Friday, February 28, 2014

Demi-Gods & Gods

I have discussed this subject before, but not for a long, long time, and at any rate it gives me an opportunity to cease tearing people down.  About time, huh?

I don't know what I can do about making people more familiar with my world.  Fact is, the world is so deep, so extensive, and incorporates so many different philosophies, as I write them out on the blog they steadily disappear into the backlog of time, until they're so lost in the hundreds of thousands of words I've written that I can't find them, either.  I suppose what I should try to do is write a single, encompassing overview of everything ... a few sentences, then a link to an argument I've made.

Sounds dull, though.  I shall give it some thought.

Yesterday, to update the sage study descriptions I'm adding to the new work blog, I had to make a distinction between "demi-gods" and "gods."  It's not a distinction that many would feel the need to make, and for most, it is a reference to importance.  Zeus, for instance, would be a 'God' while someone minor, like Atlas, a titan, would be a 'demi-god.'  Or something along those lines.

My world, however, being based on earth history, culture and geography, includes the notion of the Christian God and Allah, formless deities that don't fit the Zeus appearing as a Bull to sleep with Europa type myths. From my perspective, the dividing line between demi-gods and gods is divided between supernatural type beings that have form and resemble living creatures (demi-gods) and omnipresent entities without form that comprise everything that exists in the world (gods).  Once I wrote about how one tear drop of Isis was said to be the source of the Nile, giving the sense that the Goddess Isis was of such incomprehensible size that a mere tear could form the mightiest river in the Egyptian universe - that is, too big to lust after the cute girl on the riverbank.  This is what I mean by 'god.'

A better distinction might be found, however, in the motivations of a demi-god versus the motivations of a god.  After all, quite reasonably the Christian god was a mere demi-god, particularly in the days when he was called Yahweh and was the son of a Sumerian goddess, Ana, the Mesopotamian counterpart of Isis, that was - according to the Sumerians - the mothergoddess of all that exists in the world, and from which everything and everyone comes.  The Sumerians perceived that the birth of the universe would obviously come from a woman, and to facilitate that myth created a rather strange tale about how the mother gives birth to a son (Ana to Yahweh) who then matures and impregnates the mother, who then kills the child before giving birth to the same son, over and over.  The reader can find this myth appearing again and again, for it was very popular.  Ana, incidentally, is the root of In-anna (also nin-anna), the same Goddess that's mentioned in the Dieties and Demigods, a 3rd millenium BCE goddess that was a re-incarnation of the original Ana that goes back to around 8,000 BCE (usually associated with white, hence the 'white goddess').  The name pops up all over, in the Irish Mother Goddess Anann, in the Greek mythology as Di-ana (where she's downgraded as the opposite of Greek Apollonian male-dominated pantheon to be goddess of the Moon), in Britain as Brit-anna, mother goddess of the island, and pleasantly as St. Anne, the mother of Mary, who gave birth to Jesus (I can't resist giving a 'religious' link to that last, since it always shows how little research believers do).  Polytheism is so much fun.

So supposing that Yahweh was once a figure such as Thor or Odin or any of the other figures that people like to think of has having an appearance and personality, how was it that Yahweh broke forward to becoming the omnipresent, omnipotent entity without fault or substance, that no longer needs to speak to Moses's in this world?  Today, he's got Jesus' mother for that stuff.  Well, my theory, as it applies to my game world (and what matter does it have otherwise, it's all make-believe anyway), would be that enough people believed in him hard enough, putting him over the top of God status.  Allah is really just another name for him, and the Jews were the group that gave him his grand start, so most of the time where it comes to one great god, Yahwah, or Jehovah, or just 'God,' is the top being.

Of course, another 'god' might be Shiva, if we want to recognize that Krishna is the demi-god in the mythological salt-mines, and Buddha can probably be said to have made the grade, and for my money I'm prepared to grant major status to the old gods of Cthulhu, being that they haven't actually appeared yet on this plane of existence.  Perhaps they made this plane of existence, and Yahweh is a recent player on it, getting credit for another god's work.  Still, Yahweh is certainly a god now, for there's very little chance (in the 17th century at least, when my world occurs) of his belief structure being toppled.

Now, a demi-god has trouble in that department.  If we stipulate that a god's influence, power, strength, survival even, is dependent upon the number and dedication of that demi-gods worshippers, than certainly there are some supernatural figures in the world that are just getting by on the local interest of a village or two in New Guinea (and elsewhere, obviously).  Heck, it is tough going for these demi-gods.  They can barely get enough food and blood from the paltry sacrifices the villages can afford annually.  And there's always the danger that the next villages over will rise up and kill everyone in the valley, and where is the demi-god then? Existence hanging on a thread, that's that real deal.

Given that all you've got to grant your immortality is the survival of a few crummy villages, are you really going to refrain from talking directly to a shaman or two?  No, you're going to talk to those boys every day, and give them a lot of direct intervention.  Thing is, you don't have much power, so your intervention is pretty low-key, but you do what you can.  You stir them up against threats, such as a party coming over the hill, and you talk to the party as straight as you can in the off chance that the party might get on your side.  Then again, if you see that damn cross, the one that says that Yahweh johnny come lately bastard who's been getting all the hoopla lately is loved by this bunch of interlopers, you're going to get your people hopped up and freaked out pretty damn quick.  Screw reasoning with these strangers ... just kill them.  Kill them all.

And maybe, maybe if you luck out, and some genius gets born inside your religion, who can work as a crackerjack missionary, drawing together a lot of villages in your stead to worship you, you can pick up some extra powers and knowledge, and start aiding that fellow in conquering enemies and spreading your message throughout the countryside.  Maybe, just maybe, you might build yourself up to the point where a world-wide expansion could occur, because people from your personal bailywick set up colonies in the new world, or conquer their way through Africa ... but that's not likely to happen.  Chances are, you'll have your hey-day, then you'll experience a long, long demise as you watch areas you once mattered in disappear, and your shrines are torn down or buried, and the books telling of your greatness are lost and rewritten so badly that some other demi-god gets the credit, until finally there's just one old grandmother of 80 dying in a hut somewhere in the jungle, that no one listens to any more, with whom you have long conversations while you both wait for her to die, and you too.

Perspective.  D&D and gaming is all about perspective.  Not yours, but the potential perspective of any entity you can imagine.  Want to build your world into something stunning?  Gain some perspective.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Deck Chairs on the Titanic

Yesterday I was reminded that many of the wars in human history were fought by citizens who were not primarily Fighters (with a capital 'F').  This was meant to be insightful, suggesting that not all 'Fighters' exist only to fight, but that they might have other skills too ... but in fact, it fell short of the mark.  Far short.

I do wish people who don't understand history would stop treating the subject as disconnected trivia piled together like a billions of plastic meeple, with no link or rhyme nor reason behind a single fact about a particular general's 70-year life and what that's supposed to prove.  The willing myopia of role-players in particular, who compare Fighters (capital 'F') with historical examples as though somehow we're all supposed to forget that 'Fighter' is a game designation and that yes, there really were people who did 'fight' in history that were not primarily game designations.  I don't know what its supposed to prove anyway, because there were a lot of people who fought in history (small 'f') who had no meaningful secondary skills at all, as they were employed primarily as labourers.  It is as though my saying, "Some of the people in this theatre are doctors," somehow proves that doctor-hood is something that might automatically be conferred upon any of us because we happen to be inside the same constructed building.  Role-players are always making associations like that, as if to say "some samurai were also poets" means that samurai-poets are by no account rare, but were in fact extremely common, which is proved by the fact that the three samurai the speaker happens to know by name were poets, after all.  They all must have been, then.  We don't know, of course, if they were any good at being samurai, because they're in fact known best for their poetry, but that doesn't matter, because in the minds of people who spout meeple-generated bits of history, the word "samurai" is proof positive that every person with that title was a fuckin'-A fighter, just as every American marine is a fuckin'-A fighter today, because it must be so.

Because I do not like generalizations like this in my game, and used by players as 'evidence' that their characters are able to do this or that at will, because someone they imagine is very much like their character was able to do that in history, I came up with an answer for most of these arguments.  Mind you, this is a 'game answer,' which applies only to game designations and what game designations can do.  It does not apply to scattered ideals of actual human historical figures, or five-minutes research into the life of Genghis Khan, or whatever other disconnected idealized perception the reader might have about the whole of Islamic culture.  It is an answer that only applies to my specific game.  That answer is "no."

Now, I do run a very, very, very deep game.  And there is a chance that in my game a fighter could be a poet, or know about art history, or gods, or some other detail.  I posted all about that when I put my character background generator on my wiki, and wrote about what the generator's purpose is.  And no, I don't expect that every present reader of my blog today is going to be up on those posts, because they're old and it's hard to remember that I run a deep game and that I've been doing this for 35 years and that I've heard many, many, many arguments about classes and limitations of what Fighters are allowed to do and what a cleric is and what separates a mage from and illusionist and so on.  And I understand perfectly, there are many, many DMs in the world who in the last 35 years of running their worlds have managed to BUY a lot of shit from stores, and who have done exactly shit themselves, and are still running games thinking that this sort of argument about  Fighters not strictly being fighters but potentially having an ability to make stuff and know stuff still needs to be hashed out.  I understand that occasionally someone is going to assume that I'm just the same, that I've done no work, made no effort, offered no feature or system in my world that might address this sort of thing, and that I need to be educated by someone who has read all of 5% of my blog, and who has never, ever run in my world.

