Saturday, May 31, 2014

How to Play a Character eBook Query

To any one who may have purchased the ebook for How to Play a Character & Other Essays - can you give an opinion for how it appears?  Can you please confirm the ebook's quality?  I haven't got an ebook player, and I have no way of checking it.

Friday, May 30, 2014


There are going to be a few of my long-time readers who won't like that last post at all, who shake their heads wondering why I write these screeds when they serve so little purpose.  Not that the disagree with me. It's only that, why bother stirring that kettle?  The beer on top was perfectly good until I spoiled it with precipitate.

Very well, letting the beer settle again . . .

I was asked yesterday how I handled the age limit on elves and other non-humans in comparison to humans, where it came to learning skills, and I answered rather flatly - perhaps too flatly - that I didn't use them.  And that I haven't had a player that missed them.

There are several problems, I note, with running characters of old age - particularly extreme old age, say of 1,500 years or more.  At present, I am coming to grips with the fact that the 30-year-old 'me' seems to have been pretty stupid, even as that 'me' was so clear about how stupid was the 18-year-old 'me.'  No doubt, at 70, I'm going to look back and just know that I was such a moron when I was 50.

This is how it goes.  Can you imagine what it must be like to be 350 and look back on those first hundred years?  No, in fact, none of us can.

Most of the time, when someone older than 150 is depicted in a film, they are shown to be terribly emo. Not that long ago I saw Byzantium, which is about a 200-year-old girl who is so hopelessly bored with life she can't think of anything to do with all that time.  I suppose this must be conceived from the minds of writers who are themselves terribly bored at 46 (the age of Moira Buffini when she wrote Byzantium, presuming she wrote it a year before the film came out).  For some of my generation, I know, the years spread out in front like a great, long badly-lit hall, ending in darkness, with a carpet that should have been replaced a generation ago.  Part of this feeling comes from recognizing that the body has passed 'starting' to break down - it actually is corrupted, now, and that corruption is getting worse.  This makes one feel there's little point in taking up anything new, since a) it's going to be made difficult by the present cruddy body, and b) there isn't time to get good at it before total crud sets in.

I admit, I recognize those sentiments.  There are other aspects of the film, too, that undermine the hopefulness of the characters, but then I said most of the time that this is the depiction.  The future is boredom.

Tolkein's elves are horrifying.  They sit and sit and wait and occupy themselves with unaccountable tasks - singing, I suppose, or other art forms that are only obliquely addressed.  Over 1,000 years, it doesn't seem like much of a life.  Why they don't develop the technology and skills mankind invented within 800 years after the re-education of Western Europe is never explained.  If we are going to talk about skills, it doesn't take 800 years to learn to use a sword better - it doesn't even take 800 years to replace the sword entirely with gunpowder, cannon and rifles - but the elves seem uncommonly maudlin, unambitious creatures.  We're better off without them, really.

I would like to think that Heinlein had the idea better handled with his Lazarus Long, who doesn't truly become tired of living life until he's past 2,000.  But then, he was 66 when Time Enough for Love was published, and he'd written the character the first time in 1941, so he'd had time to consider the relative issues.  Lazarus never takes over the universe, despite all his skills, but then part of Heinlein's theme behind Lazarus reflects upon Yeats, that the centre does not hold and that all that we build ultimately becomes flaky. Heinlein, born in 1907, seeing the WWI, WWII and the Cold War had ever reason to believe that America was going the way of the toilet, a theme he stuck to all his life.  He would not approve of me - my manners are far too poor to suit him.

I don't accept his argument that things don't get better, because I am ultimately a progressive.  Every very bad part of the 20th century was in fact better than the 19th, when mass murder was so common that millions who died in Russia, Africa, India, China and so on don't even have the benefit of labels to describe their tombs like 'the Holocaust.'  We'll never know for sure how many coolies the British Empire worked to death, or how many Africans died on plantations the world wide, or how many native warriors with spears and animal skin shields were mown down by rifles and machine guns.  As awful as it is now, it is better.  And as awful as it gets in the future - and I'm convinced it will - whatever the total destructions wrought by climate, nuclear winter or the zombie plague, unless every last one of us die, then things will be better when society is rebuilt on the ruins of that mighty history lesson.  One has to take the long view.

The elves could, the reader must understand.  The elves would have time to take the very long view, which would mean they'd be all the more evil for not making the effort to settle the hash of the present in the way that only they could.  But they don't.  They are Emerson's worst nightmare.  They sit and do nothing.

To retain the history I wanted for an Earth-like world, I had to impose the same age on all player character races that humans had.  Having one player character who, in the 17th century, could remember the vikings or the end of the Roman Empire sounds all very fun and fanciful, but the players weren't going to be up to that role-play.  They just weren't.  There are those reading me now who will think, "I could," but no you couldn't. You have trouble conceiving that you're a 75-year-old man, or 90, and if you don't believe me pack yourself up and spend a couple of weeks working in an urban titty bar, where the clientele and the staff are mostly all 25.  See how long you last before you just hate these people.

Of course, the reader may be 25.  In which case, I have no advice for you.  I promise that you cannot have any idea what it is like to be 75, at all.  You just haven't lived long enough.  Sorry.  Them's the breaks.  I hope you get the chance, though.  We should all have the chance.

My point is that anyone who was more than several hundred years old would look back on our lives, our problems, our approach to solving those problems and so on with nothing but disdain.  God, how could you not?  Time offers perspective, and perspective makes all this shit we worry about day-by-day look absolutely ridiculous.

Suppose I could live another 400 years, and suppose that I were living in a culture where that was practically a guarantee - like this one.  Would I worry about how well my book was doing today?  Would I worry that any of you understood my perspective?  God no.  I have plenty of time.  I'll figure out the book that will convince you eventually.  And in the meantime, I'm not going to sit about doing nothing.  I think I could work my way up through medical school if I had, say, three or four decades to get used to it.  And then work as a doctor somewhere awful for fifty, sixty years, until I got bored of that and decided to try my hand at politics.  Or engineering.  Or farming for a century or so.  Raise five or six families from five or six wives, etcetera, etcetera.  And meanwhile, work on this endless silly problem of people being what they are.  I'm sure, given four centuries, I could figure it out.  The solution might have to be drastic.  That's an understood possibility.

No player running a 653-year-old elf is going to approach the world with the disdain or contempt that the world probably deserves . . . and who would want to?  What would be the point of that?  We wouldn't do it in the right way, anyhow, since none of us are going to live to that age.  Who knows, maybe we would become the pathetic, do-nothing elves that Tolkein proposed.  Maybe Buddhism in the extreme is inevitable. In which case, why would a nirvana-seeking elf ever adventure?

No, better to keep the players running ages they can at least meet in ordinary life.  They still can't do 61 very well, but at least they can pretend being 61 is like it is in the movies.

Strange Vacuum

The argument goes very much like the trope:  ". . . noteworthy for its lack of detail or coherence . . . where a person explaining a process on a whiteboard gets to a part that is not well defined or important . . . sometimes it's better to gloss over something trivial and get on with the story."

