Monday, September 30, 2013

The State of Dungeons & Dragons

On Friday I wrote a post that sounded like a justification for quitting D&D.  Earlier today I wrote a post explaining at least one reason why I might stop, but in the bigger sense I ended the post with the proposition that the game could be replaced with something else.

And a couple of weeks ago I wrote a post that included this:

"That, I think, is because in the beginning, WAY back in the 70s, everyone who ran D&D was shit at it ... Everyone. Was. Shit. The game had been around for just a few years, there had been no quality control at all, no one had had much practice, and it wasn't even conceived that there could be such a thing as a railroad/non-railroad philosophy. People ran completely grab-ass because they hadn't gotten the hang of it, and for those people who were really important, for whom smoke was blown up their ass everyday from the beginning because they were the founders of the game, that grab-ass style became acceptable, even dogmatically acceptable."

I just can't get this out of my head.  I think I had a true moment there ... I hadn't planned to write the paragraph, it just poured out of me, like the application of a cognitive Ouija Board, where my mind was in one place and my fingers in another.  Writing is often like that.

People defend D&D.  They don't play the same edition, they don't play the same way, they can't agree on alignment or method of play or sixteen hundred other contentious issues, but the amorphous ill-defined concept, that they defend.  I think what I've been getting at is to question what it is, exactly, that is being defended?

I've said it commonly to my players of late that if D&D had been invented today - the basic idea, I mean - that there's a very good chance that it wouldn't have dice.  It certainly wouldn't be based upon pen and paper, and I doubt greatly that there would be 'miniatures' associated with play.  The young, who would take up this new game in 2013, are far too indoctrinated into software to bother with such physical nonsense.  Generate a random number between 1 and 20?  Sure, that's no problem, my phone will do that.

With the picture of a die rolling across the screen?  What the fuck for?

This perspective will matter greatly in the next ten years ... those same years when you, the gentle reader, are SURE you'll still be playing the game.  But what game, exactly?

Take a look at the state of Dungeons and Dragons, right now.  A clear, clean look, without the emotional context that seeing the image of a die rolling across your cellphone generates.  Examine closely the content of the game, as it appears in blogs, as it appears in the company that presumes to direct the game, or in the companies that challenge D&D with other fantasy-dependent content.  Where are we, what have we become?  What do we talk about?

The Past.  This used to make up at least 90% of everything I saw on blogs.  Books people liked, games people liked, war stories that took place in games people liked, art people liked, the Dragon Magazine ... and of course, modules and more modules.  Hell, that's all Grognardia would talk about.  It's no wonder he screwed people on the Kickstarter he proposed, that depended on something happening in the future, and Grognardia did not live in the future.  His peculiar talent was pouring sweet, preserving honey in a thick layer over everything that had ever been written about the game.

Yes, people prize things.  Sentiment is a powerful human emotion and must be acknowledged.  In this era, however, when materialism is so much better protected by the houses and lifestyles we live, we've come to recognize culturally that there comes a point when too much sentimentality leads to ... well, to fetishism.

All this stuff that's been gathered.  The folders bulging with art on your computer, the shelves full of miniatures and modules, the fantasy literature filling up the boxes in your storeroom, the little bits and pieces of how many years you've been participating in Cons and cherished moments in gaming stores ... pause and look around you, and try to lift yourself out of your deep, visceral dopamine-fueled tearfulness, if only you can ask for once in your life, what does any of this have to do with the game you play NOW?

Are you really keeping all those modules because you can't wait to pull them down again and play them, or is it that you can't imagine throwing any of them away?  Do you really think, after two decades, that there's still content you're going to magically pull out of those oh-so-familiar 32 pages?  Will there be in another decade?  Even if there isn't, admit it - to yourself, at least, if to no one else - there are so many bits of stuff there that have ceased to be of value to the game.  Totally.

Oh, keep them if you must; but can't you see that in some way, returning to them again and again has begun to cripple your ability to think anew?  You have piled someone else's creative design upon your brain in an immense heap, magazine by magazine, and now all you have is thought that isn't yours - that has never been yours - cluttering up the halls and rooms of your imagination.  How long as it been that you've been truly forced to think?  How much easier is it to just pull down old module #81 down from the third shelf, the one you remember perfectly, it had the fire giant and the magic glove and ... where is your contribution?  You're proud that you can re-adapt it, again?  That's all your contribution is, after all.  Screwing in the module-preform light bulb.  Now really fast, now really slow.  What a marvelous imagination you have.

I have a few Dragons on a shelf somewhere.  Last time I found them, I couldn't see a single idea inside that I could imagine using.  I'd moved past what those magazines could offer.  I did not even think the way those magazines wanted me to think as a DM.

So I contrived an idea for a video I could put on you tube.  I wanted to hold one of those Dragon Magazines on cam (Issue #198, I think it is), talk about it a bit, talk about how meaningless it all was to me.  How the content was derivative and passé and how anything that had been there once had long been incorporated into my thought process.  Finally, I would talk about how I couldn't understand why I even kept the thing.  Then I'd cross the room on camera, open the mesh in front of my fireplace, where there'd be a fire burning, and toss the magazine in.

There's a couple reasons I never did it.  There's the whole anti-book burning thing.  People get worked up about that, they don't even care what's being burnt.  But mostly it was that I didn't feel most viewers would be mature enough to get the point.  And if you're not making your point, what's it all for?  So I abandoned the idea.

I'd feel more angst having to go through the process of finding one of those damn magazines than I'd feel actually burning one.  I don't know where the hell the things are now.

The past, for all the good feelings it offers, is a mess of smothering blankets.  They pile one upon another until there's nothing to be seen except blankets, blotting out the present and the future.  Yes, they're soft.  They smell lovely.  You sink and sink in contentment ... until you asphyxiate.

There's less of it on the web, however; many of the blogs and writers who were the greatest fetishists have ceased to blog at all, now.  They've been replaced by a new breed, who ...

Reinvent the Wheel.  This is all the WOTC does.  This is their entire business plan, and well we know it.  Their most recent incarnation of the game, Next, is a brilliant demonstration of rethinking at its highest level.  Having hundreds (thousands?) of game testers is a great way to encourage fickle, uncommitted customers to buy your game, but it is demonstrably a really crappy way to innovate anything.  But that's fine, because the last thing WOTC wants is to create a definitive wheel.  D&D Next can be soon followed by D&D After and D&D Later On, breaking new ground for D&D Once Again, D&D Yet Again and eventually D&D Last ... to be offered by CEO Gabriel five minutes before blowing the Last Trump.

Has any of it had very much to do with actually improving the game?  No, not really.  It has been about 'balance,' encouraged by market research telling the designers that people weren't buying the game because they didn't feel they were the strongest player at the table, and about 'realism,' as though in some way rolling one kind of die makes a game more realistic than rolling a bunch of different dice.  I remember downloading a host of 3.0 and 3.5 'rulebooks,' reboots of handbooks and more, each one of them filled with a mess of weapons, a mess of spells, a mess of skills ... and a few scene descriptions and a few pages of exposition to justify this book having a different title than that book.  This went on, and on, and on, until sales dropped off, when it was necessary to produce 4e, a version where the Wheel was so freaking BIG it blotted out the entire landscape of the game.  It was hoped that players wouldn't notice.

Most young players did not.

And this last decade, of course, has drummed up a cacophony of cheap, low-budget remakes and designs that purport - somehow, on a budget of a few hundred dollars - to produce a gaming experience that millions of dollars cannot.  A claim that is admittedly ambitious, impressive and mocking, all at once.  After all, if James Raggi can choke out a game as 'brilliant' as anything TSR or WOTC produced, why is the D&D division at WOTC not just four overworked Finns with an office temp who's job it is to write a blog about what's on sale today?  Or as of five minutes ago?

Sorry, it's only that having read a wide variety of reviews on the game, and comparing those with my own experience, it seems like an reasonable competent do-over of shit I've seen a thousand times already.  The reviews seem to be filled with the word 'good' used over and over again in reference to various nouns, but quite lacking in any real content.  This has also been my experience with White Wolf, Swords & Wizardry, Pathfinder and so on.  People who like Pathfinder really, really like Pathfinder ... I just can't seem to find out why it's so different or special.  Like people who, back in far off days, played Rolemaster, Tunnels & Trolls or Chivalry & Sorcery.  They had different mechanics, but where the rubber met the road, the game was the same.