I get that.  From the outside, yes, I'm just as dumb as anyone else.  From the outside, my 35 years of experience count for exactly nothing.  Why should the reader think I have anything special to say?  Why shouldn't the reader suppose that the only reason why I make a statement about fighters not being poets is because I'm dead set against it.  After all, Tacitus was a general and he wrote books.  That means generals CAN be writers!  Hey, Lew Wallace was a general too, and he wrote a book.  Heck, that proves it.  All generals are writers.  And all D&D bloggers still have their head up their asses about imposing unfair restrictions on what a fighter can do.

All of them.  Every ... fucking ... one.

Don't try to tell me different.

Listen.  I want to try to insert this bauble inside the reader's head.  I have written two popular posts on this blog that were 10,000 words each, this one and this one.  More than 12 months and 2 years after they were written, they are consistently in my top 10 posts, right there in the side bar.  They're popular.  They are because it is clear I know what I am talking about.

I am now writing a book that is floating somewhere in the neighborhood of 90,000 words.  I'm still coming up with little side things that have to be added to it, so I think it will be longer.  This book is not going to be one of these shit-art-filled choke fests that WOTC has some hack spew out.  This book is going to address subjects that no game manufacturer would be comfortable discussing.  The content is going to blow the reader's conception wide open.  Because I know what I'm talking about.

There won't be a lot of half-assed arguments about what some historical figure did once upon a time that proves that players should get fan-serviced up the anus in the way that makes them giggle like fourteen-year-old girls.  The content is going to be deep, it's going to discuss frankly the problems of running, it's going to ask the reader to improve themselves in ways the reader will find extraordinarily difficult, and it's going to express exactly how that's done.  There won't be a page where the reader is thinking, "wow, he could have not bothered with this filler."  There won't be any pictures except the ones in the reader's head.

I hope it helps people run their games better.  And I hope it raises this juvenile level of dialogue, like I've heard many times, to questions about how gawd-damned hard it is to run this game well.

Nit-picking over the details is easy.  When do we get to talk of serious things?

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Spoiled Rotten

John, who posts as jbeltman, added this comment to my work blog yesterday, leaving me to wonder if we have learned anything at all:

"What, fighters get no love? You mention clerics, magic users, etc but not the other classes. Was that just an oversight or are you restricting sages to these classes? I would prefer leaving the areas open to any class so that players can have any character concept they like. Like fighters who know about monster biology or famous arms and armour, or cultures and their military tactics, or art, science or poetry (think renaissance dandy or samurai poet), or religion and they love debating it; or thieves who know all about art and how much it is worth, or locks and mechanical devices."

Now, John's a good fellow, I have no wish to disparage the comment.  He is, after all, arguing for democracy, and the principle of enabling players to participate as they like.  It's noble, really.

Only, we went down this path, didn't we?  This was the sentiment that began somewhere in the early 80s and gained steam through national conventions and people who wanted to listen to players complain that thier characters weren't as powerful as mages and ... well, mages, and how we had to throw open the doors and embrace skills, not classes, because skills were more individual and friendly, and everyone could be the character they wanted to be, not the characters they were forced to be.  Yay.  Because the game is really about how I measure up to other people, it's about how important I am, and about how my personal needs to express myself need to be incorporated right into the game, for the good of everyone!  Because we know, when I get what I need, that makes me feel special, then that is always good for everyone.  That's why everyone needs to get what they need, so that I can too.

And so on until 4e spills squalling out of its mother's uterus, fully deformed and quite literally 'bloodied.'

So why didn't democracy work?  Well, to begin with, we began a system with skills that weren't all exactly the same value, so that power players quickly learned what were the strongest skills for the least cost.  RPG character construction follows exactly the same principles as Wall Street in that regard, or any other system in which the biggest rewards are given to those prepared to be the biggest, least morally compassed dicks.  This then left everyone else at the table as weaker than the biggest dicks playing, so to compensate they had to take the power options too, so that everyone's individuality ultimately became "the perfect path to sheeplehood" ... a process that was honed and refined right up through all the lovely 3.5 days.

This was then improved upon by getting rid of every skill or power that wasn't ridiculously powerful, then reducing everything in the game to meaningless proportions by giving beggars and little children living on the streets upwards of 200 hit points, and really tough monsters thousands of hit points, what with surges and special healing features and wands and god-given special compensations, until a battle between two ordinary citizens having a disagreement over bread prices could take all evening to play to its bloodied conclusion (all conclusions are necessarily bloody now, because bloody is a nice word, it works as a verb and a noun and an adverb and an adjective and ... heh heh heh, bloody - now you say it).

In reality, it isn't the expression of individuality that matters, that's just an euphemism for "When do I get what's coming to ME?"  John's comment above only seems to be about nobility and players liking things and having character development about samurai's loving poetry and so on.  The reality is that we see a rule like the one I proposed yesterday and a big part of our consciousness rushes towards the players in our campaign (because John was legitimately thinking about his players) suddenly moaning and complaining that the casters were getting all the pie, that the fighters and thieves and so on were getting shafted again, poor bloody fighters and their endless misery, standing in the rain and staring into the library at the mages and clerics having a great raucous time shouting phrases out of books and shimmying around in the glory of their superior knowledge.  Have I no love for fighters? John asks.  Hell no.  Freaking brain-dead meat-shields, I hope they get a sword stuck through their middles, spilling their weak-ass crybaby intestines so they spread like a carpet for the beautiful people to walk on.

For forty years players have been pounding their chests and simpering about what their character hasn't got, what their character needs to be happy, how unfair the game system and the world is to their character, blah blah blah, and for forty years the game industry has bent over backwards in absurd ways to compensate for what amounts to a shit load of poor moral fibre and the rectitude of a rectum.  This one cry and the service of it has irrevocably split the players into defensive clans, it has spoiled the continuity of the game, it has damned development, and it has now wasted two whole generations of children.  And still, there is the cry, there is the damnation of any system that says, for the sake of creating individuality, some characters can do this, while some characters can't.

Never mind that this is true for every class.  Never mind that the player can choose which class to play, or that options exist for a player to have more than one class at a time, so that the player can be a samurai poet (monk/bard) or a biology studying swordsman (fighter/druid) or a thief that knows about locks (um ... that would be just 'thief' - locking making is a secondary skill, not a field of knowledge).  The point isn't that the player CAN be those things, the point is that the player has a right to be those things in the way the player wants to be those things.  They want everything personally tailored for their personal satisfaction and their personal need, or else the thing is abusive, unloving, immoral, unacceptable and ultimately proof of poor game design.

And then everyone else, wanting no one to feel abused, answers "Yes, yes, you're right, I'm sorry, I'll redesign the game until you're happy. Okay, Veruca?  Okay?  Daddy loves you, yes he does!  And he will buy you squirrel, any squirrel you want ..."

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Monday, February 24, 2014

Takes a Plan

I would have liked to write this hours ago, but some days are just unfriendly towards work - so it's pretty late in the day as I settle in.

I want to pick up from the post about giving a baby something to play with on Friday.  The first question I asked at the end of that post was, "What is your world meant to do?"  Not that this is the beginning of a series or anything, but I'd like specifically to expand that one question, particularly with regards to parenting.

For most of the world, parenting occurs by chance, and the principle issues of parenting are to provide shelter and food.  I'm thinking now of parts of the world where planned parenting isn't an option, where the parents of a child have no ability to consider that child's education, what extra-curricular activities the child will pursue or where they'll find a berth waiting for them in university.  The child's activities are going to be taken up with labour, scavenging, opportunities for distraction and the manifestation of fear.  Because the parents are working continuously through the day, or are forced by circumstances to scrounge all day for every meal, much of the child-rearing is done by siblings or persons too old to work, even by neighbours and certainly by often-vicious peer groups.

I have no doubt that many role-playing campaigns are run exactly on this principle.

No, this isn't going to be a post about encouraging you to give money, time and your personal experience to the developing world--though that's a laudable pursuit, and the gentle reader could do well to consider it.  As stunning a development as it may be, I described the above to use it as a metaphor.  And let me add, for the moron in the gallery who's education has been gained mostly from the theatre of the troll, the metaphor is invoked only in the hopes that the reader might recognized how very, very little some DMs do where it comes to constructing a world.

Very, very little.

Think, for a minute.  You have a child.  You're reading this, so you have access to a computer, you have some conception of growing up in an enlightened culture (sorry to all those living in the developing world, but enlightenment has yet to become your strong suit), so you're able to imagine your infant child growing into an adult with responsibilities much like those you now possess.  Do you, or do you not, have a plan?

You may answer 'yes,' but we have plenty of evidence that many around us refuse to answer the question at all ... because the answer would be most certainly 'no,' and that's considered socially reprehensible.

Of course, it's not socially reprehensible to invite players over to your world, drag out a few books, push papers at them and then offer a plan for your world that's good for one night only.  That's perfectly fine.  In fact, it's vigorously argued in some corners that MORE is the destruction of fun, and therefore socially reprehensible.

Just saying.