Mostly, however, it is bone-laziness.  Only now, it has been with us long enough that it has developed a traditional aspect, so that the proponents of the irrational, unstructured, context-free dungeon now feel justified in their dogma, just as proponents of the imaginary cloud entity feel justified in their tax-free status. "It has always been this way," they say, and "we're just having fun," they say, but they might just as well be a congregation of rich white parishioners nodding their head in the pew at the words, "Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God."

No wonder J.C. had to tell them more than once.

Of late I have found myself watching campaigns from outside, reacquainting myself with the community, and I'll be damned if I can figure out the 'fun' in it.  I know I'm not alone when I imagine sitting down at a table at one of these campaigns, only to watch the DM unroll their huge, geometric production - and knowing, "Oh, okay, it's going to be one of those campaigns."  Feeling my heart sink with disappointment as I realize this.  Because it is going to be a lot of tramping through empty rooms (for how else can we explain the geometry?), annoying little puzzles (Dan Brown, anyone?), five minutes of combat against three orcs and the equivalent of four hours of cut scenes.

I know video gamers who speak of 90-second cut scenes with vehemence and malediction, and yet of course all night in this campaign we're going to be subject to yet another long description of a huge 50-foot diameter room with images on the wall and a font of some kind, another pattern in the floor tiles and a big grotesque head that's supposed to scare me.  Oooo.  I'm scared.  Of course there will be fourteen doors, and 13 of these will lead to dusty dead ends, but no worries, the last one we find (because you never luck out and find #14 on your first try) will lead to those three orcs.  Written with great amounts of exhaustion:  Woo-oo.  Bring on the fun times.

I truly think the uber-dungeon's popularity stems from the fascination that certain people gain from being able to draw straight graphite lines overtop of faint blue-lined graph paper.  There must be something very gratifying about this practice for these people, since they're prepared to do it for hour after hour, for week after week, getting their little dopamine rushes every time the soft HB pencil, aided by the clear plastic ruler, enables them to perfectly align the thin trail of graphite overtop of the thin trail of printed blue ink.  Seriously.

Oh.  I'm sorry.  Was that hurtful?  I'm sorry.  I'm not supposed to be hurtful anymore.  I'm supposed to be gracious.  And I suppose I would be, if it weren't for all the screaming self-righteous indignation that pours from the strained throats of those who so vociferously defend the SANCTITY of the uber-dungeon, and all its other little offspring imps and sprats.

See, I would just say, "Uber-dungeons are dumb," but that doesn't seem to be getting the message across. That doesn't seem to change anything.  It doesn't seem to make the people who believe and support the making of uber-dungeons look at themselves with a sense of shame.  That's the goal, you see.  When we writers employ really, really abusive rhetoric, it serves a double purpose.  First off, it causes rational-thinking people to look at the whole uber-dungeon craze and think, "Wow, he's right, those are really dull, boring, dumb and made according to a logic that must be somehow visceral rather than intellectual."  And it makes a few of you uber-dungeon fanatics pause and think, "Wow, that's a lot of hate, what did I do to deserve that?"

Yes.  Exactly.  What did you do?  You were completely innocent in your dungeon-making, never harmed anyone, etc.  You were just going alone, espousing your way of participating in the hobby, enjoying your efforts, showing them off, etc.  Assuming that, of course, in showing them off to the world, no one would ever, ever criticize your efforts.  Because, after all, they were an effort.  Anything that is an 'effort' is automatically 'good,' right?

Written deadpan:  No.

No, I'm sorry, you don't get off that easy.  I would like you to understand that this uber-dungeon crap is continuously picked up by others, who then pass it on to others and so on and so forth, ad infinitum.  Making every new DM think, "What I need is an uber-dungeon!"

"Well so what?" I hear.  "Why not?  I like making them.  Why shouldn't a new DM?"

Because, you idiot, the new DM puts it in front of a bunch of players who soon realize that this is a lot of shit. Meaning that role-playing must be a lot of shit.  So why fucking play?  Why fucking respect people who do? Those role-players are a bunch of morons.

Strawman argument?  No, not really.  Because you people are everywhere.  And you all make the same arguments.  And you all think your players are in love with your little hobbies.  But I've seen their faces.  And they're bored.  They are stone-bored.  I don't know why the hell you don't see their faces, but even in the last four days I've been in a room with a DM running an uber-dungeon to a group of wax-work figures, and he didn't seem to notice.  I'm sure he thinks his silly dungeon is the best entertainment since the invention of television.

Written with a shake of my head:  Ah, what's the point.  It's like a disease.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Past Clarity

I have not written this post to shame anyone, nor slap the back of anyone's hand.  Rather, I hope to take a hand or two and gently turn the reader around, so that they are able to see what I see.

I greatly appreciate all the work that many of you have done in helping to edit the book.  That is sincere. However, I find something troubling about some editing, that I feel goes to make a larger point regarding the way in which we role-play.

Suppose we take this description.

At night there is the bottle and I.  The candle gutters on the table between us, but I do not see the light, only the bottle, for it's relationship with me has consumed me for many years.  Dimmer and dimmer now it becomes, yet it is always there, always ready to uncork and fill my glass.  Always I am thinking on it, missing it, awaiting the moment when it and I will be together again.  It grows dark, and in time I drowse.  The lights are all gone now, until the morning, when the sun rises and I am alive again.

I worry when someone looks at any sort of writing, whether it is the prose above or contemplation about what a player might do in a campaign, with an eye to making it 'clearer.'  Clear is good.  Clear is excellent, and helps teach.  But clarity for the sake of clarity is shallow, and misses much of the context that is included past the words.

For example, in the passage above, I might find someone offering advice about the word 'drowse,' telling me, "I think you mean to say, 'sleep.' "  Therein lies trouble.  For if the reader read the word 'drowse,' and understood that I meant falling asleep, then obviously the word 'drowse' was clear, was it not?  No one would read the above and suppose that I had gone to the market, or that I'd taken up the bottle, broke it and cut my wrists.  The meaning is clear . . . demonstrably so, since I was told to use the word 'sleep' to replace it.

'Drowse' offers me content that the word 'sleep' doesn't offer.  To begin with, as the candle diminishes, and it grows dark, there is action going on.  Drowse implies that I haven't quite gotten off to sleep, or that I am in the process of nearly sleeping, so that it isn't as absolute as sleep.  It suggests that through the night, I never succeeded in fully sleeping.  Moreover, drowse is the same root as drown, which is the nature of slipping into drunkedness, and offers a contrast with the 'alive again' in the last statement, in which I am now not 'drowned.'  Additionally, there is a distinct meter to the word drowse; double-u's slide, and soft esses carry on, even into silence, where as the 'puh' sound at the end of sleep has a finality to it, like a closing door.  This makes the word somewhat more absolute.  Finally, the word drowse wasn't chosen randomly; it was chosen especially for this passage, to reflect a relationship with other words, to give the correct meaning.

When we 'clarify' things, we often efface much of the content that is below the surface, that is the greater gestalt behind the passage than the mere construct.  The use of words to convey a message, or an emotion, includes the understanding that the flexibility of words can also be used to make us feel a message that we do not see in the text.  Why do we like certain passages - for the words alone?  No.  For the feel behind the words.  That is why we occasionally use phrases such as, "In the long haul," or "Of course," because these reflect a way of talking, of communicating, that puts the reader at their ease and invokes a friendly atmosphere.  The removal of such phases, because they are "not needed," is to suggest that language isn't communication, it is building a brick wall.  Utilitarian but dull.