The thing about a wheel, by itself it's fairly useless.  It's a round, flat thing.  The trick is to make a groove in it so it can be used with rope to make a pulley, or fitted with an axle and another wheel, so a cart can be built atop it.  Making another wheel of a different wood, just so it can sit on the same bit of grass doing nothing, isn't very impressive.  The game isn't great because of the mechanics.  The game has NEVER been great because of the mechanics.  Fit another set of mechanics, and it's still the same game.  Call it another name, it is still the same game.  Walk, amble, shuffle, prance, strut, stagger ... what matters is that we're going somewhere.

But the wheel is a lot easier to make than the cart that fits on top of it.  The animal-powered cart is nothing compared to the steam engine, that turns the wheel without a horse.  Steam is nothing compared to electricity.  The people redesigning the game on their blogs, however, have no interest in domesticating an animal, or inventing steam or electricity.  They have a new wheel.  They'd like to tell you about it.

WOTC is no different.  That is why I said earlier today that real change is going to come from people who don't play D&D.  They have nothing invested in re-inventing the thing that's been re-invented before in a whole new re-invented way.  They're actually interested in a new idea.

The Community is not.  This is plainly evident from the third vast landscape of written content:

The Pin.  Specifically, the number of angels on it.

There are those I've seen who have argued that all this argument about what this word means or what that word means is an eventual process to finding a final answer to the mysteries that surround the game.  If we could finally define, once and for all, just exactly what is meant by 'simulation,' we could move forward, having a clear and cognizant comprehension of what other people mean when they describe themselves as simulationists, thereby saving us HUGE amounts of time when they explain what sort of game they play, and how best to play it.

This is an interesting supposition.

All that I have written in this post ... indeed, all that I have written on this blog, is subject to interpretation.  All that has been accomplished by all human beings, everywhere, equally so.  The fact that something is subject to interpretation, however, does not in itself compel as much.  It is a peculiar mindset that demands that every position be viewed from every angle before a judgement can be made about anything - and so goes the Internet.

Forget if I am right or wrong.  We can presume I'm wrong, it makes no matter.  The bigger issue is not in whether anything I've written is true, but in whether or not the GAME you wish to play is dependent upon the 'validity' of anything I happen to say.  Not your general emotion, mind, or the resentment you may have for me, or the visceral love you have for your D&D stuff or your D&D version.  I ask about the game.  Does it need any of this?  Has the endless, endless, endless dialogue about this or that actually improved your play, or has it merely been something that fills your time as a placeholder because you cannot actually play D&D right now?

In the larger sense, is not all this blogging and boarding a sort of cheap, fetishistic porn, to carry you through the day and the week, or even longer, until you can at last sit down at a table again.  And if that is so - and I know that it is, even if the gentle reader does not - then what has long exposure wrought upon you as a player.  Or as a DM?  Has it improved you.  Has it tempered you, informed you, compelled you to greater achievement ... or has it merely given you the opportunity to wallow corpulently in the fetid waters of self-congratulation and easy, cheap stimulation, allowing your eyes to mist over happily in the company of others just like you, who approve of your gaming habits and make you feel warm and happy, knowing how these others approve of you?

Are you able at all to judge the difference?

Have you any perspective left?  Or are you so bent upon chasing after the approval of your peers, now that you have found them, and now that you can read them and give them feedback, and get feedback in return, that you're just an addict getting your fix between your morning pee and your last minute pillow fluffing.  How much do you play compared to the time you spend talking about playing?  How much design do you produce compared to how much you talk about your design, or your desires to design?

Again, have you even thought about that?

It must seem worth it to add one more comment on a bulletin board, rushing out another 800, 900 words, to make your point even clearer than you've already made it, to say the same thing again in the hopes that this time, they'll get it.  It must be, else why would you go on doing it, day after day, except for the thrill of it all.

Is the game your game, or is THIS your game?  Are you sure you even care about D&D?  Perhaps all you care about is interaction, approval, the sense of your own importance in the eyes of other people.  Perhaps you could give up the game, if only no one asked you to give up talking about the game.

In case it has been missed, this is the state of D&D.  This is where it has arrived.  Hens clucking over eggs laid, their color and their uniqueness, as loud and as long as they dare to cackle before another hen pecks at them.  The Company, the Net and the Participants have succeeded in building a social network, a very extensive one, but have they created a greater and better game?

I await evidence.


Without question, people did not take me seriously.

I would expect to hear voices shout, "Not me, I'll play this game forever!" Those who would say so, who would not give the matter the introspection it deserves, are either young, unimaginative or still living in their mother's basement. Gentle reader, be you 15 or 45, you CANNOT know what you will be doing ten years from now.

I do love this game. And I can say with some assuredness that I will be running it six months from now. But should something happen - should my circumstances change, should it come about that I obtain a different position or find success some other place than here, I recognize that I may have to give up playing this game, because it would be impractical to continue.

The example I gave my partner Tamara, over the weekend, was this: Suppose that someone who knows me encourages me to submit my resume for a position that they feel I would be suitable for. And suppose this position involved giving seminars, where information was imparted about the business I work for, to various people, including travelling ... the sort of thing that would be 10 days on and 4 days off.

Offered this sort of position, which is entirely possible, I can tell you that something I would not 'feel' like doing during those four days off was further presentation, ANY presentation, including D&D. Sorry, but that would be the facts of it. I might work on maps, I might write a post, I would probably write something fiction and out of fields, but I probably would mostly veg and get quiet time.

Why would I take such a job, if it involved the likelihood of killing D&D for me? Because I'm 49. I'm well aware, more than any other time of my life, that the time is coming when I will be overlooked where it comes to hiring. That is a reality. At 25 I could quit jobs on a whim and never worry about finding work in a day or two, for I was skilled and smart and able to make myself liked whenever it mattered. At 49, those things matter less, because I work for, and apply to, people who are younger than me. People who visibly flinch when I mention the 80s.

The gentle reader had better prepare for it. The brilliant self-employed people in technology and research I knew 20 years ago are struggling to keep their households together, for what was brilliant in 1993 doesn't meet the expectation quite so easily for them today. The business I spent fifteen years breaking into, journalism, crashed and burned five years ago just around the time I was making a good living at it.

The world changes. And its a gawddamn good thing the world changes. I am thrilled to be alive in this world, and not the world of 1981 - to begin with, there were no blogs in 1981. There was no possible way to get a consensus against whatever company-fostered D&D there was, no way to posit an alternative, no way to show thousands of people my maps, or chat about philosophy of gaming, etc. The laptop did not exist as a tool, nor did Excel (shit, in 81, even LOTUS didn't exist, which I learned on incidentally). Nor did every convenient tool for generation that we have now. Yay for change.

Change is relentless, however, and all those decrying the possibility that they would EVER quit playing D&D do so in the safe and secure belief that no one will EVER come up with a better, more astounding version of the game, as though DDO is automatically and without question the highest state of gaming that a computer can offer. That's the sort of dull bovine perception of change that I do expect of the unimaginative. The reader claims to be involved in a hobby requiring imagination and yet, somehow, THIS escapes you? Gad, what fools read this blog.

While the fan boys and gamers argue the moronic divisions between narration and simulation, people having nothing to do with this game are building the applications that will DESTROY this game, as you or as anyone knows it. Believe it. Prepare for it. Open your gawddamn eyes.

There are others coming along who will smack you right in your blind face if you don't.

Friday, September 27, 2013

When Will You Make An End?

When is it, do you think, that you stop playing? It might be when you get that job that really requires you dedicate yourself to company, success, competance, what have you. It might be the birth of your child, who - following that first initial impact, seems to take more and more of your time as the months, then the years go on ... until at last you have to admit that you're not quite getting in all the things you ought to be. It might be after that first few years of running the little tykes, that window between six and eleven years, before they don't want to be a home on Friday and Saturday evenings, when they'd rather play with their friends, and you look around to discover you have no one else to play with. Or perhaps it's after that attempt to get back into it, ten years later, and find that everything about the game has changed, the people have changed - and they are a LOT younger than they used to be ...

Perhaps you'll just burn out. After all, one can only spend so much time drawing hallways, putting in little doors and little secret doors and putting the umpty umpth stairway into the umpty umpth corner. Too, there must come a time when there are not just too many orcs, there are too many of everything, and the experience sours a bit of players rule lawyering the same rule that's been lawyered and lawyered to death. Would that the consensus could just be reached on such things, but there you are, the rule has to be discussed once again, well ... because it has to.

It could be that the gentle reader will just cease to care. One more alignment debate, one more agonizing desconstruction of gaming versus simulation versus narration, could be the death of you. It just takes one, you know, to force an acknowledgement where one is forced to admit that one just doesn't give a hoot anymore. The camel's back is not merely broken, the funeral has been held, the cremation accomplished, the trip to the camel's homeland has been made and crops have been planted, tilled and harvested from the camel's ash. The thing is done.

