party.  The most natural thing is to presume its night, the wolf pack is hungry, it attacks, the party fights them off and the game returns to normal.  This is why, naturally, all of us who have played the game for a hundred years are tired of the result 'wolf' on any table, even tables we make ourselves, because in all honesty no matter how many tables you make about encounters in northern woods, you can't leave the wolf off just because you're sick to death of them.

What's needed is a rethink on what makes an encounter - and to some extent how the characters handle one.  More and more encounters have to be drawn away from 'encounter forces itself on party' and into 'party observes, party deliberates on action.'

I have encountered wolves about six times in my life - once in a graveyard in the center of the city past midnight.  This is Alberta and there's a lot of wide open empty forested country.  I have yet to be attacked by a wolf.  Nor have I had much opportunity to see wolves for more than a few fleeting seconds.  So I would think, if a party did encounter a wolf pack for real, what they'd actually see would be one wolf for about three seconds.

And what would a party normally do about that?  Nothing.  Probably nothing.  Why would they?  They're getting to where they're going, aren't they?

Something a bit more interesting might be encountering the wolves peaceably hanging out on the road ahead of the party, not attacking.  Or one wolf behaving irrationally, who in fact is doing so because her cubs are nearby.  Or two wolves fighting over a dead buck, which might well provide the party with meat.

In fact, where tables are concerned, such ideas just aren't going to work.  They're mostly good for a one-shot only, and you've got to rely as a DM on inspiration ... fitting this particular idea you've just had into the campaign as its ongoing.  You can't build a table for that.

What you can do is realize that describing an encounter - whatever might be happening as the party appears - is no different that describing a tree or a set of mountains or a town gate.  The participants in the setting are still part of the setting.  The party has to adapt and overcome to anything you produce just as they have to adapt to a twelve-foot hole in the hallway.  It isn't a question of WHAT they encounter - it is a question of whether or not they have free will in circumventing that hole.

When you invent something, and throw it at the party, and have it in your mind that it is circumvented this way, and no other way, then that is railroading.  But if I have no preconceived notion of what the party will do when something has happened to that party, then it doesn't matter a whit if my table has one possible result.  I'm not requiring the party to behave in any particular way.  I'm not restricting their free will.  I'm giving them a scene, and letting them decide what to do with that scene.

It takes an extraordinarily stupid person to think that the scene is, in itself, some kind of railroad.