The presentation of the role-playing game is no different.  The dungeon, the world, the non-player characters, these are not a collection of frame planks nailed together to form shapes and programmed response.  A hall is not merely a hall.  It is the message behind why the hall has come to be.  Even a hall wants context.  In describing the hall, do not think that by defining the stones or the dimensions that you have built a hall in your world.  Name the hall that you have been in, the construct of which was defined by the pasteboard or the shell of planks within.  The hall serves.  It is a conduit.  See past the shape and see the future-past within the hall's presence.

There are creatures who use this hall every day, who pass through here on the way to someplace else, who are bored with this hall, who hate the distance this hall creates between where they have come from and where they are going.  Why do they use the hall, why was so much effort taken in its construction, how does its character - its appearance - matter to the denizens for whom this hall is not a fifty foot passage, but a part of their home?

Get out of your frame.  There are so many people out there making uber-dungeons who have utterly forgotten the purpose for which halls and rooms exist.  They have created patterns of shapes that serve for geometric hypnosis - to allow their to eyes scan over the mindless patterns they have created.  Cultures have long understood the power of geometry to transcend the mortal coil - there is a natural predilection in our consciousness that allows us to gaze at geometry and stop thinking.

I do not want to make dungeons to promote an absence of thought or purpose, or to make towns and regions that serve as nothing more than flat, empty tables that have clarity as their only virtue.  There is more to the world than clarity, more to our happiness and our pleasure than merely the things that we can see or describe in absolute terms.

The reader who replaces a word in a passage habitually out of a pedantry for 'clarity' is not reading.  The DM who thinks that a world is made of material things alone has utterly lost their understanding for what a world is.  We have a reason we make things.  It is not merely to explain ourselves, but to express ourselves - your creatures in your world, no less so.  They too are familiar with their surroundings, they too have an opinion about what they make and see, for those things matter to them.  They would not make a fifty-foot hallway between rooms merely because fifty feet sounded like a good distance.  That is fifty feet of drilling, fifty feet of hauling away stone and laying pavement and facing, fifty feet of quarrying to get the right stones and fifty feet they must walk every day between their beds and the kitchen.  Why would they do this, and what does it mean?

Turn yourselves around, and see more than what you can measure with your eyes.  It is time to go the next step forward in your education.

But . . . if this all seems abusive, then I am sorry.  That is sincere also.  And I am sorry for including the following, but Stephen Fry is always worth presenting:

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Origin Benefits

I haven't had many pure campaign thoughts lately, but this has occasionally teased at me.  One of the benefits of running the real Earth as a world, as I do, is that there comes a lot of social baggage that turns useful now and then.  For example, that the weapons that exist in the world can be identified with a locality.  The spear or the dagger with the Italians, for instance, or the pike with the Swiss, the axe with the Germans and Scandinavians, the short bow with the Turks, the scimitar with the Arabs, the busacca of Arica and so on.

Some time ago, on pressure brought from my players, I got rid of level limits for non-human races . . . which I balanced with my mass hit point system, that gave marginally more hit points to humans because they're bigger and therefore more meaty.  But still, humans have no special bonuses, unlike elves, dwarves and so on, and I was thinking that perhaps a bonus might be offered for the weapon (or possibly other cultural benefit) associated with where the human comes from.  I already use a table that determines the origin of characters (based upon where the character is found in my world, similar to the manner in which goods are distributed), so that means the bonus would be randomly generated also.

If your human character turned out to be from Russia, you might be tempted to make the pole axe your choice weapon, simply because you received an automatic +1 to hit with it, like an elf with a long sword:

It really does make sense.  If you're a fighter, trained in your native land, it's only natural that your training would more likely be in the use of native weapons.  It follows from there that a Russian would be more adept with a partisan that a Spaniard, who would perhaps find it easier to use a rapier and dagger simulataneously (the dex penalty would be reduced, rather than offering a 'to hit' bonus for either weapon).

This makes sense to me.  It also makes sense that Norwegians, Swedes, Finns or Russians might be better at fighting bears, while Egyptians, Berbers and Sudanese would be better at fighting elephants.  There might be a whole host of little benefits, some of those being additional benefits being applied to dwarves, elves, half-orcs and so on.

Haven't settled down to any design, but I think it would be a fun angle to play around with.

Good Reviews!

It has been a very good week.  Sales are doing well, and I've officially made all the money back that I've paid the editor.  And then some!  Gentle Readers, you're wonderful.

I have gotten two great reviews, and I'd like to repost them here:

From Matthew Capps:

"How to Play a Character is now required reading for my RPG group. Though primarily concerned with the game of Dungeons and Dragons, How to Play a Character contains sound advice for breathing life into the characters of any RPG. It does not bother itself to tell you the things you have heard in the front pages of every RPG you've ever read. Alexis does not bother to explain to you what an RPG is. He doesn't tell you how to affect a funny voice, or to dress up like your character, or to only say things your character would say.

"He also doesn't spend time talking about the best way to maximize stats, or to tweak a character for its optimal mechanical potential. The advice in the How to Play A Character essay concerns your character's needs, where your character keeps his things, the habits your character forms, and the way you can keep these things in mind to impress and motivate your DM, as well as make for a more fulfilling game.

"Along with How to Play a Character are a series of other essays that offer insights into the game. "Opening Module" is a wonderful way to start the book, as well as a wonderful way to start any sandbox style campaign. 'Wild Magic,' 'Breaking Camp,' and 'Full of Holes,' serve to inspire thought about how an RPG world compares to our real world, and how the former can perhaps be made more like the latter. All of these essays are well thought out, and well written. There are no empty words or meaningless passages. 

"These essays are put together in a nice, pocket-sized booklet. The size is just right for slipping to a player on their break, or in a moment of downtime. The book is small enough to be read in a single concentrated sitting, organized enough to support reading in small, disconnected spurts, and worth enough to inspire several re-readings.

"My only complaint about How to Play a Character is that I wish there was more of it. How to Play a Character was put together by Alexis Smolensk to raise funds to better publicize his upcoming book 'How to Run: an Advanced Guide to Managing Role-playing Games.' How to Play a Character & Other Essays is the perfect appetizer for anyone anticipating his work."

Great comments, Matt.  It's good to know I'm communicating clearly with my target audience.

From Luke Warring:

"I learned of this book from Mr. Smolensk's blog: On his blog, Mr. Smolensk is able to clearly propose, explain, juxtapose, debate, and reconcile complex concepts within the role playing genre. It reads well, his writing is polished and reads easier than the masses of amateur bloggers. This book diverges a bit from his blog. The book's writing is elevated, worked over, and streamlined.

"On his blog, Mr. Smolensk's voice flows through a river delta. His voice twists and turns with raw drafts, tributaries of comments from blog readers, and bubbly and choppy debates of opposing currents. At times, I can be exhausted by the thoroughness in which role playing is debated. After all, I just want to play a better game-not write a treatises about role playing. To my delight the book's voice flows through a spigot. Crisp, clear, and refreshing. The coarseness of the blog was gone, and I did not miss it.