What are the measures for how much of it you can take? Do the serious minded burn out more quickly than the frivolous gamers. Are the 4th editioners defeated by one more 18 hour combat, or are the basicers more quickly exhausted by little four minute blips of dice-rolling between long, fluffy setting descriptions? Has Paizo redeemed you, or are there hidden toxicities in the game design that will one day bereft you of your will to fight on, design on, game on (or simulate or narrate)? Have you gone the right way that will let you game until your retirement, or has the dim comprehension that the day when you'll stop begun to play about your psyche?

Then again, religion carries some through all their lives, the same hymns every year, the same words every holy day, repeated and repeated, a catharsis you drag yourself through for the good of your soul ... long after you've been able to take any pleasure from it. As the endeth does approacheth, so does the anxiety with which one mumbles the words, as the promises of the gods come that much closer to fruition or disappointment.

Will you make an end of it? Or will you drag on until it has ceased to offer the sweet taste it did three decades, four decades ... even five decades ago. Are you ready to call it 60 years, or 70? And what will all this sound and debate mean then? What will railroads and sandboxes mean then? What will any of it mean?

Wednesday, September 25, 2013


This is something of a more elaborate table, presenting a wide variety of animals and services that would be generally available in that part of town that would include stockyards, but would probably not be limited to them. For players in my world, I have included the cost of things an abattoir might provide, such as a side of beef (as opposed to the much higher price at the grocery/inn) which, while a cheap source of meat, does require some care in keeping fresh. Obviously, the cantrip freshen is of great use there, though continued exposure on the road might yet contaminate the meat in a manner that doesn't include the meat actually rotting (a parasitic infestation from fresh meat is still possible).

The 'stun price' merely means the fee asked for to have some other fellow kill your cow or your pig for you (if that sort of thing is beneath your character's dignity). It's cheap, but since it's a few coppers or silver for one swing of the hammer, it's a good deal for the young fellow who's been contracted. Nor do you have to kill your own dog, as Steinbeck suggests ... here's a price to have someone do it for you. I would imagine, though it's not included, that an additional price might be needed if the dog is rabid; I preferred to leave that up to the haggling process.

And yes, if the player is prepared to give over their time, they will be paid a copper apiece to stun 35 pigs, or ten sheep, or 8 s.p. for four cows. As ever, the table indicates the total week's availability, so for casual labor that's all the player can get each week. It is necessary that the player be capable of doing a good job ... so those without prior experience may find themselves paying out the cost of a whole cow if they don't know how to hit the thing right.

I do mean to add many more features like that as I go on; I still want to get through the whole list of marketable goods, going back to work on the lapidary & jeweller, then increasing the number of services and features of that nature. There's nothing final about any of these lists. As ever, players in the game who request something be added are always appreciated.

Occasionally there's a glitch in the program that produces a zero price, such as the 0 c.p. the shop is willing to pay to have you provide slaughtered meat. I do try to program these things out, but they're easily ignored. In this case, since the shop is buying, the price really would be nothing. On the other hand, if the price were 0 in the selling to the character section (gray), then it is always read as 1 copper piece.

Wild animals are kept in a pen or cage (such as in the case of the wild dog), but the cage is not provided in the sale. The character must provide their own halter, harness, muzzle or cage if they wish to buy that particular creature. Obviously the benefit is that its cheap, and can be trained by the character if the effort is made. So rarely I find, however, that characters are prepared to simply say, "We remain in town for three months and train our animals and followers, and get to know the place." It is perhaps a habit from the modern world that players are always in such a hurry with their characters.

I'm particularly proud of the ritual slaughter prices.


I haven't much to say about this table ... it's fairly straightforward. There are literally endless possibilities for things that could be added; the chalice, for instance, apart from being fully engraved, might be fixed with stones, or it might have gold handles, or the quality of the engraving might be increased, so that having been created by a greater artist than an engraver, increases in value. Contrariwise, the spoon might be smaller or larger, the same being true with everything on the list. What 'size' they may be is arbitrary.

Everything on the list was found, at one point or another, on some website that included the 'shipping weight' of the object (apart from packaging) that made it possible to determine a weight. Weight + workmanship + material + distance from source determines the price ... and like any other table, these prices would change were this not Constantinople (the same location at which I posted the previous table).

That is why the prices won't do for your world, I'm afraid. At least at the silversmith almost all these items come from the same place (engraving does not, so the distance from the engraver vs. the distance from the manufacturer independently alter up and down with respect to one another to produce a final price). I don't post these tables to suggest a price, but to emphasize the variety of possible goods which might be offered to the players or which the players may want to buy.

In the beginning, my players were at first overwhelmed by that choice ... but I have learned since that, having worked out methods for gathering their way through the tables, they appreciate the intrinsic materialism that comes from having a great deal of 'stuff' to peruse through. I suggest that the reader expand their equipment tables, and in expanding, determine uses for all the things there, to draw the character's interest. How, for example, might the mask be employed, or does the snuff box impress when the character draws it out for a pinch? How many of these things are really necessary for the well-presented individual, who might give a thought to the practice of "entertaining" in order to "parley" with the local administration in order to get their desires?

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Slave Trader & Auctioneer

I was supposed to write something on learning to design D&D today, but ... well, what the hell, I'm not in the mood. Instead I want to show & tell something I finished last night, the result of work I did over the weekend.

Up until August 2011, I was regularly working on a series of equipment lists, which I posted on this blog, and which can be looked at here. It had gotten up to the S's, with Sculptor, and then I'd run out of steam, intending to get back to it. I did not until August 2012, when I put up ONE table, that of Shipwright ... and then I realized I really should rebuild the availables list on my Prices Table.

I started to do so, and then I crashed. I haven't looked at it seriously in more than a year. Ah well. Can't rush these things. To be honest, it was the same problem as the Hear Noise thing I mentioned in the last post - no real solution had presented itself, and why work if its not going to work?

Well, I had a small epiphany on Friday and so I dug out the table and started reformatting the algorithm for item availability. I am at last ready to start posting tables again.

Technically, the next table is 'Silversmith' ... but its very close to the goldsmith table and somehow that didn't seem all that interesting for a grand re-launch. So I decided to do this table instead:

revised image

Outwardly, it looks more or less alike the other tables I've already posted ... but that is one of my mandates: whenever possible, make it so the players can't tell the difference. There are differences. For instance, I've rebuilt it so that now all the prices show even though the item is unavailable. I've gotten rid of the selling to the public feature (players did not use it). But the biggest change, what's available and what's not, that's all hidden.

This particular table is for prices in Constantinople, where part of my online party is going. Constantinople is, and should be, a central hub of commerce; it is more so now, with regards to the Pricing Table - I've heightened the impact of large trading cities over smaller ones (though not as much as I might have liked ... will have to work on that in future).

So let's talk about slavery.

I'm guessing that a LOT of DMs and players will be greatly offended by the presence of this table, and the availability of items on this table, and argue with me that these things should not be included in D&D. I'm a bit amused by that. It is like the total German ban on the swastika, which is presented as though the image itself has the magical power to spontaneously create a 4th Reich if it is not gainfully suppressed. Arguably, it's a tourist thing, the Germans not anxiously wishing to be identified with the period 70 years ago, but there's still an odd sort of paranoia involved there.

People tend to treat slavery the same way ... as if to say, if we deny its existence, or at least speak of it ONLY in terms of how bad it is and how WRONG it was and why it should never have happened, this will magically remove its effect upon society and somehow we will grow to be brothers. The mindset totally ignores that there are literally millions of slaves in the world right now, who receive little or no attention at all, digging up the precious minerals that construct your cellphone or tablet or enable the wedding ring you give your spouse, both diamond and gold together. As a culture we choose to be guilty only of things we choose to pay attention to, and we point our fingers in condemnation at only those things that chance to fall into the orbit of our gaze. There will be those who will express angry at this post, which merely takes the position that slavery 400 years ago was common and ordinary, but who will do nothing whatsoever to combat real slavery, in fact rising and escaping the efforts of those who dare to talk about the need to do something openly.

Moral outrage works like a convenience store.

So yes, the year is 1650, and slavery exists, just as it does now. Serfs are exchanged for debts, prisoners are worked to death in mines and upon plantations, slaves are raised from birth to do both, and to provide entertainment, to offer sex in slave cathouses built for the purpose, people who cannot pay their debts are given over to masters for six year periods, deportees are gathered for religious and social reasons and shipped to the Americas or Africa to die of disease while building a new colony, ownership deeds are written out by the hundreds and lines of slaves stand at every port waiting to be processed, their noses and ears punched and fitted with rings and their ankles fitted with manacles.