That would be a lovely argument, except that it's basically the Sao Paulo gambit where said four-year old (D&D player) strikes out from yon ramshackle hut (border fortress) on an adventure to play let's-find-fresh-water-today (let's hunt orc).  Hey, adventure is adventure ... it's only that your players are fat, with their meaty hands clutching bags of chips and Mountain Dew, while the boy in Sao Paulo's only engorged area is his malnutrition-produced middle.

Look, I could beat the reader over the head with this metaphor for a long time, there's plenty of wear and tear in it (and I might, but it's late in the day).  I'd rather promote the possibility that your world might have a more-than-one-day mentality about what it's offering.  After all, you're blessed with more books than you could ever possibly read, and someone took the time to teach you what to do with them.  Has it on any level occurred to you that books, and the things you describe, involve somewhere along the line someone actually having a PLAN?  One that would take more than a day, an evening or one session to concoct?

No?  Oh well then.

I have to remember I'm arguing against a culture that considers one of the greatest things in the universe to be participation in sport - an activity that requires an enormous amount of preparation for an event that lasts, on average, less than three days (I'm including cricket, which really skews the time element).  From that point of view, a six-hour adventure, imagined, designed and played all in the space of one evening, is a spectacular achievement.  That nearly doubles the attention span of football, baseball, basketball or hockey (not always, yeah, I know, but go with it).  That's a fantastic improvement.  I shouldn't downplay it.

'Course, most of the developing world plays cricket, but ... really, the reader is doing great.  Way to stretch those possibilities.

Six hours.  That really takes a plan.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Perspective from the Floor

In the interest of making a plan, and thus having a purpose to plan for, as suggested in the previous post, suppose we attempt to view the game world from its simplest perspective.

Imagine, if the gentle reader might, that you are seated upon a very large, endless floor, that goes off in every direction without boundaries.  Imagine further that you are about 11 months old, on the cusp between infant and toddler, where you have managed to get up on your feet for a few steps, but that you crawl like the blazes.  Finally, let us grant that you have a little cognitive ability, perhaps a bit more than you reckon an infant has; you can mumble out a few words, you can recognize familiar objects and you have a comprehension of time.

Now, you're not particularly sleepy, and every direction looks precisely the same, so what do you do?  Well, off hand you have some options.  You can first see how far your feet, hands and knees will take you.  Given that using these seems only to present the same horizon as it did when you started, you soon tire of this except in that you're simply enjoying the process of movement.  When that enjoyment runs out, you can sit again, that being comfortable.  Now, next you can spend a little time playing with your fingers on the carpet, making patterns in the pile.  After that, you're reduced to examining the various parts of your body - the ways you fold your legs and arms, the sounds you can make, waving parts of you about, and so on.  Eventually, you'll settle down to a good game of "let's see what's in the diaper," which will take you a while.

In the end, however, if the circumstances don't change, you can holler for attention.  This usually results in your immediate environment changing, and that is a good thing.

Look at that collection of options:  travel, creativity, self-examination, investigation of mystery ... then, finally, a call for help.

Let's step out of the baby's mind, then, and put yourself as you are now in the picture - only, as it happens, you're utterly invisible to the baby.  Of course, you wouldn't normally be, but for our purposes we don't want to get wrapped up in the baby's reaction to you.  Let's say, instead, that you're simply here to place things into the baby's life that are going to matter to the baby.  What can you put there?

First, most obviously, any object at all.  That gives the baby something to walk or crawl towards.  You could give it directly to the baby, but consider how much more involving it would be to place it just inside the baby's cognitive knowledge, maybe twenty feet away.  Far enough away that the baby might start towards it, get tired, lose interest in the object, rediscover it, then start forward again ... only to happily seize the object once having covered the distance.

Now, what is this object?  Is it static, unchanging, or is it like the carpet, with a pile that responds to the baby's actions?  How effective is it in allowing the baby to experiment with it, changing how it is shaped, how well it bounces when thrown, what sound does it make when squeezed and so on.  These are all important elements in how a toy responds when a baby interacts with it ... for good reason.  The sounds interest the baby.  The create memory patterns, so that when the baby sees the object again, the baby remembers not just that it is interesting, but what can be done with it.  Moreover, if it allows lots of experimentation, or is something that takes great skill to manipulate in every way possible, the baby will keep coming back to it for a long time.

We might put out a bunch of objects, to allow the baby to 'choose' depending on the object's color or shape or versatility.  We might stagger the objects in lines, or in circles, so that as the baby moves further out from its starting point, it sees different things.  Perhaps the objects are more interesting and colorful in the outside circles, and less so nearer the baby.  Perhaps you might try the reverse.  What will give the baby the best overall experience?

Let's move on to self-examination.  Let's suppose that as the baby moves something, you laugh and the baby notices.  Or let's suppose that when the baby touches its hands together, you tickle the baby.  Suppose that for each different behavior, you offer some comparison behavior that amuses or rewards the baby, and that on the whole the baby is encouraged to touch its nose or rock on its bottom.

Now let's say that when the baby reaches its hands into its diaper you slap the baby's wrist.  Or say a mean word.  What is the effect of that?  What is the effect of compelling the baby to sit in one place until you're ready to let the baby move?  What happens when you take a toy out of the baby's hands?  The baby doesn't understand why you're doing these things, so if they don't seem to happen for any reason the baby is only going to get unhappy.  The more random you are with your negative actions towards the baby, the less the baby will understand and the more frightened or angry it will become.

Now ask yourself.  What is your world meant to do?  What is your world meant to offer?  How logical or rational are the rules about what people in your world can't do?  How randomly do you apply those rules? How long do your players have to wait before something happens?  How much is there for them to do?  How many choices have you offered?  How interesting are the choices?  And do the players understand why you let some things happen and not others?

Finally, since your players aren't babies ... how often do you give answers to the above questions while forgetting that most salient fact?

Dead Filaments

Earlier this week I was told by a friend that one of the unique qualities of this blog is that it looks at D&D from a perspective very outside the usual echo chamber of the community.  With this I must agree.  Any time I feel - as I do now - that I haven't got anything in particular to write about, the last thing I can count on is picking up a subject somewhere else.

Looking around today, I see a review of the war game Cruel Necessity; a post about Pokemon (for gawd's sake ... still?); an ongoing debate about megadungeons; a discussion about alignment; buying stuff on Craiglist; a post about Toy Fair 2014; a post about D&D's 40th anniversary; cats posing with D&D books (which is just fucking sad); improving your kickstarter; a haiku about a ghoul (complete with original Monster Manual artwork); and - worst of all - more of this fucking Bloghop crap.

I swear, if I had to rely on this for my morning RPG fix, I think I'd kill myself now.  Happily, I don't.  I'm listening to a German professor, Armin Trost, lecture about Human Resource management ... exactly the sort of thing that would make most RPGites bleed out of their ears.  On the other hand, it is actual knowledge; it takes actual effort; and it actually tells me things I did not know previously.  After a certain point, the worst thing about reading blogs is that you come to the end of anything new that might be said - which has already happened for me.

So, when I have to look for something to write about, I can't look at blogs anymore.  That only produces the sort of post that goes, "Hey, wow, look at this really stupid thought this guy has; here's why it's stupid."

People tell me they don't want to see those posts any more.

So ... it's Friday and I need something to write about.  What occurs is the pattern that professors adopt in speaking to students, in which things must be said in the most pedantic way possible in the hopes that someone who doesn't understand the basics of intuitive thought might make the mental leap necessary.  Trost, for example, has a video on his youtube about learning facts by heart and why it fails.  His point is almost painfully obvious; I'm sure it hurts him that he has to make this point every semester.  Because even university students are painfully stupid.  I remember sitting through a lot of speeches like this in classes, thinking, "for the love of christ, just let the fuckers fail."  But then, I suppose there wouldn't be enough marketing managers in the world, would there?

The reality is that students are wallowing and looking for short-cuts to success, something that will allow them to plug in a method that's straightforward and clear, that will let them solve the problem.  People ... and not just young people ... tend to view every difficulty as though there must be a 'trick' that makes it easy.  Call it the Rubik's Cube theorem.  You get the cube, you puzzle over it for a hundred hours, and you fail to solve it.  Then you buy the book, and it gives you a step-by-step instruction, and there, solved.

The world is viewed as though there must be a book somewhere that explains this thing.  Students go at courses with that ideal:  "I'll memorize the material.  I'll write really detailed notes in class.  I'll copy my notes every night.  I'll use highlighters" ... and so on.  The result is a very ordinary student regurgitating just enough information back to the professor to produce a degree, which then fails to impress most people when the gormless ex-student finds they're not actually qualified.  But that's okay, there's lots of call for marketing managers.

D&D, DMing, roleplaying, these things are no different.  The vast majority hunts through the stores looking for the book, the game, the system, the rule, the process, the ideal, the image and what have you that will finally 'bing' like a lightbulb and make everything clear.  The endless parade of articles about alignment, weapon use, skills, characterization, dice and so on are just attempts to piece together R's Cube into some sort of sense, in the hopes that someone will step forward and say, "AHA, the solution is ..." and all will at last be clear.  Plug this into your system and your players will never have trouble with character-play again.

I wouldn't say that game design isn't worthwhile.  Obviously, it is, I do it continuously.  But the approach taken in these blogs is so ... pathetic.  It's learning how to be an artist by getting really good at Litebrite.  Wow, look at you, you were able to create images with a hexagon pattern and lively colors.  Good for you!