"For me, the meat of the book is in the first half. Every DM and player should read the first two chapters of this book. It is exactly what I needed to read. I enjoyed the second half too, which is a collection of essays - some creative writings. I will buy his next book. 4.5/5 - my main critique is that I wanted more pages of 'How to Play,' though it is covered thoroughly in the book. I await his next book."

Yes, it's true.  I use a different voice on this blog than I do in the book, because here I am speaking directly to my audience.  In the book, I'm speaking directly to the content.

By all means, keep these reviews coming!  I could happily wake up every morning to this.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014


Very well, it has to be this version of role-play.  But why do I love it?  Why do I not simply 'like' it? Naturally, most find it difficult to express the notion of love, or it's source, but this has been the purpose of the series I've been writing and now I've successfully gotten myself into a corner.  I have to knuckle down and explain. Genuinely.  For when I read people talk about the parts of things they love, like role-play, they seem to be pick words so as not to embarrass themselves, or reveal too much.  This always seems mendacious to me . . . and if we're going to talk about things we love, I don't believe we should begin from a position that is timidly fraudulent.

This said, I love control.  Seriously - the aspects provided by DMing that make me master of my house. Ego habis totalis dominatus. After all, who doesn't love that?  The game provides for it, demands it really, and the players willingly subject themselves to the power cheerfully, avidly and persistently.  Which means that I am exempt from the ethical framework that says one person in the context of a group has no more importance or value than any other person.  For all the egalitarian shit that I tolerate outside the framework of my campaign, both on and off line, for a six hour period, once a week, in a context where it is not only tolerated, but condoned, I am free from having to pretend that I'm just like everyone else.

It is like getting off the plane in Tortola, and seeing this:

More to the point, however, I possess all this power as someone without a desire to abuse it.  Were I interested in power that I could abuse, I would establish myself on Vancouver Island with a Bible and a book I had written about correct behaviour with respect to that Bible, and begin a religion. There's a whole lot more money in falsifying a religion, a whole lot more power . . . and the power flows out of a spigot, non-stop, until the babies are born or the state catches up.

By then, obviously, I would have taken my money, my 'family' and my ego to Tortola.

I love role-play in that I have all this power, and I don't need to use it.  Or rather, that it can be used to build a platform upon which players can obtain power that satisfies them.  Meanwhile, I get to watch.  Whereas I know for some, this means watching players jump through their hoops, I find the larger satisfaction in watching the players make hoops in my world, that they then jump through to satisfy themselves.  Heck, it's a good show for me.  I never know what these players will do.  What fools these mortals be.

DMs who get a kick out of watching a player jump through a hoop of their creation, when the whole world is there to be stormed through, sought through or relaxed upon, reminds me of the religionist who gets excited about God having created a chicken when the sun, 821,000 miles across, blazes overhead.  Scale.  My being DM isn't a question of my running a game show for contestants.  It isn't even being a coach watching his team perform well.  To quote, "If God and the Devil were playing football, Manon would be the stadium they played on."

If this seems a bit megalomaniacal, or worrying, then too bad.  If you're going to present a world for your friends, a world worth having, go big.  Make sure it counts for something.  Don't equivocate, don't downplay your part.  Because if your world is good enough, your players won't care how narcissistic you are, nor how arrogant.  Trust me in this, as someone who has possessed these characteristics for a long, long . . . long time.  Players do not mind that DMs are pompous louts - so long as they are pompous louts who make a good game.

To do that requires an arrogance that is not self-absorbed.  The DM requires a haughtiness that is not fully self interested.  I'm amazing - but so are my players.  I love power - because it feels great to give it away. I'm a boastful, bragging, conceited, egomaniacal asshole - but I take pride in stepping out of the way and letting the players HAVE the spotlight.  Not merely 'share,' mind, but have it.  Full on.  Unreservedly.

Because I am that amazing that I know I'll take it back when its time to make the next thing happen.

It just feels so damn good to play a game like this - not only when I am actually running, but the rest of the time as well - when I am designing, thinking, writing, researching and so on.  All with the approval of others. All with the shining look in their eyes that I'm going to see when I say, "Finally, the book is done, we can start running again."

Because they can't wait.

How could I not love this game?

Monday, May 26, 2014

A Very Simple Ideal

I suppose I can't wait.

We can call this Part II of why I love D&D.  And as I said with my previous post, that requires separating why I love D&D, and why I don't love the various other near-forms of D&D.  What is it, exactly, that separates this one game from all the others?

I should be clear.  I love D&D as it was originally proposed, and later elaborated on, up until 1981.  After about the later winter of '81, when I was still 16, the game began to change.  I remember we all talked about it at the time, the group that I ran with and other groups - about twenty people in all, switching and playing at my high school, plus a few adult DMs we knew who ran very serious games.  D&D was barely out of the box, and everyone could tell it was changing.

Mind you, in those days, no one I knew referred to the DMG and the Player's Handbook as "AD&D."  I didn't actually encounter that until the late 90s, and for me it wasn't widespread until I saw it on the internet. But I digress.

The change wasn't in D&D, but in the other games that were coming along - Rolemaster & Ice Law and Tunnels & Trolls were the biggies, supported by the appearance of Greyhawk, Empire of the Petal Throne and the Dragon Magazine.  These weren't seen as 'bad,' but it was a recognizeable change, and we discussed the positives and negatives of those changes.  Some of the DMs began to experiment with hit location, which became all the rage for a long time.  Everyone tried building a scheme for it, including me. Lots of ideas came out of the Dragon, and we experimented with those things too; some of those ideas got into my campaign.

A sort of fetishism began to arise.  For example, there were modules, and then there was Tomb of Horrors. ToH had a strange fascination for a particular kind of player - a kind that was beginning to emerge and become more popular.  We recognize them everywhere today.  I'm talking about this kind of player.  The reason for the appearance is quite clear.  The young high school students who where there to embrace the game as gathered steam (call it '77) were hitting the age where they were failing university at 21.  Failing university and getting crap labor jobs and beginning the age of the man-boy.  I remember there were groups that took to playing ToH every weekend, for months at a time.

Other fetishes were growing: larping, dressing up for sessions, tournaments and so on . . . oh yes, the game was certainly changing.-
I saw it then, and I still see it now, as proof that the actual participation in the role playing game isn't enough for a certain type of player.  Oh, they like the game well enough, but they don't have the imagination necessary to get everything they want from simply playing the game.  So they develop other habits, participation events, fetishes and so on to compensate.  To make them feel involved.

Anyway, I was going in another direction.  The game culture was certainly changing.  Why didn't I change with it?  Why didn't I feel the need to dress, or swing a live weapon, or play death sports like the ToH every weekend instead of my campaign?  Why is it when I was told who or what Lolth was, my general response was 'meh' (hadn't been invented yet)?

I only have guesses.  I had a very popular world.  Between '80 and '92 I ran between 5 and 14 people every Friday night, year-in, year-out, from my parent's kitchen table and the high school cafeteria to my crap first apartment, to the university club and the house I rented, and from there into my condo.  I took great jobs, I went to university, I had a kid . . . and all of that was with one group that included people I knew in high school, ex-girlfriends, co-workers, co-students, my wife and so on.  I never had any trouble getting players.  I was always turning away players, in fact.  And when the main group left in '92, it wasn't very long before I had another group, that I kept until '97.