Would I allow a player in my world to own slaves, to punish slaves, to kill a slave, if that player so desired?


Why? Because we're not talking about real people. D&D is a fiction. It isn't real. For those people who believe somehow that speaking of it in game somehow 'makes it real,' I'm sorry, I cannot buy into that delusion ... and it is a delusion. The idea that this happens - that watching guns fire on television creates the gun culture, or that rock music causes suicide, or that internet porn creates rape or any other ridiculous association that is drummed together in order to assuage infantile fears - is a manifestation of the mind. It is a belief. A belief that, like religion, feeds upon fear.

I don't accept it. I do believe that fear, and the manipulation of fear, by censorship or contrived morale superiority, is the engine that actually produces the crime. It is not discussion of the crime, it is the refusal to discuss the crime, that produces evil. Discussion ended slavery. Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, that presented slavery as it existed in her time, prior to the Civil War, compelled millions of people to rise against slavery.

But I don't pretend that my little D&D world exists to end slavery. Just as I don't believe my willingness to present a 17th century world in all its evil and nature produces slavery. Either end of the see-saw is utter nonsense ... which will not stop many a gentle reader from spouting nonsense all the same. Fear is a powerful motivator.

What will a player get out of owning slaves? It is not for me to say. It is not for me to judge. I don't care to judge. I'm perfectly prepared to believe that any person at my table who receives a vicarious interest in possessing a fictional slave through the running of a fictional character is a citizen upstanding enough to recognize the difference between a fiction and a reality. Why? Because I talk to my players, O idiot who might ask. I know them, I know where they stand. I would no more presume to think a player who owned a slave was any worse than a player who robbed a purse or a player who murdered a hundred villagers in a fit of berserk rage. It's a game.

Are there players at my table who would be offended by a player who would own a slave? No. The reason for 'no' is because I do not have infants nor fools at my table. A few weeks ago I listened as people cried out in mock-indignation, "What about the other players, who have to endure someone wanting to have sex in a game?" What a crock. I don't run Mrs. Grundy at my table. I don't know people like Mrs. Grundy. If we're talking about the sort of creature who gets his or her knickers in a flap at the mention of sex - or slavery - then it should be known I wouldn't have a prig like that in my house. I wouldn't give a prig like that the time of day. There are too many prigs in the world, and too many frozen, empty islands to where they could all be deported.

Alas, I don't believe in such solutions. More's the pity. It only means I must tolerate the silliness of a small group of children who may squawk and shrill about my immorality while tacitly approving the system they proport offends them.

Let's end actual slavery. Let's not waste our time weeping over poor fictional creatures that don't exist.

Monday, September 23, 2013

This Is Learning

I'll start by posting four political maps that I've created in the last year. Three of these I've posted before.


Danube Mouth

Don Basin

Asia Minor

Me, I look at a group like this, and after literally years of designing - and redesigning - these maps, I see how they fit together. I must admit to being stunned, however, everytime I actually 'fit' them together. It's a shame that the actual size of the files overwhelms the size of the program used to handle them ... but then, the diameter of the total image shown below - if printed - would be 60 inches wide.

So what is the point of this today? My head is in a number of different places, and maps are safe. Not especially deep, but a safe subject that offends no one. I part-way finished off the upper right corner of the map (there's always some little detail that I miss, drives me crazy), the 'Don Basin' section, on the weekend, as it is an area the online party will get to in time (they've been paid by the church to start a mission on the Sea of Azov, somewhere along the stretch of green coast in the region of the 'Donbass.' That's within the Kingdom of Cumana. Where two weeks ago I posted the birthplace of one character (middle bottom, Melitene, though that's probably unreadable), the new section includes the birthplace of the half-orc, within Itossia (separated from the remainder of Cumana by the brown-colored lands of the Zaporozhian Cossacks (Ltava, Severia, Dneiper Bank, Zaporozhian Sich). That whole area between the Black Sea and the purple lands of Russia is a political mess. If you check out a variety of historical atlases, circa mid-17th century, you'll get a wide range of opinions on what belongs there.

That is one thing about political atlases. They are notoriously unreliable. They're based on whatever books the researcher happens to read, and since records for the period are sketchy at best, a lot of enthusiastic mapmakers draw those lines in rather imaginatively. Trust me, after reading them all my life, if you have a book in hand that you believe is an accurate depiction of the South of Anything in 1648, you're almost certain to have a lot of misinformation.

Thankfully, I don't have to worry about all that, because I make maps to play D&D, and NOT to achieve my doctorate from the University of Wherefore. I adore the little snooty comments from people like, "WELL, in 1648 there was no 'Budapest' ... it was 'Buda' and 'Pest,' so nyah!"

This, of course, proves that the entire map is garbage. Except that, well, there's no freaking city called 'Gondor,' either, so in a mythological representation of Earth I guess I can call it any freaking name I want, can't I? Kid you not, I get the above sort of comment from gamers.

There is something in error with the fanboy/gamer nit-picking mindset, isn't there? And it is so easy to fall into it, and spend all your time correcting people on the net about the correct pronounciation of 'lich' or the exact definition of 'lawful evil' as opposed to 'neutral evil' ("But justice, the law, is blind, so isn't legal evil technically neutral?") ... and there are thousands of blog posts to prove it. There's a lot of energy spent there, energy of the sort that makes it so hard to add two humbers together, driving people towards the sort of roleplaying games that eschew the use of experience, in order to simplify the game.

I'm astounded to see adults writing that grade two arithmetic is something that drags down the game with complexity. Perhaps they aren't adults? Perhaps they are blogs written by grade 1-ers?

If so, they possess remarkable writing skills. But you know, writing is also something that's pretty complex. So is speaking in erudite English. Perhaps these are things that should be removed from the game, in order to simplify it even further. Perhaps everything beyond eating cheezies and washing them down with kool-aid (preferably provided by Jim Jones) should really be taken off the table. I mean, if adding 178 to 4,591 is getting just out there, perhaps we don't just need an experience-free game, we need a game-free game. Something that we can call, I don't know, sitting around a table with your thumb up your ass.

You'll still have a free hand to roll dice. Dice are pretty. Dice make a happy sound. You like rolling dice.

As I said, I'm sort of here and there right now.

One thing I did want to get on, the endless parade of people hacking and rehacking the game in ways that have become, well ... completely stupid. Like the no experience in gaming thing. I suppose it's some sort of biological mandate. Like the 10-year-old kid proudly telling his father that "I've found a new way to mow the lawn, Dad!" before realizing the new way actually sucks and takes twice as long to do a crappier job, people HAVE to get rid of classes and then put them back, get rid of skills and then put them back, divide the thief into four separate classes before realizing all four are useless, dividing the mage, dividing the fighter, imposing alignment, removing alignment, redesigning experience, redesigning experience again, redesigning experience for a fifth time, throwing out experience, etc., etc.

I don't right now have a solution for the Hear Noise problem. I want a solution. A solution would be convenient. But I don't, at this moment, have one. I'm fine with this. A solution will eventually present itself. The original rule sucks majorly, so I'm not screwing my party by not having a solution for this problem. I realized after 33 years that I really was going to have to change the thieving skills after all that time putting up with them as best I could. For most of that time, I did not even conceive that there could be a better solution. I only understood that the thief needed them, in order to be a thief, and so I just went along.

The more obvious solution that people adopted was, "Get rid of the thief." So they did. And disappointed a lot of players. And realized after not too much running that there's a fundamental need for a thief-like skilled person in the game. So they reinvented the thief as a different class. They gave the skills, but not the class, to other player classes. They rebooted their campaigns and included the thief, then they got rid of the thief again. They despise the robbery/killing angle, but they also realize that denying that is a sort of railroad. So they wobble back and forth on the fence, back and forth - and this is supposed to be a better solution that just putting up with the goddamned skills. That's because, basically, it's the morality of the thief that's conceived to be the problem, not the playability of the thief. I just don't understand that.

Classic cognitive dissonance.

I don't particularly want to change the thieving skills. I hate the gawddamn things, but not changing them is a hell of a lot easier than changing them. But I am sick of players just not understanding how they work, particularly players who have played few thieves, and the players are sick of it also. So I feel sort of pushed into fixing the skills.

BUT ... and this is important ... I don't want to change them in a way that requires I change them again next year. I'm ready to redesign the maps because I can make them prettier and more information laden every four years, but I'm NOT doing that with thieving skills. I'm not changing anything until I know I can live with them for the next thirty years. So if Hear Noise sits on a shelf for nine months, fine. I don't need a solution today.