The depth of the world is not found in the drawing of a hex map.  You can't capture the complexities of human interaction and potential in an updated graph of the old alignment chart.  There's no intuitive thing to be learned through semantic debates on the meaning  of 'megadungeon.'  It's dead ground, covered thoroughly by people who are now dead, that's pursued in the hope that by rearranging the blocks over and over that a fourth dimensional space is suddenly going to materialize spontaneously.  Because you're convinced that's how solutions are found.  You try every filament possible and wow, you've invented the lightbulb.

The whole problem with that amazingly stupid story about Edison - and every other amazingly stupid story about an inventor who found something by chance - is that it ignores the creation of the actual glass bladder that the filiment was in, and the connection process of that bladder to the power source - the stuff that was actually difficult to produce.  The filament between the rods was already a foregone conclusion by the time anyone realized that it was necessary.  It took much, much longer to understand how the filament would be energized.

Your world is not going to materialize out of thin air.  It is not going to manifest from throwing mudball ideas at a blank wall.  You are going to have a world when you sit and think for a very long time about what your world's purpose is - and one would hope that would be to create a meaningful experience for people other than you.  You need a plan.

And we need more blog posts about plans, and less spontaneous chatter about half-constructed filaments without power to make them glow.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Hm. Disrespect. Interesting.

"No, said the little boy from Thickington. Do you know where Thickington is? It's in Backwardshire twinned with Knucklehead on Dunce. What I'm saying is, you're stupid."

It surprises me that yesterday, in writing about finding one's personal worth in role-playing, I wasn't called on it. "Alexis, you miserable bastard, what is it you're doing except defining your worth through playing D&D?"

Alas, I confess. I gain self-worth from a game.

Except I don't really see it as a game. The other day I was reading this post from Raph Koster, author of A Theory of Fun, designer of the long-ago Ultima Online, in which he blathered on (even geniuses blather) about methods for balancing novices vs. experts in games. It is in moments like this that I feel my age ... for, even though Koster does at least mention the reality in passing (you have to read the post to find it, he's not putting it out there in bold face), I come from an age when, if you couldn't play as well as other people, tough fucking luck.

No, I didn't like it. Not as a kid, anyway. As a kid, it was all being the last to be picked and getting bulldozed by the big guys and all that nonsense - which might have been due to being born just before the cut-off date for my age, meaning that all the other kids in my grade were on average six months and more older than me. Still, we grow up, we get bigger, we stop being clumsy as all hell and we apply ourselves ... and if we find something we're good at, that we're admired for, we appreciate our abilities.

I sometimes wonder, given what I'm hearing about D&D Next now, and the rather ridiculous freakshow 4e turned out to be, and all the harping and crying out that Koster's article suggests is the world of online gaming, if what we have are a LOT of kids who grew up being the last picked for the football team, who have NOT, in fact, developed any admirable talents. Who now, in the shattered remains of their coming of age, only want (in the wonderful Age of Entitlement) to be given the right to compete equally with everyone else, regardless of ability. For the sake of self-worth, understand.

For, if the reader can remember, it was determined by a host of social reformers in the late 70s that the future of universal education would be to impart, beyond question, a tremendous load of self-esteem into the fetid pool of every child's mind, ensuring that they would, forever and ever, feel that their worth was beyond question. This was understood to be a good plan.  I think perhaps it was, particularly for the gaming/escapist industry, that is there to ensure that if you have a sufficient amount of money you've managed to collect with phenomenal IT skilz or the money left behind by dead parents, it's possible to apply all the pent-up rage one has towards ensuring that a) you can become a GOD at video mayhem, or, failing that, b) cash money and loud voices can ensure that every game ever produced be squashed, juiced, swallowed and flatulently dumped again in a manner that will ensure that NO ONE need ever feel inadequate while playing.

Not that long ago, I lost my temper with a player.  I shouldn't have done it.  It was rude, it was abusive, it was an unacceptable breach of the contract between DM and player, and it was entirely because I felt compelled to judge the player's actions and choices.  There's no question it was something I shouldn't have done, and in fact it's something I try hard not to do - have struggled with that bad habit for years now.  Still, you see enough raw stupidity ... well, you're in Dunderhead-on-Dimwash, and there's just so much you can stand.

Being told, from time to time, that we suck at something is good for us.  It's a whole lot better for us than praise ... so long as the people saying so aren't shit worse at what you're doing that you are.  But criticism from someone you can respect; that's gold.

I'd like to be respected.  I get messages on line that say I am.  I sometimes wish, however, that I could be disrespected ... which would, unfortunately, need to be based on something better than the occasional typo I make, or my perceived pretentiousness, in order to mean something.

Bah.  I just haven't had a reason to change my mind lately.

I do get my self-worth from D&D, though.  I think I understand the game.  I think I do good work in design.  I like how it fits together and how it looks when I'm finished.  Makes me proud.  Even if 'pride' is one of the seven deadly sins.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Transference & the Need for Help

A couple of weeks ago I made an off-handed comment about how playing the game in order to obtain self-worth might be the central evil in all role-playing games, and I meant to address that. Then I saw this description on an Enworld thread about D&D Next defining fun:

"Of the six people I routinely play with, one of them gets discouraged when he feels like his character is not making much of a difference in an encounter.

"Part of that problem is right now the game is a form of escapism from a difficult time for this player. He works all day on a hard newer job, he has few friends near where he lives (which he moved to relatively recently, away from his lifelong friends), and then in the evenings he is taking care of a newborn who is fussy lately. Taking care of a newborn in the best of times is difficult, and it's even more so when they're teething or sick. Bottom line, his life is a bit rough and he uses D&D online with his friends as a form of brief escapism, playing the role of this hero doing good and making things happen in a fantasy world.

"So in those brief breaks when he gets to play and engage in that escapism, he wants to feel like he's making a meaningful impact on what's going on. If he's going to escape into the role of a hero doing good - he wants his hero to be heroic and actually doing the good.

"So if he just wiffs multiple times in a row, or if his character is paralyzed for an entire battle, I can hear him getting discouraged. To him, the little time he had to try and escape into the fantasy of the game left him as frustrated as real life.

"That issue wasn't as prominent for that player when we were playing live, and he didn't have a newborn. But right now, it's having an impact. So it might be in his best interest to play a character that is more likely to have an impact on the encounter throughout the encounter. Even if that means his average damage goes down, or his defense goes down, I think he'd be happier if he felt like his character was "doing something" every round."

Now I think this puts things in perspective. Just how do you handle this guy in your world? He's a friend, right? And you have empathy, because you're not a complete bastard ... right? Still, there's that whole thing about the game only being 'helpful' when the dice goes his way. That is not something that can be ignored when he's suddenly standing, screaming at his dice, channelling all the awful reality of his world into the fact that he's just rolled a 7 and not a 17.

For a moment, I want the gentle reader to consider how the real world deals with this problem. I've worked in a few fairly rough bars, the sort that keep bouncers on staff, and I can tell you with certainty that there are more than a few people who go to clubs "as a form of brief escapism," only to discover that after a lot of alcohol mixed with misery, it only takes on odd comment from a fellow squeezing his way past towards the washroom for things to quickly get out of hand. Next thing, the bouncers are all over the guy, and they're not asking about his wife or his teething baby or all the hard times that's brought that fellow there on that particular night. Comes a point where your behavior passes 'excusable,' and the world is set to deal with that forthrightly.

Or consider, if the reader might, the literally thousands of persons who are, even now, attempting to manage their misery with other games of chance, specifically those played in Vegas or Atlantic City, trying to ease their suffering and the memory of their teething baby by making six the hard way. Or dropping dollar after dollar into video lottery terminals, unceasingly, because THAT is their particular way of assauging all that suffering they must endure the other 96 conscious hours of their week. As before, there are staff to handle the problems that arise when inevitably some gambler 'wiffs' multiple times in a row, only to start screaming at the environment all around that REFUSES to bend its will for the sake of a fellow who's life just isn't going well.

Here we are, then, back at the gaming table, and you and your friends are looking at each other while Clarence is shouting, "For fuck's sake, I just want to fucking hit something!" None of you wants to step forward and say, "Hey, pal, calm yourself. It's only a game." No one wants to, because we know that for Clarence, tonight, it is NOT a game. It is Clarence's entire sense of self-worth in this moment, and Clarence doesn't feel much of that because a little plastic object hasn't complied with what he needs. Dice, it must be said, are not as dependable as heroin.

Easier to quit them, though. No one talks about riding the 20-sided horse.

I do feel for Clarence, and for all the people out there turning to something other than their problems in order to forget their problems. There's the fellow in the beer league who takes pleasure in running down the short-stop because its his chance to get back at the world; or those who are stealing off store shelves in order to 'get even' with the world, redistributing the wealth in their favor; and, as ever, the old man yelling at kids to get off his lawn. We're a culture of people transferring their issues from issue management to issue avoidance, and the D&D table is no different there.

The reality is that you have to stop the game. You have to say to Clarence, "Hey, guy, let's talk about it." And if he doesn't want to talk, you have to make it clear that he needs to deal with his problem directly, and not through winning against a bunch of imaginary enemies. Close the game, take Clarence to a nearby bar (where the professionals can handle him if he gets troublesome), and ply him with good food and good company to express himself. Get him on the road to recovery. Don't be stupid and try to help him kill orcs. Don't overlook it as though the problem will solve itself. He has bigger problems than the role-playing game he's showed up for ... and you have to make him understand that.