(then my life fell apart, but that's not important now)

So I didn't need change.  My game was fine.  My game is still fine.  I never needed modules because I found them trite and predictable, and I felt my own adventures were better.  If I ran a world where the plot lines ran like Excalibur or Conan, the modules were like the awful Conan sequel or Red Sonya. I'm saying I wasn't 'great,' but I was a fuck of a lot better than Red Sonya.

The logic of 2e simply escaped me.  3e was worse.  In my Advanced Guide, I spend a lot of time talking about the importance of tension - where it comes from, how to build it, how to handle the players once it's built, how not to lose it yourself in managing all the stress it creates and so on.  Virtually everything about the mechanics for 2e, 3e and especially 4e seemed about destroying as much of the tension as possible, and using the rules to do so.  More hit points, more shortcuts to more hit points, more elaborate ways to heal, less and less meaning to the subject of 'dead' . . . and the elaboration of skill sets that would entitle the character to eventually do anything, even circumvent the need for thought.

When I look around, all the other systems seem to be doing the same thing.  What I know of Pathfinder and the rest just looks like a lot of super-empowerment to the point of blandness.  The difficult thing about superhero films is that they are so easily just meaningless walk throughs from A to Z, where the hero is never seriously threatened and the only real 'conflict' results from someone - or everyone - holding the idiot ball.  The later rules for role-playing games all seem destined to make this the norm.  And this is not what I like about role-playing.

I like that people have to die.  I like that they can't do most of the things that they imagine.  I like that they recognize their limitations.  I like that they don't have a tool that will do that thing for them.  I like that they're scared, and they have to plan, and they think there's a good chance it will fail.  I like that the way isn't clear. That things aren't certain.

I don't even like alignment because it gets rid of a seriously important character-driving conflict - the dilemma.  The player in my world who plays their character with the certainty of always knowing what the character would do is the most horrifically boring characterization, ever.  How ungodly dull is this?  The character never questions their motivation?  Never finds themselves pulled between two possible decisions? This isn't a character, this is a corpse.  Save me.

I know there are some who would blame video games, but in fact both video games and this eventuality in other role-playing games comes from the same source.  Humans like a sure thing.  And they will sacrifice excitement, purpose, hope, celebration or relief in order to get it.  Most humans, given the opportunity, would rather stand like a dead thing nailed to a dead thing's stand in front of a slot machine guaranteed to pay off than feel a moment's tension at not being sure.  And they would continue this preference even after they had grown wealthy.  Because most humans are sad, fearful sacks of dung.  They only push through the terror each day makes them endure because they're more frightened still of what might be on the other side. And most humans don't do this one thing well.

Tomb of Horrors, I think, was a fetish because you knew you would die, and that took the pressure off.  A slot machine that never pays off is as comfortable as one that always does.  For some people, pulling a meaningless handle is enough.

(joke intended)

D&D, the original D&D that I began playing in '79, before the change, loved this death thing, and appreciated that people would try to live.  That was a very simple ideal, and I find myself still surrounded by people who want to play in a game where that is still the ideal.  It is just harder to find that ideal when the rules are designed to fuck with it.

The End of Star Jumper

Memorial Day in the States, so I expect to see less people around today.

I'd like to write something positive.  It's summer, it's a beautiful day where I am, I finally figured out what was wrong with the ebook publishing, the book is thumping along (I'm about halfway through the third and last draft now) and on the whole I'm feeling as if there's an end.  Matt gave me some good news about things we can offer or give as a door prize for the fundraiser in Calgary, I have people in Toronto anxious to see me and I'm looking forward to it being a great year.  So I'm in a good mood.

I was going to include a passage on why I love D&D in the book, but the feel of the book was wrong for it so I decided not.  It's a difficult question anyway.  Too, it should address the issue of why I love D&D and not, say, Pathfinder, or Traveller, or Top Secret that I used to play.

Traveller had some great qualities, and I ran a Traveller world for nearly a decade.  Towards the end, I meshed Traveller and Top Secret together, as I really liked the Top Secret combat system (and very little else about the game).  That took some tweaking, but in fact the games merge pretty well - in the end I called the composite 'Star Jumper.'  Until I got out of university, it was a popular game.

There were two faults, I think.  The first was that a realistic game set into the future is just too deadly.  The weapons are profoundly kill-friendly, there are many, many opportunities for death and the character improvement system didn't really compensate for the weapons, the physics of losing your grip on something at high speed or the whole death in space thing.  If you're going to play shoot 'em up games in the present or the future, there's simply more likelihood that the character is going to die. That makes it harder for the players to invest, and it makes it harder for them to willingly enter conflict.  I used to say that the point of D&D was to find combat; the point of Star Jumper was to escape it.

The other fault was largely due to money.  Money is a very important aspect of a future game, more important than it is in D&D, as very large sums of money are necessary to buy the toys and gadgets that keep you alive.  And those things are expensive.  Plus, there's just no fun in the game without a ship, and your ship can't be big without a lot of money, so there was always that to consider.  The problem wasn't, however, in having too little money, it was that inevitably, what with trade and economics, a party would eventually acquire all they needed to fight with, and more money than that, until ultimately money just became meaningless.  The game sort of churned down once that point was reached.  The players would want to start another set of characters, which we would, running them until that natural limit was reached.

I was trying an experiment at the end of those games that had begun to prove itself, but never reached fruition because the commitment ran out and people went off around the world to start their lives (literally - I had a friend move to Vietnam, another to Montreal, a third to California and so on).  Being '92, there was no internet, so that was that.

For those familiar with Traveller, the character generation system works sort of thusly (it's been awhile, I don't have the books with me, though I still own them, so I'm going on memory):

Basically, your character goes through cycles that represent 4 years of training.  The character applies for training, it is determined which branch the training occurs in (I'm thinking of the more complicated Navy track now), the character rolls for skills, and the character rolls to see if they survived the four years.  If the character fails to enter, then the character musters out and is finished.  If the character dies, then a new character is started.  It is the weirdest character creation scheme ever made, I think, but it is oddly appealing.

Towards the end of playing Star Jumper, I had conceived of starting the characters as new recruits in the Navy, and role-playing the above cycle.  In other words, your character accepts that they are in the Navy.  They don't want out, they want the training.  First, as before, the branch is rolled, and all the characters are assigned to that branch.  They meet their commander.  The commander gives them a 'mission.'  They are given a base level of training in order to accomplish the mission.  Remember, the original character system presumed the characters would get "blaster-1" in four years, so this base training is "blaster-0.1."  The mission was fairly simple, these were raw recruits.  They were sent into a combat zone, they had one brief skirmish, survival was fairly likely and the mission was over.  Back to base, and if they got really lucky during the skirmish, they'd have another 0.1 added to their blaster skill.  Then they'd be paid, left on their own to explore around on their leave, before returning and getting another mission.

Meanwhile, there'd be role-play.  A lot of shipboard stuff like Starship Troopers, other naval conscripts they had to contend with, girls they'd meet, officers to impress and so on, building up an operational framework.  Between missions they could roam about, push around a few people, try not to get killed or worse, expelled from the Navy, and so on.