Where the game designing gets grab-ass is to be found in the fellow who has completely redesigned D&D - classes, experience, levels, spells, purpose, everything - in less than a year. Sometimes, in a couple of weeks. Words to watch out for: "I rewrote the MAGE last night! It's brilliant now!"

In mowing lawns, there are parents who listen to their children and answer, "Mow the lawn like I tell you," and there are parents who answer, "That's nice, let me know how it works out." Both kinds know that little Billy is a moron, but type A jumps right in with saying so, and Type B lets little Billy find out for himself. The difference is that the Type B parent loves little Billy, and knows that with some careful parenting, little Billy may stop being a moron someday. The Type A parent doesn't give a shit whether Billy is a moron or not, but does like it when Billy is obedient.

The rest of the world does not especially like little Billy, much less love him. So when little Billy goes to school, for a long time his 'discoveries' about the better way to do things get crapped on with a truly committed zeal on the part of teachers who don't have the fucking time to let Billy learn things on his own. They'd like it if, when they say 4+4=8, little Billy just takes that as a given for a year or two before it dawns on little Billy why.

But that's okay, because when Billy gets to be 15, he can play D&D, where there are no right answers ... and then he can spend the next ten years of his D&D gaming repeating the bullshit game design crap that everyone and their dog tries before they decide to quit playing D&D so they can move onto serious drinking at the local bar. And during that span of D&D life, Billy can have a blog, and fill his blog with all that crap.

Won't that be nice?

Thursday, September 19, 2013


Too much advice this week? Yes, yes, I know, I get started and I just go on and on.

I haven't worked much on new rules, I'm sure no one wants to hear about my personal life, I've banned myself from writing on politics and I suppose I am thinking a lot about the whole DMing process. Scarbrow said lately my posts were getting more acute, and I think that's due to practice and a steady thought process I've adopted. I recently read the Zombie Survival Guide by Max Brooks (how many of you out there know he's the son of Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft) and I found that an interesting, instructional example of how to write a how-to book about a completely mythical subject. I've been getting a better handle on how to write meaningfully about D&D since then.

The comments being thin of late would suggest that either a) I've gone off my nut, or b) you're all blinded by my awesomeness (damn, I loved Kung Fu Panda). Guess which one I choose to believe.

There's a film for which I've searched more than 30 years ... I would guess I was 15, perhaps, when I last saw it, and I may have been 14. Watching it Tuesday night, I couldn't help thinking that it quite possibly might have pre-dated my D&D playing, which is relevant as the film is about a thief. It's the tale of a real fellow, Jack Sheppard, who in 1724 escaped four times from various prisons before ... well, I don't want to spoil the film. But wikipedia has a pleasantly long entry about the fellow.

The movie, Where's Jack, is on youtube in 12 parts, only recently put up (I've checked youtube now and then), and dates from 1969. It suffers from being a period piece created in the 1960s, and from film quality and a bit of dourness, but for the sets alone, along with the depiction of town corruption, a thieves' guild, a guildmaster thief and the whole thieving profession from a less ethical artistic culture, it is well worth the view. Ah, I miss 1960s set design. Everything is pleasantly filthy.

And I particularly like that the events of the film occur only 70 years after my world, so it's a nice, close depiction of near-Renaissance street life.

It's produced by the same fellow who did Zulu, Stanley Baker, who was a bit of a maverick in the British Film Industry before his unfortunate demise at the age of 48.  Many of you may only recognize Baker as the 'Butcher of Barcelona' from the Guns of Navarone ... but he was an artistic force to be reckoned with, with whom the reader ought to be familiar. It's a shame there's no online version of Sands of the Kalahari I can link.

Where's Jack was very influential on my conception of thieves early on in my gaming, and I suppose its one of the reasons I'm bitter about the Artful Dodger cliche of pickpocketing as the baseline for thieving activities. I prefer the talented escapist ... and for those who might be interested in a depiction of an 'honest' thief, the film might be enlightening.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013


Possibly because I've been working on my latest effort to learn German (I have always sucked at vocabulary, and this newest system must be the best vocabulary builder I have ever encountered), I am thinking about language. I was writing out the description of a creature's shed skin floating in a calm ocean today and thinking, "wow, this is really not the sort of thing you describe ordinarily."

Being able to express an image in words is a core element for DMing, and it takes a great deal of practice.  More than that, before you can really describe an image, you must have some sense of what is important about an image ... or more to the point, what is important about being where you can see it.

Take the image below.  Describe it for your party, without pulling out an image in showing it to them.

Of course, you can pull out an image, can't you? The internet is there, you can flash up an image and say, "There, that's what you see." For two decades I did not have that option ... and for a time, realizing I could flash up mountains or images of creatures or what have you, I thought, fan-bloody-tastic.

But when the opportunity came to do so, I found there was something wrong. The images did not convey the message. Why?

Well, because the image you pick - such as the one above - tells you nothing about being there. It tells you WHERE you are, but it doesn't answer the question how you are, nor does an image four inches high and six inches wide give you the least impression of the immensity of what's depicted.

There's a very stupid, ignorant cliche that a picture is worth a thousand words. The phrase was obviously invented by someone lacking in imagination, who felt on some level the only purpose of words was to tell you how to get to Bleeker Street (a map is worth a thousand words) or how to recognize leprosy. For such things, yes, pictures are rather superior ... but strangely, where it comes to an artistic expression, it matters which thousand words the gentle reader employs.

IF I want to convey how to recognize an aurora borealis in the sky, the above picture is not bad. If I want to demonstrate that the sky turns color near the horizon when the sun sets, again, not bad. But if I want to express how I know that the sun is setting in this picture and not rising, that's a whole different matter - there's also something weird about the position of the big dipper that suggests this picture has been photoshopped somehow.

In the bigger sense, however, how cold is it? What does this smell like? What can you hear? Are you harried by mosquitoes, does the picture explain the undulation of the aurora, does the picture express the changes in color from this static moment? No. In fact, where it comes to describing the picture for a party, who wants to feel that they are there, the static, dead picture is rather useless. The thousand words you present as the DM are far, far more valuable.

But what thousand words should you choose? As a crutch, I encourage the use of the four senses the picture does not speak to ... particularly odor and sound. Whenever possible, try to attach a good, strong smell to your campaign. And go beyond describing things in a generalized way, such as stinky or musty or sweet. Struggle for those more obscure words, the ones that give a more precise context. The damp, grassy odor of the field after its rained; the uneasy rot of a nearby slough; the dry, powdery dust of the road tickling your nostrils from the horse and cart that has just passed.

Those are not merely lights in the distance, they are the last signs of activity before the darkness settles, and somewhere someone is ringing a bell, bringing their cows in. It's cold, and the first tendrils of the darkness have lifted goosebumps on your forearms, causing you to remember your coat that's been in your pack all day. You remember there's still two more miles to walk to the nearest town, and your stomach rumbles. A meteor glows briefly through the rolling curtain in the sky, and for several minutes, though chilly, you watch the bright yellow fringes grow and reach higher into the sky, coming to dominate not just the edge, but much of the spectacular display. Then, realizing the bright orange has declined to umber, you recall you'd better hurry, you'll be walking in full dark the last ten minutes as it is. Your shoes scuff upon the road, and with habit you tread in the ruts where the stones have been pushed into the clay and its smooth and soft on your feet. You kick a large stone that's been rolled into the rut and remember your jacket again, that you forgot to put on. Not stopping, unslinging your pack, you dig into it, again pausing as you see the borealis is bigger now, it reaches all the way to the east horizon as well as the west ...

It is not only what you see that matters. It is the party's interaction with their environment that you want to convey. Not just the big stuff - there's a huge party, everyone's having fun - but the little stuff too, the fellow pushing his face into the woman's bosom, the three boys scrabbling for a piece of muddy bread that's been dropped on the road, the water with a thin layer of oil in it that nevertheless is just what the party needs right now, they're so thirsty.

It takes practice. It takes standing where you are, and consciously trying to put your world, as you experience it, into words that you can then force others to experience, so that they are in your world. Don't downplay the importance of it. It's not writing, it's performance, and your willingness to practice and expand the texture of your performance will make the largest difference between you as a clumsy, hapless staggering describer of hallways and a brilliant, compelling Dungeon Master.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

The End of Conflict

It's been a few weeks that I have been hammering on this sandbox vs. railroad thing ... and I am fairly certain that everyone still reading understands the difference, and why I feel one is bad while the other is good. I'm sure many a good reader is sick to death of the subject, and would rather that I talked about something else - wild magic, say, or how to build tension in a running. Not that I haven't talked about those things too.