Then, when he's ready to play the game for the sake of the game, and not what the game says about his value, he can come back. In the meantime, he needs to get some help. He really does.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Auto Pilot

An excerpt from the book, How to Run: An Advanced Guide to Managing Role-playing Games, 2nd Draft.

"Mastering roleplay is hard. At the beginning of any given session, my first task is to bring the players up to speed about what was going on before. Players will tend to challenge my memory or notes, so right off there’s often discord to settle. Once we begin, I’m anxious to stir up the player’s emotions, for I want them to re-invest to the level where they were a week, two weeks, or even a month ago. Within minutes I’m driving the game with new descriptions—and these have to be tailored, because different players will hear, or want to hear, different things. I need to stress certain things for certain players. Now I’m asking for responses from them. I need them to speak clearly, and to keep the pace, to answer quickly—too much hesitation, and the game drags. Yet I can’t browbeat them, I must urge them considerately and with empathy. At the same time, I’m fielding questions. They’re coming four a minute or faster, from all around me, on wildly different topics—and since I remember some rules imperfectly, I have to look them up. This must be done in ten or fifteen seconds, however, or the players who aren’t doing anything will start to drift. That means, while I’m looking up the rule, and giving a judgement, I’m also encouraging the players to act in some way, to keep their minds on the game. My mind is rushing too, thinking about what comes next over the next few rounds … and after that. As I push the found rule at the player, I’m half listening to the hushed conversation that’s started between two others on my right. But I’m ready to move on, so I get actions from the players, making a tour around the table—and once that’s done, I’m dropping more description on them. All the while, I’m assessing the players … I’m keeping the communication between them and me as fluid as possible. I’m layering four or five details in my head for when they’ll come into the party’s knowledge, such as what’s about to burst through the door or what the object is that the enemy in the back is carrying — even that a non-player character has some twist in their personality that's bound to come out that night. To keep continuity, these things have to ‘fit’ with the action. In fact, on some deeper level, I’m reviewing the whole rest of the session, in the off chance that something I’d planned won’t work now. I’m picking dice from the table and rolling, relaying the results, all the while mindful that a bad roll could have serious emotional effects on one of the players. I may be interrupted at any moment by a player’s death or near-death. Yet continuously, steadily, I’m pushing the party, pumping up the excitement and visceral temperament of the room.

"I am busy … and this relentless condition will continue for as long as I’m running—unless I let the party cool down. Yet that would undermine my game’s tension.

"Mastering a game is stressful.

"Apart from all that is the actual game, there are distractions from players making jokes, obtaining or eating food and drink, arguing with one another over details having little to do with play and other assorted things. I have scant time to notice, unless these things begin to press upon the game or my attention.

"My priority is to gather data. I am concentrating on what I am learning from the players and from the dice, in order to apply the information in a rapid and meaningful way. Each interpretation I make can be measured in seconds—and most often, less than a second. I’m using the information to make predictions about the immediate future—what the player might do, what words I will use when the die roll goes this way or that, or what a player will need to be told once the result happens. These are predictions I am not aware I am making. There’s no time to think, “I will make a prediction about that die roll.” The information is coming too fast for that. Asking a player to make a roll, my mind is already made up regarding it’s possible results. Once I’ve heard or seen the roll, I’m already primed to give the accurate, die-determined answer. By then, I’m not invested; my mind has moved on.

"I am able to do this because I have trained myself through experience to respond categorically—that is, in the manner I have in the past—according to the information I’m receiving now. I only have to pause and think when I’ve heard something extraordinary ... which might happen only six or seven times in an hour. This is not to say that I fit all gameplay into a tiny box; rather, I’m the result of thousands of hours of play, having seen and retained a wide effective memory for patterns.

"Remember that I’m not aware that I am doing this. This is an unconscious process. I’m seeing things happen, I’m reacting to those things, but most everything that I’m doing is habit and instinct, acquired and corrected by experience."

Context withheld.

Friday, February 14, 2014

The Why of Maps

So, why AM I mapping parts of my world that are totally obscure, anyway? I mean, what for? How does it make any sense? The party is likely to NEVER go out there. In the past I've made a point or two about needing to map trade routes to know distances, and sure maybe that has uses, but a lot of these maps are so gone and out there, they don't have trade routes. So what's this all about?

I just love maps. I started making a map of Russia around the end of 2004, first with 10-mile hexes and then when I decided that was a bit narrow, I moved to 20-mile. The 20-mile hex has always been a bit of a standard in D&D, going back, and its not a bad size to build from. The place I started with was Voronezh, because I was starting a campaign with low level characters and I wanted to be sure they couldn't travel off the edge of what I'd drawn ... and one way to slow them down was to not offer any sea-travel. Voronezh is a long way inland, so I figured I'd have time to add maps before the campaign seriously began to move outwards in whatever direction the party chose.

At first I moved in a circle, and as I did, I began adding adjacent areas. Mostly it was Russia, for a long time, but Russia is stupid massive and I still haven't finished it. I could have, I have most of the research prepared for it, but the party wasn't interested in exploring Siberia so I began working on Lithuania/White Russia, then the Baltic, then down through Greece and Turkey. The party at the time decided they wanted to go to China, so I began working on the Caspian Sea, which meant Iran as well, then Afghanistan and since my maps had Afghanistan and Pakistan on the same page, I did Pakistan too. I was thinking about beginning work on western China, so I did all of Russian Turkmenistan (Kazakh, Uzbek, Tadzhik and Kirghizia) first - and then the party changed its mind and went back to Europe.

So ... I started on Germany, which took a REALLY long time. And then 2009 came, and the recession killed all my journalist jobs, leaving me unemployed for almost a year (on the dole), and around that time I just sort of kicked around Siberia, doing the areas that I've been covering in the Work blog this past week. Then, life improved and I got over my depression and got a job and finished Italy in 2011 and France in 2012. Oh, I also did all of India somewhere in there. Most lately, I've been working on northern Africa, and posted some of those maps last fall.

Why? Because its just fun. D&D is an excuse to do something I like. And doing something I like has rewards. I meet people from all over, and it just freaks them out when I know where Biskra is, or Gilgit, or Vasa. I'd be having a great time if I were in Sochi right now ... or as my world calls it, nothing at all, because Sochi wasn't founded until 1838. That's way after my world exists.

Ah, well. I have more work on maps to do.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Cooperative Improv

Occasionally, someone on the blog here has read something I've written and said, "Hey, that would be a good topic to cover in the book." And it would be, except that I've just covered it here, and that I did that because I did not want the book to include it.

Realistically, the book cannot cover everything. I would still be writing it in 2017 and the thing would be the size of the Monster in Spaulding Gray's Monster in a Box. That's impractical, and so from time to time I've had to accept that certain things aren't going to make the cut.

One of those things I'm not going to include would have been ripped from Malcolm Gladwell's book Blink, where Chapter Four included a section on improvisational comedy and upon at least one rule that governs it, that which is called the single most important rule of improv: "Say Yes - and!" The wording has been ascribed to David Alger of the San Francisco Pan Theater, who seems to have no real background on the web ... but it is the world of improv, so yeah, underground.

A brief explanation of the improv rule would be that whatever one performer says on the stage, no matter how loony, the correct answer is "yes, and ..." which agrees with the premise. To steal Gladwell's example, if one performer says, acting as a doctor, "The leg has to come off," the correct answer is, "Alright. Should we take it off right now?" The correct answer isn't, "I'd rather not; I'm quite attached to it."

The reason for this is because the negative answer ends the scene. There's really nowhere to go except the doctor and patient arguing about whether the leg should come off, which isn't funny and is, in fact, dull. Alternatively, if both performers agree that the leg should come off, there's opportunity to discuss by what method, for what silly reasons and of course all the physical comedy that might come from trying it on stage. In effect, a negative response creates two performers who are at odds, while a positive response creates two performers who are cooperating. And cooperation is essential to both comedy and innovation.

The application of this to role-playing should be obvious. One D&D player makes an assertion or suggestion, and where the response is negative, both players are stymied and the game doesn't move ahead. If, on the other hand, the suggestion is approved, action moves forward and the players are working together towards a goal.

The difficulty lies, of course, in the question of who gets to make the initial assertion, and who HAS to go along with it.

In improvisational comedy, this isn't an issue. No one cares what the performance is, or where it goes, because the purpose is to please the audience, who is outside the construct. As long as the audience is pleased, and therefore laughing and applauding, the performers aren't concerned with who's idea it was, or where it goes, or who ends up looking like an idiot in the end. All the performers recognize that at any given moment, any of them might have to jump in with "yes, and..." in order to make the process flow. Who did what right now, or who's idea it is, is irrelevant. The whole troupe gets the credit because the troupe are all part of the process.

The concern of the D&D player is that they may never get to be the initiator who makes the assertion, but that they will always find themselves being the lackey that has to go along with it. Which produces competition between the players, as to whose assertions have been obeyed how many times, and "what was the last time we did something I wanted," and so on. The competitive reaction builds over multiple sessions until the whole is brought to a crashing halt by one negative assertion too many.