I had a group of sharp players and this was working very well.  We'd gone through two years of missions, they were getting to know people, racking up skills, making a little money on the side, and not too much so as to spoil the game.  One was thinking of getting married, another was considering officer candidate school (I would have run the missions so the party still worked together, or encouraged them all to try OCS), and in general they were feeling the role-play.

I never went back to it, however.  I don't know.  It just didn't feel worth it after the game broke up.  I doubt I'd have a host of players like that again.  I got to feeling like I just wanted to play D&D.

So, I'll continue in this thread tomorrow.  Enjoy your holiday.


Since publishing, I've felt a strong desire to post the dedication page to How to Play a Character & Other Essays.  I know that not all of my players have seen the book yet, and I wanted them to know they were included.  I also wanted to let Tim Brannan know that I acknowledged his contribution.

Mr. Brannan is a strange duck.  He's never disparaged me here, though I know he has elsewhere (and at that place), and I find it odd that he felt the need to be helpful on this one occasion.  But then, people will surprise you.

Tim/Timothy, if I've goofed up and you should have been listed here as 'Timothy' and not 'Tim,' let me know and I'll republish the document.

For the rest of the players, hey, it's been great running you all.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Woot! eBook!

The eBook for How to Play a Character & Other Essays is now available.

A Little Business

Yesterday, I'm in this underground bar downtown, waiting for my publicist to show up, having a beer and talking to the bartender, when this girl comes in.  I say 'girl' but she was really 30 . . . only she was in the emotional place between when somebody's who's 20 something is just beginning to realize they can't be 20 something any more.

She's a friend of the bartender, hasn't seen him for awhile and they get to talking.  They're doing it right in front of me, however, so I just chime in.  He offers her a drink, and she begs off by saying that no, she's quitting her present serving job and looking for a different serving job.  Only it's really obvious she wants a drink, just as it is really obvious that this girl drinks a lot.  So I said that a drink would be good for her, and that this - the bar - was a health spa.  People came to the bar to get healthy.  The bartender really liked that, the girl changed her mind and so we went on chatting while she had a beer.

Now, I've spent many years in places like that, with girls like that, because I used to be a cook and there is a type of person that cooks and a type of person that serves.  Still, I also talk as eloquently as I write.  As we talked, the girl couldn't help swearing, that being her nature, and because she could tell I was a certain kind of person by the way I talked, she apologized for swearing.  Whereupon I told her, "Don't fucking worry about it," and she visibly relaxed.  After that I was careful to throw in a swear word here and there to make her more comfortable.

The bartender asked her if she'd like a shot to help her nerves applying for jobs, and then didn't wait for an answer.  He got a liqueur he liked, a sort of vermouth for which the name escapes me, then poured three shots, one for each of us.  Yeah, that kind of bar.  Turns out the bartender was also the owner.  So, given a shot on the house, by someone I've never met before - this kind of thing happens to me all the time - I threw it back without a word despite the fact that I don't like taking shots.  That's how you get along with people.

Eventually the girl gets around to asking what I do, and because I'm there to talk about my book launch and the fundraiser to support the book launch, I tell her I'm a writer.  She comments on my speech, and says I must read a lot of books.  I tell her yes, I do.  Whereupon she answers, "Wow, you'd do really good in prison."

Now, see, this is why I say the things I say of people.  Because surely there's a whole class of humans who have come to figure - as this girl did - that the real benefit of reading and writing is that it enables one to blow off a lot of time, whereas if you don't read and write, something really boring like prison is much, much worse.  This, clearly, is why I have taken the time to learn things.

In time, the subject of my book emerges and it turns out this girl used to play.  So in prison, obviously, I'd be able to read, write and run D&D as well.  Life is good.

The publicist came along and after a few hours we worked out some details.  The fundraiser is set to go on Thursday, July 3, at a place called Vern's on 8th Ave SW.  We have a Celtic performer, Vanessa Cardui, a planned burlesque show, and various other small events.  I have agreed to play the DM on stage in a performance of the Dead Alewives' Dungeons & Dragons - Satan's Game, which should be relatively fun.  I'm sure there will be video.

I've also agreed to give away my White Box set as the big door prize of the evening.  We are planning other door prizes but they haven't been determined yet.  I could use a word or two letting me know if the White Box set still has any value to the community.  It doesn't have any particular value to me, and we do plan to raise a fair sum of money that night - paying off the performers, the publicist and the airline that will fly me to Toronto.  That's where the money should be going.

Friday, May 23, 2014

To the Person Who Keyed My Game

I began this week writing a comment on someone else's post that I wouldn't be talking about 5th edition, and now I'm going to write my third post in a triad about it.  Well, not about the specifics, but about the culture surrounding it.  There seems a lot that's worth saying.

Wednesday I explained what I thought about the model, and yesterday about my certainty that the game will endure no matter what the company does.  Today, I'd like to talk about the community's inevitable response.

I did get a comment that was excessively positive about the WOTC, and about Mike Mearls, head of research and development there, but it sounded so much like spam that I deleted it.  I suspect someone from WOTC has found this blog.  That would be good.  I want them to know I'm unhappy.

There's no question in my mind that blogs, boards and mock media websites sank 4e.  The online community was on its back from the first day of release and the hate has never let up, as far as I know.  I have heard it said that 4e was surviving on young people who had not played any other version, but the game club that I saw - where it was the only version allowed - was full of people in their 30s and 40s.  That game club has since switched to 5th, having received a copy of the game through the Sentry Box in Calgary, where they play.  They 'love' it . . . but they 'loved' 4th, too.

Except for small enclaves like this, however, mostly I just find hate.  And we've been talking about that hate for seven years now.  That's good.  I want a lot MORE of it.

The internet is a two-edged sword for corporations.  On the one hand, everyone's talking about our game!  On the other, oh for fuck's sake, what did we do now?  They want to control the message, but they won't.  They know that.  They're in control right now, because the release hasn't happened. And they'll hold onto that control for as long as possible, because until we see the content, we still rely upon what they say about it.  Unfortunately, that isn't going to last.

Once upon a time, I worked for a company that provided an in-home service . . . and this company was very big on marketing.  BIG on marketing.  They had over a million customers, so they had to be. Being tech-based, however, the customers had a lot of issues with what the service they provided, so the company had to spend a lot of their marketing effort towards making the customers like the product.

What was interesting about the marketing department, that I was attached to, was that they didn't care about the technical status of the product, or its comparison with other, similar products.  They only cared that their customers liked the product.  In this way, they were a lot like the British Air Command in WW2, that believed the war could be won by bombing alone, or like most artillery divisions, who feel that boots aren't really necessary to win a battle.  This is to say, the marketing department's theology - for it could be described as nothing else - was that if the customer could be made to love the brand that much, they'd continue to pay for the service even if the service wasn't provided.

As cognitively dissonant as this is, I can attest to being in meetings where this logic was brought to bear over and over and over.

My feeling is that all marketing departments fundamentally operate according to these principles. Apple is doing very well operating to these principles, though I think they're on their last legs.  One day, we're all going to watch Apple implode and everyone is going to say, "what happened?"

You can only ride the popularity train for so long.  Sooner or later, people will realize your product is shit.  I understand now, not having a decent computer, template or phone to offer, Apple has decided to turn itself into a 'luxury' product.  That is, it will sell itself more and more as a computer system to people who don't have time to do anything complicated with a computer.  Interesting strategy.