I've been struggling in my head about what features are really needed to build a world, or rather how much world do you absolutely need, from a design standpoint ... but I'm not ready to talk about that yet.

The thing that has to be understood about railroading is that it is a strategy. There are perhaps 1 in 100 who are so impressed with their own importance that they know they're running a railroad to satisfy their own egos, but MOST people who are participating in the railroad process can be divided into two groups: a) people who don't know they're running a railroad; and b) people who can see any other way to provide satisfaction for their players while at the same time controlling the session.

To yesterday's post, the never-humble JB made this statement: "... I still feel for the 'railroaded DM' who is told by his players (in so many words or not), 'design us adventures Or Else.' Be our dancing monkey or look elsewhere for players."

JB has been my bitch-boy this month ... The Straight Dope has been a markedly popular post, one that I was pleased with, and has driven some interesting conversations off-blog. I don't want to take another swipe at him; I just want to present the quote as strong evidence of the DM-vs.-the-party mentality that is so prevalent among gamers. It's clear that JB feels on some level challenged, that if he isn't in control of the party's movement in his campaign, then the party is in control of him. That's a difficult mind-set to overcome.

Yes, certainly, I am not a member of the party. I am not a player. I have made that point over and over again. I am there to provide the game, manage the rules, create the milieu, keep everyone honest, maintain order at the table, discipline when necessary, ensure gamesmanship, direct action and ultimately produce an experience that encourages players to return. That's a tall order. None of the players, sitting at the table, are possessed with that kind of responsibility.

When you look at it, described as I just have, it is easy to understand why DMs become full of themselves. And why they become obsessed with recognition for all their labor.

Me, I like applause once in awhile. Every now and then, I'll weaken and ask, "Is the game working for you? How was that last adventure? Are you bored?" Part of this is insecurity. I think everyone feels that kind of insecurity. I don't feel ashamed to admit that yes, I occasionally feel insecure, despite all my abuse and my oh-so-evident asshole personality. I'm human.

What I don't feel is sycophantic. I want the party to have a good time, but no, this is still my world. But while the game does go the way I want it to go, what I want is a changing process ... and I am prepared to want something different, and right now, if the party is clearly miserable and the sequence of events isn't working to produce a worthy experience. Not a happy, cheerful experience, mind the reader, but a worthy one. Is the party learning, growing, adapting, interacting among themselve ... are they interested? It doesn't matter if they're miserable or frustrated or pissed off at me or each other. So long as they're not indifferent, I'm getting what I want.

In any case, I don't need to be confrontational in order to ensure this is so. I don't see the party as the enemy. I often present myself as the enemy to the party, because that is my role. The party, very often, HAS to see me as the bad guy. They need a villain, they need someone to hate, and they need - occasionally - to really get pissed at me for screwing them over or setting up a circumstance that they walked into with eyes open, or some other such mess that I've invented. It's not always true that I'm the bad guy ... I often get to give the party treasure or good will or aid of some kind ... but it's very important for my game that the party feel that these things come to them not because I deign to give them, but because they've gawddamned earned these things.

I have to walk a fine line there. I have to restrain the amount of treasure or whatever other good things I give, because too much will ruin a game ... and at the same time I have to accept the party's attitude about it, and not treat the giving of things as some benefice that I, the DM, have condescended to give. I have to buy into the argument that yes, the party has earned those things. If they haven't, then why in the name of all that's playable would I reward them?

Early on, very early on, when I first played this game, when I was in Grade 10 and 15 years old, when all the advice you could hope to get about the game came from other 15-year-olds and maybe the surly, miserable asshole who ran the local gaming store (who considered himself too important to talk to mere children), I often gave too much. I think I understood almost at once how easy it was to give as much as you wanted, and how the logical arrangement would arise where you could give treasure and massive magic weapons the same way you learned to let other kids play with your toys or eat your candy ... so they would LIKE you. Buying a player's love got to be a habit with some people; and that desperate need to be liked explains a lot of gamers who FEAR the DM-vs.-the-players dynamic. "Don't hate me, I'm just trying to run a game," said in a very wide variety of ways, is a common request among young gamers and noobs.

I really prefer the "Hate me, I'm your worst nightmare"-style of DMing, as a bullshit front that smart players begin to see through after they realize that I the DM and I, Alexis, are not the same. The DM is the face I adopt that lets the players play. It isn't an expression of how I feel about the players, or even a description of what I'm willing to do or not do in order to make the game a good one.

The point I've been hammering has been that I have no wish to tell the players how to play. The reverse is just as true - I have no wish for the players to tell me how to DM. I don't believe that, at its core, either is necessary. I recognize that some - JB perhaps, though it may have been a miscommunication - feel that if its not one, it must be the other. Somebody is bossing around someone.

That, I think, is because in the beginning, WAY back in the 70s, everyone who ran D&D was shit at it. I'd like to write that in letters forty feet high, but I'll have to just leave it in italics and hope the gentle reader understands how dearly I mean those words. Everyone. Was. Shit. The game had been around for just a few years, there had been no quality control at all, no one had had much practice, and it wasn't even conceived that there could be such a thing as a railroad/non-railroad philosophy. People ran completely grab-ass because they hadn't gotten the hang of it, and for those people who were really important, for whom smoke was blown up their ass everyday from the beginning because they were the founders of the game, that grab-ass style became acceptable, even dogmatically acceptable. The RULE, therefore, was that the worst way to possible run a game became established as the 'right' way because there was no other evident way at all. It's taken 40 years for people to begin to question that maybe the Grand Poobah DM is a very bad thing, and that perhaps Gygax and crew were actually shit at it ... only, since there was no such thing as being good at it, and since the number of witnesses in the room is very small, and since those witnesses were ALSO tempered from having grown up in a time without any perspective, the whole ideal of the great godlike DMs of those early heady days has become a thing of legend.

It's all a load of crap. When television was invented, and people began making television programming, all the shows were crap. It's possible to watch some of the stuff from the early 50s and recognize the good writing, the good acting ... but those things were around a long time before television, and at any rate you have to watch the good writing and good acting amidst a lot of BAD, BAD production ... not just the technology of television, but booms dropping into the picture, props not working, actors breaking up on camera and so on. The same is true of movies. The same is true of radio broadcasting, and the same is true of newspaper advertising in its early years. No one really understood how to make better TV, radio, advertising, etc., so they cobbled together the best ideas they could with the knowledge they had. We look at all those things now with the understanding of a parent feeling nostalgic for the first pathetic attempts of a child to walk. It's cute and adorable and heart-rending and a little awe-inspiring to watch a human get up on its feet for the first time and stagger two steps before falling on its ass again.

But that's NOT good walking. We don't go back to our 11-month efforts and 'give them a try again' because shit, those were great and heady days. We recognize that we were shit at walking and we try to get better at it. We recognize that the report we wrote in grade seven on 'Government' was an interesting try for a 13-year-old, but we shrug off all the wrong-headedness and errors with the recognition that we know MORE know than we knew then.

Roleplaying is the same. We don't have to run the old game. We don't have to go on seeing Dungeon Mastering in terms of conflict resolution and one-upmanship. We can learn. We can realize that the players have their role, the DM has his or her role, and the game CAN be played without people having to challenge one another constantly for supremacy at the table. We can learn to recognize when it's happening, and call it for what it is, and counsel those players and DMs to recognize that there's a better way.

Monday, September 16, 2013

This may not be news to many people; I came across it yesterday. It's an online interactive website that offers language instruction, inspired by the individuals who invented the captcha program. It's very friendly, and appears to offer a wide variety of languages - I started on it yesterday to try my hand at German, that I've wanted to learn for some time now. It's also got built into it a number of reward systems that make the process interesting. I presume, since it only has 55,000 followers, that it's still fairly new. The gentle reader should check it out.

The 'Or Else' Scenario

Dark have been my dreams of late. Seriously, very dark. I think it must be the season.

This post in particular I sat and wrote in my sleep last night, after having conceived it minutes before falling off ... only to find upon waking I would have to write it again. Now that is annoying.

I was thinking about the Opening Module and what sort of advice ought to follow it, once I have gotten my coffee and sat back down at the table ... and this led me to thinking about the differences between a campaign that progresses dynamically (impelled by what has come before) and one that progresses artificially (the result of a contrived plan). Once the party has decided upon an action/activity, how can a DM approach that decision in terms of the ongoing campaign.

Let us say, for example, that a party is in the town of Kaffa (or Kefe), the starting point of Marco Polo's journey to China ... and let us suppose the party has decided to journey to China in the same way, having invested all their wealth into a caravan and into goods which they hope to exchange for things of which Europe has little. The choice may not need to be something that appeals to the gentle reader, but it is what the party has chosen, and the DM ought to step up and provide them the best experience possible.