None of this, of course, exempts the Dungeon Master. More than anyone at the table, the DM must be the one that says, "yes, and ..." The players are driving the game, and are the primary performers and initiators in that game. This is not to say the DM does not initiate; obviously the DM does, and quite a lot. Only there is less justification for the DM to insist that the players answer "yes, and ..." than there is for the DM to do so. If the players refuse, it only puts the onus on the DM to initiate something else; and the DM should have lots of possible assertions in his or her bucket that permits that. On the other hand, if the DM is negatively responding to the player's assertion, then there will be conflict and problems that are going to be difficult to resolve. The players will feel pushed, ridden, constrained and otherwise not permitted to run their characters.

So the pattern should run more or less like this. The DM should produce at the outset of an adventure (or a break in the action) an assertion that the players are more than willing to respond, "Yes, and ..." followed by, "We'll go to the inn/castle/far off place and get/destroy/investigate the thing/creature/unexplained occurrence." The players then state how they're going to do that, how they're going to supply themselves and when they're going to be off, and the DM replies, "yes, yes, yes, yes ... and, and, and, and ..." throughout this process. Eventually the players set off and as the various instances come up, the DM gives information and the players reply and on the whole, the process is cooperative with both sides working jointly towards the ultimate solution, creating and resolving the given situation.

If this were all there was to the process, then we'd be fine and could simply play according to those rules and the games would be better for it. However ...

The DM cannot be entirely acquiescent to everything that goes on. In improvisation, the audience's disapproval for what goes on stage is made evident in a lack of applause and moody silence. A participant in a company troupe that consistently insists upon the limelight, pushing aside other performers, playing up their own importance and deliberately showboating, will be dismissed. If he or she is not, because they are among those of bad temperament who also happen to be talented, then other performers will become unhappy and they will leave. Off-stage, the social interaction between members of the troupe will be something like that presented in The Commitments, a brilliant example of how people who truly, fundamentally hate each other can still get together and perform splendidly.

This is not the sort of interaction that's wanted at the gaming table, even if it 'works.' Nobody who is playing should be put into a position where they are feeling any resentment, whatever the reason. If resentment has begun to gather, something at the DM's table has gone seriously wrong, and it should be nipped in the bud.

The key is the improvisational theatre's policy that what is happening is focused on this moment, and not through racking up the number of instances in the past that Bob has done this so many times and Jimmy has participated in that on occasions 1, 2 and 3. It is what I said about no one caring about who looks like an idiot right now. In the long term, Bob will have his turn to be the dupe, and then Jimmy, Amy, Margaret, Jerome and Stacey will each find themselves in that position. No one is special. No one draws a line in the sand where they say, "I won't do that" ... because that's going to produce a negative response and that response is death in improv.

It's death in role-play, too. Roles are fun to play, they build excitement and produce humor, they're interactive and they allow us to step outside of our ordinary behavior and be another person. But roles are, and must be, a convenience. They cannot be a fixed, immutable element in the game. That is because the role's immutable quality will always produce the inevitable response, "No, I can't do that," and then the party and DM are at odds. Cooperation is struck dead and play comes to a halt.

Games, and all social activities, are pleasant when they are cooperative. Remove the cooperation and all you have is a reason not to play.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014


I'm going to be pushing the work blog for awhile, since I'm adjusting to posting work there rather than here. I haven't got an opinion in my head to write about today - been working hard at the book this week, mostly on stress levels as they pertain to Dungeon Mastering - so my mental state is elsewhere. Something might occur to me. In the meanwhile, the link connects to some information about my mapmaking process.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Extra ... Credit Rating

There's no question that there's something fundamentally wrong with me ... particularly in that if something is moderately popular, I tend to find it distasteful. At the same time, if something is insanely popular, and the artistic/liberal/intellectual community says I should hate it ... I tend to the contrary. Thus I like Miley Cyrus, though of course everyone screams that I shouldn't, despite her naked ball vid hitting half a billion pageviews ... and I despise, truly despise, Extra Credits.

Now why? It's created by four perfectly reasonable artists, one game designer and one narrator, who never meant any harm to anyone and who have clearly worked diligently and with effort to produce more than 180 short videos about games, the gaming community, politics, social theory as it pertains to gaming and the game industry. They make reasonable requests and stand up for reasonable expectations and supply reasonable advice for people with reasonable needs. How can I possibly fault them.

I really can't. But fuck, do I hate these guys.

It isn't that they're going after me or my way of thinking. I watched the one they did on toxicity, and on the whole I agree that trash talk and abuse without purpose or as a means to 'win' is wrong. I've watched the harrassment episode and yes, there's no question there's a problem and that doing something about it would be a good thing.

So what is it?

Well, two things really. The first is that, particularly at the beginning of their videos, there is a palpable need, conveyed in tone and image, that I should somehow like them. A lot. "Look, aren't we groovy," is sort of the feel I get, which is a lot like those do-gooders on campus who decide that the best way to sell their agenda is to have a big barbecue and Bermuda shorts party just before getting up on a platform and screeching about all the shit you don't care about, and wouldn't be there to hear if you hadn't been sucked in by the stuff you do like. So yes, there's that.

The other side of it is that the particular brand of 'help' they offer sounds an awful lot like corporatism. Take that harrassment video linked above. The first 'solution' they offer is to use the metrics that corporations are compiling about our personal habits and 'use them positively' to help us as a culture. Won't it be wonderful when corporations know more about us so that this information can be used to positively control us for the good of society? Of course it will.

Automuting will be so good for the gaming community, since after all it will 'tag' a percentage of the population with what amounts to a justifiable reason to hate them ... which always works out well, doesn't it? And of course, basing a definition of 'negative message' upon a majority vote ... nope, nothing wrong with that system.

Now this one is nice - what if communication tools have to be 'earned?' the video asks. Why, it's right and proper that you have to PAY more for services that ought to be free. In fact, if the pay service still isn't ending the harassment, the solution is obvious - you're just not paying enough, that's all. Eventually, we'll hit that sweet spot, that price you'll pay to get rid of the harrassment, that doesn't bankrupt you. $500 a month sound good?

Nope, not corporatism at all.

Finally, yes, what we really need is PEER politics keeping you safe and secure in your comfort bubble. PEER influence and PEER structure worked so well in high school. There's no better way to ensure life in a free, open, unmolested community that being respected by one's peers and having one's peers respect you. That is a clear path to solving all human interactive politics. Obviously.

Okay. My teeth are grinding now. You all have a nice day.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Tao's Work

On the principal that as more people dislike me, it is clearly the time to provide more me to be hated, I've decided to launch another, less interesting blog. It can be found at this location, under the title Tao's Work. It will be less chatter that this blog, and include a lot of rough work in progress.

I'm not entirely happy with the color scheme at the moment, but heck ... it's an ongoing process.


Just a small video.  Huzzah - wrote 2,000+ words on the book today.  It's been a marvelous day.


Why can't I leave random dungeon generation alone?

Since I first saw those frustrating and yet tantilizing tables in the Dungeon Master's Guide all those years ago, I have pursued the idea like a Holy Grail, with about as much success. I have rebuilt the original tables, I have tried versions of my own, I have spent hundreds of hours conjecturing and rethinking the premise, and in all this time I have concocted exactly nothing of use.

I have tried giving up the idea, too. But here I am, this past weekend, thinking about it again.

There is an inherent promise in random generation. It suggests a crutch that a DM can lean upon from time to time, near the end of a session when the party has moved through planned things a little faster than expected, and something is needed on the fly. The habit of human thought is to give the same things over and over, and a random table will sometimes break that habit - which makes it a good thing.

There's also something about random dungeon generation that promises, well, that I might be able to play a bit, 'against the house' as it were. My partner Tamara has said she'd like to play with me instead of my being the DM all the time. Just her and I, you understand; and it seems like 'RDG' would be a good way of accomplishing that. Just a bit of dungeon crawling, nothing too deep, a light game without much depth but with fighting and treasure.

But every generator seems to be, well, shit.

The problem with the one in the DMG, and the problem with most every generator I've ever seen, is that it seems bent on creating 'white space.' Just a lot of useless, boring, empty hallways and rooms. What is the value in a room being 'empty'?

Oh, I know. The argument has been, forever, that empty rooms provide 'tension.' The party gets all worked up, they open the door and - nothing! OMG, we were so worried there for a moment. Okay, no problem, search the room, move forward to the door and get worked up - and nothing! Again! Wow, feel the tension. Okay, no problem, search the room, move forward ... look, it's a door. Oh, fuck it, why bother getting worked up. Just open the door. Oh no! Orcs!


I have heard this scheme pitched for about ten thousand years now and guess what - my parties are not a) so stupid that they can't just make up a checklist that they hold up whenever the come to a door; and b) so stupid that they think this is clever. It isn't clever. It is BAD serial-writing from the 1930s, reprocessed as role-gaming by guys who thought digital watches were a pretty neat idea. Here we are, decades later, and this is still a thing? No it's not. White space in a dungeon is BORING. It is never anything except BORING.

The other problem, however, is that if you remove the white space from a dungeon generator, you get ... well, a bunch of absurdly connected rooms without sense or logic occupied by a strictly random set of monsters.