Right now, there are many voices who are still ready to support the WOTC, no matter what.  There are many voices who have been marketed into submission.  But that's not going to be enough. Dissent is like keying the side of a car.  The whole car can be worth $140K, but all anyone can see is that scratch.  And we know, right now, that many, many people have their keys out and ready.

Over the next ten months, a lot of people are going to express exhaustion at the dialogue.  They're going to encourage an end to the dialogue.  They're going to bemoan how much has been said and the need to say it and the endless repetition of the same points.  But I say, bring it on.  Shout.  Don't resist the urge to talk about Next.  When you see someone talk about it, say, "Good for you, bring that motherfucking company to it's knees."

The marketing department of the WOTC is dreading the launch.  They're dreading the moment when they lose control of the message.  They know all this shit about playtesting as been exactly that: a lot of media-manipulated shit.  They know that all the 'play-testers' are the sort of people who love to play-test, who have lost their perspective and who now find everything new to be a good thing. People willing to give up a part of their lives to do anything are the sort desperate for the new.  It is their fetish.

Unfortunately, however, the world is actually quite reactionary, and on the whole does not like new things.  And unfortunately, the Next marketing plan has had to admit that 4e was a mistake.  And now they have to sell this new dog to a lot of people who were formerly sold their old dog.  Who are now being told the dog they love is ugly.

Well, keys ready, people.  Do not disappoint the marketing department.  Make them understand that all their fears are justified.  Slam them, day and night, and cheerfully.  Because after this turkey hits the market, with both positive and negative aspects, its going to prove to be like every other turkey this company has fostered . . . with both positive and negative aspects.  The WOTC has stupidly, pedantically and cryptically decided as a company that their goal is to try to please everyone.

By all means, they should suffer for that.

Thursday, May 22, 2014


I find it interesting that readers here who have bought, or are intending to buy, describe themselves as tools, suckers and the opposite of smart.  There's a company legacy for you.

There was a small back and forth in the comment thread yesterday about role-playing losing its appeal and relevance.  I've heard this of and on in the seven years since re-entering the community (I was self-isolated between '88 and '08, and I must admit I am puzzled every time.

There are three gaming clubs here in the city that offer play and space on a weekly basis.  I'm having an event in town in July that is advertising as a gaming burlesque and we expect there to be about 150 in attendance.  There are, right now, three different game stores (only one runs a gaming club that I know of), whereas I remember there only ever being one.  And I know of at least two coffee shops that, if I took along my DMG, and left it on the table, I'd be in a conversation about D&D within ten or twenty minutes.  Of course, that would be with a dweeb, but there we are.  I could always give it a shot and maybe get lucky.

That is offline.  When I quit the community, we only had offline, and there was damn little of that.  In my day, we had to walk uphill to get it.

With the internet, there is nothing to worry about.  Yet there remains an attitude, expressed yesterday, that if it hadn't been for some 'guy,' or some 'group,' that was truly 'visionary,' no one would be talking about D&D online today.

Thus is the legacy of information that spreads from a single source.  There are still those out there who believe, somehow, that knowledge or 'community' springs from a central source, and that we here in the world wait for that central source to speak.  That kind of network has been dead twelve years now, but there we are, mythologizing people I've never heard of ("Ryan Darcy") as though they are the founder of the internet role-playing community.

This is a pretty simple concept, but we're still denying its existence

I don't doubt that Mr. Darcy was there early.  I confess I wasn't that interested in online RPG discussions.  In 1999 I had discovered that all the porn I could ever need or want was available free, and that there were sex partners who were willing to explore that porn with me through ICQ.  So, really, between 1999 and 2002, when I found a quite demented permanent partner, I was quite busy.

Then, as I remember, between 2002 and 2007, I was discovering how the internet could get me all the freelance writing gigs I could reasonably keep up with, as well as a great job with a business magazine, not to mention the hard mapmaking data that I had been looking for all my life and wikipedia to back that mapmaking data up.  So, during those years, when I searched the net for the purpose of role-playing, it was for design information.  Yes, yes, I appreciate that Mr. Darcy - whoever the hell he is - was inventing the social network we have today, with something call "Open Gaming Lisc" (again, something I've never heard of), I was mostly still working hard on my own game, resourcing the hell out of the net to make it happen.

I came across my first blog in 2004, political of course, so there were a lot of flame wars in those days. I didn't see a D&D blog until December 2007 . . . but somehow, I think, that once blogs had been invented, it didn't matter a pig in a poke what the hell Mr. Darcy had done. People would have started blogs about the game without being told to do so.  And they would have started selling their stuff through those blogs without needing the WOTC to circumvent.  Because, frankly, we love this game, and we don't need other people to suggest we should write about it.

We do not do this thing because it is permitted.

Oh, I can only find two google results for "Open Gaming Lisc," and one of them includes this comment from a John Prescott, "This is the same song and dance that the gaming industry heads spat about when WOTC (Wizards of the Coast) did the open gaming lisc for their d20 gaming system rule set. The fodder will eventually sink down to the dregs. Nothing to see here, except maybe someone who is upset that his publisher is getting a way bigger cut on his ebook sales than he is, and that blame lies with the author, not the industry or the business model."
I love it when someone makes a completely off-the-wall reference to me and when I go look for it, I find disparagement.  Ah, legacy.

Some of you, no doubt, will rush to tell me that the open game lisc was that effort by the WOTC to make pdfs available to gamers.  I vaguely remember something about that, and about the WOTC clawing it back.  I'm only guessing here, because there are literally only two references to the three words and the other one is a vague argument about LOTR and Greyhawk.  I could probably do more research, but frankly I just don't give a shit.  Where it comes to free materials about role-playing, I never went to the WOTC, I went to frostwire, which cured me of wanting to see WOTC materials even for free.  Because, seriously, its all just a lot of unmitigated crap.  The idea that role-playing relies on such crap for its 'relevance' is once more the old myth that the existing network is centrally processed.

That central processor died a long, long time ago.  It serves one purpose on the internet, and that purpose is spam.  This is the legacy the WOTC has for me . . . I'm just enough of a presence that they send me spam every couple of weeks.  They obviously don't read my blog, or have any idea what I stand for, but the spam keeps coming.  Yay, legacy.

I can guess at the reason why people are worried, however, despite the evidence and that amount of material available for piracy, comes from a certainty that children are all about the video game.  The video game will kill role-playing, so they say.  How can pencil and paper compete with rendering on that level.

Well, it can't.  But role-playing, thankfully, isn't limited to pen-and-paper.  Nor is it limited to hygeine-challenged manboys clutching their miniatures in their big, mountain-dew-derived fist fat.  Role-playing is as adaptable as any other social framework one might name, which is evident by the number of skype games going on, the use of distributed networks to create game clubs, the practicality of my writing this blog and so on.  The tools are - slowly - being created to advance the game's rendering, too.  Because that's the way it goes.

Not by WOTC, of course.  At a time when the owner of the game should be creating a 3-D advanced app for digitally representing your character, with additional features to show the damage they're taking, based fully on your stats list - at a visual level that would put Sims 3 to shame - they're reinventing pencil-and-paper D&D.  Now.  In this decade.