The journey between Kaffa and China is considerable - six thousand miles and more - and allows for a considerable number of possibilities - and in fact the journey itself, just one way, could easily stretch into a year of runnings. As I DM it is up to me to fill those miles with something, since merely saying "Okay you leave ... and ... you arrive in China" is rather insipid. My personal feeling is that a road trip game requires a ROAD, and events that occur along that road that serve to make the game meaningful. Note I don't say 'entertaining.' I'm not interested in boarding the party on a Disneyland ride called "The Mysterious East." I want to create that sense of GRIT that I wrote about recently. When the party arrives in China, I want them to feel as though they've accomplished something impossible.

I hear some saying right now that I am a hypocrite, that I in fact DO plan everything in advance and that everything I've ever said about a sandbox is bullshit.

Do I know what's going to happen along that road?  Of course I do.

I have mapped out the Earth in the direction of China and the party is free to choose their direction of passage.  They could cross the Crimea, set off eastward, crossing the Don and Volga rivers, climbing up onto the plateau of Kutan-Kirghiz and wend their way up the Amu Darya to Tashkent.  Then they could turn, as did Marco Polo, for the Dzungarian Gate, crossing the Tien Shan mountains into Sinkiang, then down into the valley of the Yellow River (Hwung Ho) to Peking (as it was called).  Or they could turn instead south and then east, through Hodzhent and Osh, climbing through the Pamirs onto the high plateau of Tibet, choking and suffering through the thin air, crossing that great wide semi-desert until descending into the Yangtze Valley, following it to Shanghai.

Or they could forego Marco Polo's route, take ship to Vati in Colchis, cross Transcaucasia into Gilan in northern Persia, and thence either south to the Persian Gulf, to take another ship around India and Malacca to Canton, or overland through Khuzistan, Afghanistan and the Khyber Pass.  From there they could cross the wide plain of the Ganges to the Seven Kingdoms, pass over the Chin Mountains into Burma, over the Ledo road into the valley of the Mekong, struggle down to Hanoi and finally take ship from the Vietnamese coast again to Canton.  This last, I would recommend, not be done with wagons.

What happens to them is largely going to depend upon which road they take.  If they strike for any of the southern routes, I'm not going to plague them with Uighurs and Jagatai raiders; if they take the northern routes, they can be sure they won't be attacked by pirates or captured by Hindu spiritualists.

It's only natural that where they are will have something to do with what they encounter.

But rest assured, I will know what they're going to encounter, I will know the number, I will know when along the road they will be met and what the creatures will want.  I will know these things just as I know that this particular port overlooks this particular bay or that these mountains are this high and must be gotten over by this pass.  So yes, it does appear that I 'plan' the campaign out.  In fact, quite often I plan such things months, even YEARS in advance.

My online party was given a reason to return to the birthplace of the one of the players to collect an inheritance worth 10,000 g.p.  It was more than a year ago that the reason was given.  It will probably be another four to five months of running before the party arrives there.  Do I know what they're going to find upon arriving?  You bet I do.

Does that make it a railroad?


I want to explain about contrivance in artistry, and why we say something is 'contrived,' and why that is a bad thing.  I don't mean the word in the sense of something that is made or that is clever ... in that sense, obviously, every artwork is contrived, it could not have come into existence without effort.  Rather, I am speaking of 'contrived' in the sense of its evident artificiality, revealing the clear and blatant hand of the artist, so that the work appears unnatural or unappealing.

If we consider movies, for no other reason than they they represent an art that offers a common experience among readers, apart from books, which have often not been read, or music, for which there is no common language, then what is the difference between a film that is 'contrived' and one is not?  And ultimately, how does that apply to running a D&D game?

Most of the time, particularly in blockbuster films, the protagonist of the story is offered a very distinct choice between two awful possibilties.  Either they will have to sacrifice, risk their lives, risk the lives of those they love, etc., or the world/city/existence of everything will be destroyed.  There is no third option.  The tension is usually drawn from the protagonist's resistance against accepting that they may die/suffer horribly, until a point is reached where the character MUST do something because time has run out.  In short, the character is compelled, ultimately, to do the only thing the character can do if all they care about is to be preserved.

There's nothing wrong with this formula.  It often makes a very pretty movie, if ultimately a predictable one.  Watch enough of them, and you will find yourself waiting through the procrastination portion of the film for the eventual movement of the character so the pretty stuff can get going again.  You know it can go nowhere else.

We call this 'contrived' because every other possibility is carefully removed by the author.  Parley isn't possible, the bad guys won't change their minds, there's no one other than the protagonist who can solve the problem, etc.  Eventually we know this one chosen person HAS to save the world.

In roleplaying, this is the railroad.  The players MUST do this, for whatever reason the DM has determined.  They're all dying of a disease and they must have the antidote.  The town is going to be destroyed.  The princess will die.  If the party backs out, the wizard will kill them, the baddies will hunt them down and kill them.  Etc. 

The reason why many "boring" films receive such positive reviews from the critics is due to the lack of this sort of contrivance.  The characters are pursuing a particular course of action, but they are in no way compelled to pursue it.  They may get themselves caught in a set of circumstances, which may in turn compel them to take certain actions ... but the consequences for not taking such actions are less final.

Consider the film American Beauty, which for an Oscar Best Picture offered just enough interest to the non-artistic crowd that I can rely on most readers having seen it.  None of the characters have any sort of inevitable destruction hanging over their heads.  No one is dying of a disease.  No one has a set amount of time to 'do something' before it's too late.  The characters choose to take specific actions, but there's no artificial compulsion ... the motivations are all based upon the character's biological desire for a young girl, a character's desire to be free from a father, a character's desire to escape from an unpleasant circumstance, a character's need to be successful and so on.  If, halfway through the film, all the characters were to suddenly stop what they were doing, in order to do something else, the sky would not fall, the world would not collapse.  Lester could realize it's all just an infantile fantasy, deciding to return to a straight job that perhaps gave him more respect.  Carolyn could give up her ambition and apply her energy to something more satisfying.  Ricky could realize drugs were killing children, causing him to reconsider his habits.  Any of the characters could witness something, recognize the course of their lives and change those courses, and nothing bad would happen to them.

Roleplaying has to be like this.  Railroading isn't that the process of planning ahead of the party, it isn't arranging the actions of an NPC to do this or that to the party or react to the party in a particular way; it is the process of creating the motivation for the party along with the events themselves. If I'm railroading, I'm doing more that creating NPCs. I'm creating REASONS for the party to do this or that. I'm inventing a consequence that says to the party, "Do this or else ..." It is the "or else" that creates the railroad.

So the party decides to go to China. They get two hundred miles down the road, they decide they don't like it, they sell all they have and they change their stars. No big deal. I never had an 'or else' scenario planned for them. I don't care if they go to China. I haven't done any planning on the encounter I expected them to have on the salt marshes of Astrakhan except to think, "When they get here, this will happen." I'm not invested. And I've never breathed a word to the party that I had that plan, so they have no investment either.

In the Art and Fall of Preparation, I wrote that one of the greatest motivators to a party was the recognition that the DM had worked hard on a pre-generated adventure, and that this creates a GUILT in the party. The DM made it; we, as a party, have a responsibility to run in it.

This is an awful, horrific ideal for any group activity to incorporate. Yet it is constant and rife in D&D, as is evident on all the storyboards. It is just another kind of 'or else' ... one that is outside the game, but all the more real because the tag on the end is, "I will stop running D&D for you."

It is this contrivance that is ruining the game. Purge it from your gaming. Purge it from your adventures. Let your players change their minds without consequences. Only then can your game improve.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Leave It In

This wouldn't be the first game rule to occur to me in a dream ... but then, I was on a percocet cloud when I conceived of the mass hit points per hit die rule, those being the pain killers I was on when I snapped my quadraceps tendon back in '08. Take note that the linked post was written on August 12; on the evening of August 8th I snapped the tendon, on August 9th I was in surgery and the night after the surgery I thought the idea up ... then had to wait three days to have the strength to write a post about it. Wrote that post laying on my back, touch-typing, percocet knocking the pain down.

About five hours ago I woke from a dream where I was sitting at table, running a game (yes, I do this in my sleep, too), spontaneously coming up with this combat suggestion. I don't think I'll run it though; my combat system is difficult enough as it is, and it is nothing like as good an idea as the mass thing was. Still ...

There's Boromir with three arrows stuck in him; Inigo Montoya with a dagger in his shoulder; Carrie White with a dagger in her back; King Arthur in Excalibur working his way down the spear to put it into Mordred. Images of people with weapons stuck in their bodies. Where's the rule for that?