My personal experience is that dungeons work best when each 'level' or spreading section has one to three monsters in it. Typically, the main creature plus a supporting creature (goblins with wolves, a wizard with thirty pet owlbears, that sort of thing), and then some sort of vermin for the quiet corners, like spiders, rats, snakes, oozes, etc. This is then separated from the next section by a secret door, a cavern chimney that's difficult to navigate (thus logically keeping the sections separate from one another) or some sort of installed block/barrier where the upper creatures are trying to keep the lower creatures from invading them. This the party can then destroy, break through, move through ten minutes of white space thereafter and get back into the juicy death zone that's actually interesting.

And random generators NEVER, ever, make dungeons this way.

I've never seen one that does, anyway. And while I have recognized for years that a generator would have to create this sort of thing, I haven't ever figured out how to do it.

But ... I probably will go on wasting my time trying. Because, well, it still sounds like a good idea. Unfortunately.

Friday, February 7, 2014


Yesterday I got some personal email as well as comments on the post about 'dicks' yesterday. And I must admit it was all well meaning. And I do appreciate it when people say that at heart, people are good, or at heart, people don't know that they're being abusive and it really only needs to be explained to them.

Only, my experience doesn't bear that up.

For this argument, "Some times, people just don't know that they're doing it", to work, someone's going to have to explain why this happens. And in case the reader thinks this only happens with children, they're going to have to explain this. And this. And the premise behind this, which celebrates it. Oh, and also this. And, always, this bunch of fucks.

People don't know? Horseshit. People know. It's only that we have nothing but their word, and our willingness to believe, to tell if they do or don't. And people lie. They lie all the time.

Yeah. These guys have no idea they're doing anything odd. And the asshole laughing ... he's a really great guy.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

But Sadly, Can't Be Fixed

Zooggy and I are chattering back and forth on this post about internal party railroading - which I continue to contend needs another name, but I'll let Zooggy define it in part:

"... When I talk about railroading, I'm talking about forced decision making, not necessarily specifying the subsequent events. From that, it should be easy to conceive of a party railroading a player. (As an example, another highly touted DM technique, illusionism, i.e. the art of putting the prepped encounter under the party's feet, regardless of what they decide to do, as if it had always been there, is also a form of forced decision making. The only difference is that illusionism is covert, whereas railroading is overt)"

There is more comment, and more writing in general on the subject, so I recommend reading all that Zooggy has to write on the subject.

One thing about situations like the above, and the whole range of what Zooggy calls railroading, "illusionism" and "Nurembergism," is that while we like to talk about these things, and refer to bad examples we've encountered, at some point the conversation begins to boil down to something like, "Hey, did you know there are bad people in the world?"

Just now I'm writing a section of my advanced role-play book about the importance of having authority at the table in order to properly run a game in which setting limits on the players will often make players unhappy. And the temptation is to put down a whole section which would amount to nothing more than, "Hey, stop being a dick."

The problem is, people are. And they're not likely to stop when asked. The case above, of the one fellow at the table who is everyone's bitch boy, including the DM's I presume, is a case in point. Here we clearly have a situation where one individual is lacking in self-respect, and a host of other individuals are lacking in personal responsibility. No matter what the game is, the only resolution is going to be the one individual taking steps to stop being exploited, and a series of bad events happening to the others that cause them to re-evaluate their moral compass.

The only question I feel needs to be answered here is this - is such behavior individualistic, or is it systemic? Is there something inherent about roleplaying games that offers entitlement to people who just want to be dicks?

Allow me an example. Not all that long ago, I was playing a regular game of ball hockey in a local gymnasium with about a dozen friends (plus a few joiners who would show up inconsistently). These were friendly games, with no fixed teams, with talented girls and untalented guys that played along together with the reverse. There was no strong sense of competition or counting of points (which would have run something like 45 to 40 for most of the games we played. There were some incidents, including some involving me, as I tend to get too aggressive when my blood is up, but apologies were made and on the whole, these were good games.

One fellow was clearly a far better player that the rest of us. He was in his late twenties, had played in some decent amateur leagues at the peak of his youth and had spectacular puck/ball handling skills. He was the sort of fellow who, when I used to play defense in hockey, I would have knocked off his ass because there was little chance of taking the puck from him. But we were meaning to play with light contact, so his play was undeniably devastating - coupled with deadly aim when firing at the net. It wasn't until my son-in-law began playing (he plays competitive hockey too) that a balance was established; my son-in-law is a goalie.

Now this fellow - we'll call him Dave - could play in a friendly, easy going manner, or he could be a dick, depending on the night. When he was a dick, he would deliberately 'play' with others, handling the ball and doing nothing with it except to show off, until it took three or four people to take it away from him nicely. (Like I say, there's a way to deal with that sort of shit unnicely). It was an unfortunate thing, particularly as Dave liked to be smug about it, and slip into that old jock patter like, "Oh, you want this? Come and get it then. Whoops! Wow, you don't want this very much, do you?" And so on.

In sports, there are children who quickly recognize they're better at the game than others, and who use that to press their 'superiority.' It's only natural, and within reason it's not that hard to overlook. And Dave was a decent fellow most of the time, so we took it goodnaturedly.

Dave had friends, however, who were also of the 'jock' variety. And as things always do, the ball hockey nights began to change as more and more of Dave's friends began to show up to games. Certain things were noticed. Suddenly the girls were frozen out - Dave's friends ignored them, refused to pass to them, or ganged up and shoved the girls off the floor. And naturally I, in my forties, wasn't exactly embraced by these twenty-something guys ... hell, I just can't keep up any more. That's a fact. It wasn't long before there were twenty people coming around to ball hockey nights, with a court not big enough to let us all play all the time, and a lot of us who had been there from the beginning were watching the game and not playing it.


So, is being a dick systemic in sports, or not? On the one hand, it's really easy to argue that it IS. Virtually everyone who isn't a star athelete can recall experiences like the one above, where a good game was ruined by an assorted group of guys (I've never seen this with women, but presumedly it happens) who are just assholes, plain and simple. At the same time, though, virtually everyone can remember playing sports where that doesn't happen. Everyone is mature, no one is particularly better than everyone else, the reason for people being there seems to be less competitive and so on. It's possible to play sports without dicks. On that basis, its fair to argue that dickishness is NOT inherent in sports play. It's just really, really common.

No, the situation is really not helped by high school football coaches, or patterns of behavior supported in university competition, or the money involved in national sports that encourages parents to freak out at games when their four-year-old is tripped by another four-year-old. It is really easy to see how the climate surrounding sports, in which children grow up, does absolutely nothing towards encouraging decent, respectful play. There is a meaningful number of dicks who do not play, but radically influence the game. And not only in this culture. The condition is so pervasive among virtually all peoples in the world that again we have to ask, what is it about sport that produces dicks?

Then again, people just are.

The whole dick thing is not limited to sport. It exists in business, art, parental abuse of children ... heck, even in the realm of paleontological science. People are fucking nasty. There's no getting away from it.

Are people who play D&D worthy of being hit - and soon - by a truck? Oh yes. Many would point to me where this is concerned, yes? Of course yes. There's nothing wrong with the role-play game, or the game structure, and there is only a passing usefulness in recording the number of instances where this shit goes on. I shout on this blog to stop it; to boot players who participate in it; and to recognize that it goes on, and that fingers should be pointed when it is seen. But I don't think that any of the actual assholes who read this blog are going to change their behavior. The best we can do is isolate them. Isolate them, tag and bag them, and try and help the next generation to see what the shit they did that they shouldn't have done.

It's the only strategy we have.

P.S. Are you following the combat on the other blog?

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Me. I Want It.

It was -27 C when I came to work this morning (-17 F for those of you still living in the 19th century), the sort of morning where the stillness of the air only improves one's awareness of the skin tightening as the outer surface freezes. On a day like this, packed into three layers of clothing, hands in gloves and stuffed into pockets, snow crunching underneath and beneath the snow the thin sheen of ice left over from the warm day last week, so that one's feet might fly out at any moment, I find myself wondering about D&D games that always seem to take place in sunny California.

Admittedly, from time to time I have waxed on about the importance of weather and its influence on real life. In the game, of course, weather is an inconvenience. Weather gets in the way of fighting, of travelling, of getting safely back to town and so on. Who needs that, right? Generally, not players. And that's understandable. If I could have the real world go my way, it would never be freaking -27 on a day I had to go outside.

Not that -27 is particularly cold. I remember working outside in -45 ... which is pretty close to the same number in Fahrenheit. I'm Canadian, though. We're constructed differently. Takes more than 2 inches to shut the whole fucking city down (looking at you, Atlanta).

So yes, players would rather not put up with the weather. And since the weather is a hassle to construct, and a hassle to generate even if you have a generator, and the exact results of the weather are non-specific, it all seems like a lot of effort for not payback. It's not like the players are ever going to gain experience for dealing with the weather, so screw it. Let's concentrate on things that matter.

Maybe it's because I'm Canadian. Maybe it's because every winter I think, it must have been nuts having to deal with all this when people did not have central heating, insulated transport and modern winter clothing/boots. There must have been a bloody miserable four-month period in the lives of Europeans where one just did not get warm. Even by the fire, one could only warm one side at a time.

So the thought keeps coming back to me ... make the weather more important. Make is so damn important that one nice day, without wind or rain or dust storms, without lightning and thunder and spontaneous tornadoes, causes the party to go, "Thank you. Thank you, thank you, thank you."

My poor online party. They've just gone through a winter that took something like 14 months of real time on the blog to play, and only now it is plainly becoming summer (it's May in Paphlagonia for them). But I haven't heard anyone say yet, "Thank god that winter is over." (perhaps they're bitterly resenting my implementation of weather and they're too polite to say).

Most temperate cultures very definitely had celebrations for specifically this. The cold weather is gone. We can lie in the sun and be warm. No more late night trips out in the snow and the rain to pee. Hooray!

I want that response. I want a party to shout when the weather is warm. It just ... feels like that's how it should be.

I know, I know, I know ... I'm crazy. What I really want to do is make weather much more affecting of the game. Where certain temperatures mean rolls for colds and other maladies. Where players risk losing toes and therefore dexterity if caught out in winter. Where rainstorms reduce combat effectiveness. Where everyone's hit points are reduced 10% on overcast, miserable days, and only amount to their full capacity when it's sunny. That night produces a lower wisdom, and so does fog. Where the party awakes to find their metal tools and weapons covered in rime, or just stone cold, and virtually unusable in combat because the pommels are too damn cold. I want more and more of this shit, and I'm absolutely certain I'm the only one.

The worst part is that every idea I have about the weather is perfectly justifiable. We are none of us as effective on a spiritless, gray-clouded day as we are when the sun is shining and a fresh wind is blowing. It cannot be denied that this must have been TEN TIMES more meaningful to someone living in a world where a gray day was truly gray. If weather is an annoyance to us, what must it have been to cultures without all these distractions and proofs against it? Why shouldn't the temperature or the look of the day diminish one's capacity to face it?

Yes, okay, no one wants that. No one.


Top Down

My personal feeling is that I'm getting better at this.

About three years ago, particularly with the online campaign, I decided to begin drawing creatures from a top-down view for the combat sequences I was running in my online and offline games. Up until then I had mostly used abstract figures ... but I felt it would add more feel if I actually improved my ability to draw. I am, unfortunately, no artist; I can't render perspective at all, and I have trouble conceiving the shape of something as it would look from the top-down from a front-picture. For example, the fly above was meant to be an ankhkeg. Frankly, I can't make my mind image an ankhkeg from the top by virtue of images I've seen - and really, I have no idea where the wings come from. Look good though, ya?

My only point is that with practice, things get better. There aren't a lot of top down images on the web, nor do they look any better than the above image. Role-gamers do not use computers. I wish there was a top-down image for every creature ... but one of the benefits to making them myself on the Publisher program I use is that I can make them transparent. That has game benefits.

Anyway, if you're out there, and you have nothing better to do than paint miniatures, try a top down image of something on the computer imaging program of your choice. See how good you are at it.


I just wanted to add in this bit, as I'm reading this description of an artist working. One thing I have found about drawing my own images ... the curving line tool is easier to use, more forgiving and much more adjustable, but if I use the freehand, squiggly tool to make something, the resulting image is scarier. Compare the wings of the fly above (drawn with the curve tool) to the line of its body or its legs (drawn with the freehand tool).

The useful images Ozzie linked to in the comments field are very nice, but those with lines that are smooth lack a certain ... distinctiveness.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The Door Is There

In the interest of providing myself background noise, I've been working through a series of course lectures delivered by Dr. George Phillies of the Worcester Polytechnic Institute on Game Design. The gentle reader can find the series of lectures beginning here. For those not yet familiar with University lectures (there are young people who read this blog) or those who simply never attended, please take note of the total lack of patience Phillies has for persons who are not serious about learning. In fact, he's really a prick about it, but only because he has to be. It's hard to imagine that students who pay tens of thousands of dollars to attend classes can't get their heads out of their collected asses, but Phillies pre-judgements clearly indicate that being a total prick up front is a necessary part of being a lecturer. For those who want to get straight into the material, I suggest jumping forward to the second lecture.

I know that I have changed considerably since university ... but lectures like these that one can find online really make that clear to me. Whereas once the ending of a 50-minute lecture would have meant relief and a chance to rest my mind, now I think, "What, that's all?" ... and immediately plow into the next recorded lecture without a moment's hesitation.

(Incidentally, Phillies apparently knew Mr. Gygax, and has a few comments to say about the creation of D&D here and there in various lectures. If you're patient, you'll stumble over them).

Anyway, I've been meaning to pick up a topic he covered in lecture four, that of 'Eurogames' or German-style board games. This would include recently popular games (recent to me, I'm fifty, and the year 2004 still seems like last week) such as The Settlers of Catan, Carcasonne, Puerto Rico and so on. Starting about 43:00 on the 4th lecture link, Phillies discusses the 'shape' of these games. They're designed according to various constraints, which Phillies describes as coming from the way Germans raise children. Games are played in the evenings, after homework is completed, by the whole family. Therefore it is necessary that the game END prior to the time when the children must go to bed (limit of about two hours). The rules have to be simple enough that the grandparents can understand. Everyone has to be playing for the WHOLE game. No one can be eliminated as part of the game rules. The game has to have a relevance to child raising - the game must be in some way 'important.' And, as Phillies points out, part of the restraint also was no warfare. This was very much a consideration for older persons in the family who personally remembered the destructiveness and suffering of WW2. Finally, it needs to 'look pretty,' as it needs to appeal to children that are five to seven years old.

I confess, I have only played one game of Settlers of Catan in my life. I didn't particularly like it, primarily because I make decisions quickly (even if they are wrong decisions) and I found the effort it required for others to come to a decision meant that I was sitting about doing nothing for far more time than made me happy. This was ultimately the reason I lost interest in RISK, also, in that while I was not defending, there was very little to do, and I would grow bored. I blame this on DMing far too much, where gameplay is for me a continuous, unrelenting assault on my brain, which makes any other casual game activity dull. I don't say this is something most people would experience from Settlers of Catan.

My parents played Puerto Rico for a time rather a lot back around 1999-2000, so I am more familiar with that game - the same that Phillies uses in his lectures for his game 'lab' to make his points in lectures 2 & 3. I therefore have some understanding of the concept. There is an uncertainty as to who has won until the actual end of the game, thus building 'tension' about winning (tension dies in games like Monopoly when its clear who is going to win), and about the reduced but present interactivity of the game, which rewards innovation in oneself rather than the suppression of others, that almost all American games emphasize.

I'm rather past boardgames these days. I grew up in a house where boardgames were played religiously on Friday or Saturday nights, along with various card games, so I feel I've done my time. But there is a great deal to be said about the improvement of games where player smashing player is replaced by player out-playing player.

Last night I wrote a long discourse on how competition ceases to become the purpose of pursuing complex or difficult games or activities. I'd like to make a point about the importance of SUPPORT in activities ... a matter that is given so little consideration when the dynamic of role-playing is discussed.

Now, I am a DM, so I have my role in the game defined. I'm both the friend and the enemy of the party, as it's necessary to swing back and forth in order to keep the party's interest. Each member of the party, on the other hand, is free to take a stand about their treatment of others - and I must say, the very best parties are those that fight FOR each other, rather than against each other.

The genius in D&D is that the party is utterly free to be anti-competitive with one another, reserving all their energy to fight the DM. My sense has long been that this position ('all for one, one for all') offers a gamesmanship that is so utterly unique to role-playing that I'm often flabbergasted when I see a player fail to take advantage of it.

Consider, the members of a soccer TEAM join together to defeat the enemy ... and all the effort that one takes to support the team is done wholeheartedly with the understanding that to win requires complete support of one's teammates. There is something outstanding in being a part of this, especially on a good team, where everyone embraces the concept. People who don't embrace the concept - and who do it vocally - tend to be pushed out.

However, in team sports, there are TWO teams that are both competing, and someone has to lose. Part of the program, obviously, but it still sucks when you don't win.

But coming back to D&D, the party 'team' doesn't compete against another team. It competes against the DM - who shouldn't have anything to lose.

As DM, I'm not, or at the least I shouldn't be, invested in the existence of my monsters beyond their use as foils to stimulate the party's enjoyment. If I am involved with my monsters, that's a problem. Since I can conjure as many as I want, and I should always be aware that the party's need to live are greater than a monster's need to live, I am happy when a monster dies. I don't let this happen easily, of course, that would spoil the resolution, but I certainly am not cheering for the monster to win. That's crazy. A DM in love with monsters over the party is a DM hopelessly in love with his or her self ... and that is just pathetic.

So the party CAN win, there is no meaningful loser, and virtually all the other conditions of the Eurogame (which we had to come back to) are satisfied. Everybody plays for the whole game (you make up new characters immediately if you die). Players do not eliminate each other. The game can be interesting for the grandparents, and children adapt easily to interactive story-telling. The game play can be suspended at any time, so it can stop when the children go to bed, and be restarted the next night. The only two issues are that individual adults in Germany have not been generally educated to be DMs, and there's still that pesky 'no war' policy. But as Phillies points out in his lecture, that's disappearing ... mostly because the problem is being solved actuarially.

One last word about players who don't support the party against the DM. Players who are in it for themselves. As I say, this flabbergasts me. That is because virtually every stupid, ignorant thing I ever see in a game occurs because the player is being wholly and absolutely selfish in that moment. There's no way to dismiss it. On some level, the decision being made by the player is intended to be something self-serving.

And one of the worst philosophies that has become attached to the game is that this is acceptable.

It really isn't. Call it whatever the reader will; call it competition, call it role-playing, call it initiative, it still comes down to one thing. A player that thinks only of the self deserves to be shown the door. Period.