Now, only a couple of days ago I was mentioning that hit points were exhaustion - except, of course, the last ones that actually kill the character. And I've just said I'm not going to use this rule, so I'm not screwing with my own perception ... but still, suppose we consider a rule that allows for certain weapons to remain in the body - stabbing, bladed weapons, including the spear and javelin, but discounting anything fat and blocky or heavy and cumbersome. The obvious mechanic for it would be the natural 20 on the die, indicating that the instrument thrown or used has sunk into some part of the body that - if it doesn't kill - pierces and sticks. Through Inigo's shoulder, say.

For anything thrown, that's simple enough ... but suppose the option for a stabbing weapon such as a sword or spear is to leave it in.

Most of my parties carry numerous weapons, so it wouldn't be any problem to pull something else; it might even increase the benefit of those weapons, so that the spear in particular increases in value not because it does more damage, but because it's harder to pull out than a dagger or a sword. I've always felt the spear got short-changed in the game.

Of course, it does say the uruchai rolled three 20s in succession when he shot Boromir, but I've had party members do that in a fight. Not impossible.

Rules, then. Does the weapon cause damage while it remains in the body? I'd say yes, if the victim continues to fight or take action beyond slowly moving away. A small weapon (dagger) would cause 1 damage per round; a medium weapon (short/long sword, javelin) would cause 2; and a spear or pike would cause 3 (mostly due to the long handle of the weapon which produces greater stress on the internal musculature/organs).

What effects does it cause to fight with it? I'd rather not increase the effect of the larger weapons by giving them a higher negative modifier, also; perhaps a random die roll, a d4, could be rolled for any weapon to determine the particular encumbrance the weapon is causing, thus removing the necessity of hit location and the like. "Ah, the spear seems to have gone through nothing vital, you're -1 to hit" or "The dagger has clearly hit something important; you're -4 to hit."

Difficulty of pulling out the weapon. A dagger takes half a round (in my game system, 2 action points, but that's only going to mean anything to my players); the medium weapon, a full round to remove it. For the spear, 2 rounds, and for the pike, perhaps 3. But this could be worked out by a random roll also. Keep in mind my rounds are 12 seconds, so if you're still using 1 minute rounds, it would probably be equal across the board.

Damage upon removing. It's tempting to say it causes a wound, but I have a system for that already, which I don't want to increase. I might argue for my own purposes that the wound doesn't start bleeding (-1 hit point per round) until the weapon is actually removed. On the other hand, massive bleeding all over the place might make a fun change to combat. I suppose I'd play it both ways and see how it went.

Sure would be a fast return to swords and other similar striking weapons, I think. It would be an especially great tactic for monks ... and clerics would definitely get the short end of it.

Thursday, September 12, 2013


I, too, would like to go back to talking about D&D.

That may be the last time I let myself off the political chain. I don't think my point is in error, but on a great many levels I despise the resulting disagreement between a good fellow and myself and our inability to see eye-to-eye. I'm also unhappy with the general dissatisfaction, the ultimate shit-raking that the post inspired, the hard feelings and in general the waste of time it all was. I wrote a visceral post inspired by personal feelings of powerlessness over the general bullshit crap the world is fostering upon itself and I suppose I shall have to resist the tendency to do so in the future.

I haven't felt good about it all day. Everyone is going through their own visceral dissatisfaction on this; I think it's about impossible to relate my dissatisfaction to anyone else's on this forum. There isn't enough time to write all the words, there's too much emotion involved, there's no facial expressions to give evidence of what we as humans really mean and somehow it's just a big fucking fart in the wind.

I apologize. It's really something that should be discussed over beers, and not until the third beer, and then ernestly with plenty of reflection on where all the parties have come from, what they want and where it applies to them personally. The net is too random for this shit. It's too open to abuse.

I apologize. I've thought long and hard about deleting the whole damn mess, but there's something in that which galls, so I won't. I'll leave it there for reflection. I leave it to remind me why I need a chain. There's a reason pitbulls shouldn't be wandering around free.

I apologize. I'll go back to D&D now.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

No More Mr. Nice Guy

It's today, so I suppose we have to say something about 9/11.

In 1983, while a civil war was raging in Lebanon, where guns and materials were being supplied by the American government (who were at the same time posing as peacekeepers) in the ever-present effort to gain control of another country's government (the endless procession of violence that we bear witness to now, proceeded from Tunisia to Egypt to Libya to Syria), a van carrying 2,000 pounds of explosives plowed into a U.S. Embassy in West Beirut, killing 63.

The Americans immediately screamed foul, claiming - of course - absolute innocence in the war, their desires for peace, their special status for giving people guns to fight with but demanding never to be held account for such action, etc., etc., parked the USS New Jersey offshore outside Beirut and - on December 14, 1983 - fired 11 projectiles from her 16-inch guns (22,000 pounds of explosives) at chosen hostile positions inland of Beirut.

Then on December 24th, Bob Hope did a Christmas Eve USO show on the deck of the New Jersey. Which was nice.

On February 8, 1984, the New Jersey fired almost 300 shells (600,000 pounds) into Druze and Shi'ite positions in the hills overlooking Beirut. Journalists at the time could not help pointing out how often these shells tended to 'miss' or did not seem to be particular specific in their targeting. This was not considered an act of war by the Americans. The Americans also stubbornly refused to acknowledge that they had, in any way, taken 'sides' in the action.

The number killed was never determined. Americans like to say it was a few hundred. Lebanese rather tilt towards several thousand. I don't know why, but in this particular case I tend to favor the people who were actually ashore.

I try to imagine what it must have been like to be in Beirut at the time, to have a view from the hills of the New Jersey sitting very far away, a dozen miles out at sea, completely out of reach. Most days, without a glass, probably wasn't possible to see it at all. Having no certainty whatsoever about what it was doing. Hearing word that there were fucking Christmas parties going on, the crew eating and drinking in comfort while their commanders considered whether or not to bomb the shit out of my city. Something about that just ... really pisses me off. There's something in the general, let's see, what's the word ... entitlement of that action, where the American government feels justified in acting as GOD and EXECUTIONER in situations whenever their so-called innocence is in the leastways challenged. Yeah. There's just something there that gets in the way of my feeling sorry for when something shitty the Americans have done turns around and smacks them in the face.

My favorite cartoon by the very brilliant Ted Rall.

And now it's Syria. A fucked up situation which the U.S. of course in no way produced.

Remember when America used to rendition their political enemies to Syria, because it was against the law to torture and indefinitely imprison innocent people? We in Canada do, you see, because America did that to one of our citizens, Maher Arar. For four years.

Asia Minor

I've resisted working on maps lately, as they keep me from working on more player-directed material, such as spells or rules, such as for thieving abilities and the like. My players generally prefer I work on the more hands-on stuff, because it tends to settle more arguments and allows for a greater understanding of what they can and cannot do.

But ... I love maps. And I have an excuse. The online party was going to be needing the maps below for general travel, as they are going to a place called 'Melitene,' where one of them was born. That city can be found almost center of the map, or at any case on line 179 (you can see the numbers on the right side, which I use to locate things).

Asia Minor - elevations

As is evident, eastern modern Turkey (Cappadocia, Paphlagonia, etc) is a very up-and-down place, with low valleys and dizzying heights. The central mountains historically produced isolated cultures and tribes, until Islam and ultimately the Ottomans unified the whole mess (almost everything on the map is Ottoman, the yellow in the political map below dominating). It has always been better known by its regional names, rather than by an appellation like "Turkey," even the Byzantines and Romans thought of it as a collection of regions, rather than as a single region in its own right.

The bottom of the map, those parts labeled Syria, Gazira, Palmyra and Damascus, those are all the northern half of modern Syria, stretching down from the mountains into the deserts, which show their northern edge as a sort of pinkish-red (it looks like dotted rust on my publisher map).

Asia Minor - political

The two big rivers are, of course, the Euphrates and the Tigris - Euphrates on the left, descending through Cappadocia and into Gazira, and the Tigris on the right, descending from Harran into Mosul. Both produce cultures of considerable development (bright green and yellow), which on the map below appears as the well-known fertile crescent. The route through the map's center is the great highway from Persia to the Mediterranean Sea, ending in Cilicia and Hatay, which in the 17th century would have been among the most cultured parts of the world - though obviously not European culture.

Asia Minor - infrastructure

Well, these maps have been fun. The party has an intention to move from Asia Minor to the south of Russia, so I'll be working on that next. I do feel a bit burned out from working on other things ... which are not words my parties enjoy hearing (where are my rules for freaking find traps???).