One of the worst habits that an artist can acquire is the certainty that something needs to be done again, and again, to get it 'right.'  I feel there's a certain rationale in this, but the process can utterly stagnate an artist's work.  They can find themselves going back to the same thing and doing it over and over, ultimately losing their perspective entirely.  It is a habit that will ensure a good artist never receives any recognition.  Because it cripples.

The WOTC is crippled.  It has been crippled since it gave up on 2nd Edition.  I can personally see the rationale for 2nd Edition, but they did such a crappy job at it that  since the WOTC has been caught up its own loop.  It has lost it's perpective.

Though it may have dragged down tens of thousands of players, er, tools, suckers and non-smart people, however, it hasn't dragged down this game.  This game is being shared like wildfire.  This game is proving the central processor is dead.  The only people who are still turning back to the central processor, hoping there's still life there, are those for whom there never was a game.  Not really. These are the people who were just looking for a fetish god to worship.

Well, god is dead.  Deal with that legacy.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Made for Drones

Over the next six months or so, I do not intend to talk about 5th edition.  The reader may feel confident that this blog is a Next-free zone.  I do have two players who have given me some idea of what's being offered there - it sounds to me as if WOTC has realized that it's had it's head up it's ass for about fifteen years . . . and in an effort to fix it, they've decided to put their foot up there too, in order to have it wedged between their teeth.

I got some spam from the WOTC the other day, regarding some dumb series they have going.  I jumped right back at them and spammed them about my book of essays.  Where upon a real person thanked me for the information.  So perhaps I should stop ganking the WOTC?

Nah, not yet.  I have this bizarre dream - can't really call it a fantasy - where the WOTC discovers my book How to Run, then my blog, then the content rules on my blog, and they offer me a job.  That would be funny.  Me, working for the WOTC.  I think I'd have to tell them the deal would include Mike Mearls being given his walking papers.  Chris Perkins can stay, I think - I want to see how fast I can make him hate me, and then how long after that it will take to make him a spitting, squalling infant.  I'm guessing I can do both in less than four minutes, fourteen seconds.

I cannot begin to express how much raw, unbridled hatred I have for the corporate end of this hobby. I have no real problem with people who want to work to produce products and make some money; no one is going to get rich doing this, me included, so it's just a way of getting the word out there. Nope, what I despise is the process by which we take things that work, that perform the service needed, then rehash them under the label 'improvement,' when all we've done is complicate the re-training process.  Don't like 4e?  Well, there are only about 2,000 different kinds of role-playing games on the market.  Oh wait, a bunch of fucks in an office that don't really play have released a new version.  Let's talk about that for six months.

I say that they don't really play because really, they don't.  If you think they do, then you haven't any personal relationship with the corporate world.  Managers in the corporate world do not have 'lives.'  They have spurts of non-corporate interaction with fellow humans during which they talk about their difficulties working for corporate goals, while trying to figure out how to make the few hours of their non-corporate existence more corporate-purposed.  For example, a corporate person will spend four hours on their weekend cleaning the side of a highway because it means they can wear a corporate shirt, participate with other corporate volunteers, film it, then employ that footage to make others feel guilty for not spending more of their time working towards corporate aims.

The bullshit, non-complicated one-night adventure RPG ideal is perfect for corporate types.  They can be seen to 'play,' this can be filmed, it's only a very minor distraction from their primary motivations and it can be done with pre-made packaged crap that, in turn, sells the pre-made packaged crap WHILE playing.  It is corporate perfect.

Fundamentally, you are playing a version of the game that has been designed for a corporate drone. How does that make you feel?

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Hit the Road

In light of this post from last week, and the considerable thought I have given on the matter, I have come to the conclusion that role-playing gets in the way of throwing the dice.

I propose a moment in time.  You and your party have just encountered a massive, 18-foot-high earth elemental.  You are well aware that it is immune to most of your weapons, that it has somewhere upwards of 200 hit points (as this is my world), and that at the moment it is within striking distance of you.

We have just rolled our dice and we find that the party is surprised.  As the DM, the next move is therefore mine.

Let's examine two possibilities.

1)  I stand, look at the party, and clear my throat.
2)  I reach for a d20.

Which of these two options produces the greater emotional effect?

If you say (1), then you are a play-actor.  You believe that the crushing of your character offers very little in the way of drama, as you are more concerned with what a strange creature has to say than you are with your character's own life.  It makes little difference to you what the creature says, so long as it choosing to speak enables you to strut and fret your hour upon the stage.  You perceive yourself as an important protagonist in a performance, working out your personal conflicts, gnawing away upon the stale angst bagel you keep in your pocket, ready to wave it at whatever foil approaches you.  Talk talk talk, that's what you love, for every moment you talk you feel your own importance rising.  When you hear others speak, you quickly parse and deconstruct their words so that your come-back will be brilliant, that it will bring laughter and applause.

If you say (2), then you are a role-player.  You feel tension because you want to live.  You're worried about the die because you're concerned that if it falls wrong, you'll die.  You have no illusion of being in control.  You know that even if the creature misses, winning is going to be a long, hard, difficult struggle.  Nothing is guaranteed.  Moreover, you don't care if you're the one to kill it.  You'll be happy if anyone in the party kills it.  Thus, you're not concerned with your own limitations, you're hoping that together you and the party are going to take this thing down.

Undoubtedly, my words have relayed my feelings about those who choose (1).  That is because you don't belong at my table.  You need to take up acting.  That is where you belong.  You've confused role-playing for self-aggrandizement.  If you go into the theatre, I think you'll discover a lot of people who feel about the sound of their own voice very much like you feel about the sound of yours.

See, 'play-acting' isn't emotional.  It's posturing.  And the elemental that clears its throat is a relief. Therefore, less emotion.  Less effect.  The party is grateful that they're going to live, but on the whole their adrenaline-status is much diminished.  If, on the other hand, you are the sort that sees me reach for the die with the thought, "oh gawd, combat again," then you have failed to understand what it means to BE a character.  You're posturing as a character.  You're a fake.  You're an imposter, pretending to be a role-player because you've forgotten the way to the theatre.

We all here, we're working at actually being our characters, not presenting them in an affected and artificial manner.  That is why you, friend, have to go.  You don't belong here.

You see that, don't you?

Monday, May 19, 2014

Fishing & Role-play

I really enjoy that I can test strategies in the way of the aforegoing post.  I need the book's cover to be suggestive of the contents.  I don't want it to be mistaken for just another splat book.  I've read about a dozen of these in the last seven months, and they are all a horror show.  To get a sense of what I mean, let's suppose that you are an enthusiastic fisherman.  It is the off season, and you see a book in the local shop with the title, "How to be a Great Angler."

So you pick it off the shelf, open it to the first page and read, "What is fishing?"

Below that you find the heading, "What should a fisherman do?" . . . which is followed by about two hundred words about buying some kind of fishing rod, finding a pool of water, bringing along some food and maybe going there with a couple of your friends.

On the next page is another heading: "Why do people fish?" . . . and the answer to that is, wait for it . . . "The purpose of fishing is to have fun."

I swear, I have been reading this kind of crap in gaming stores for thirty-five years.  In other words, as long as I have been playing.

Now let's suppose that you start a blog about fishing.  You decide this is going to be helpful, so you set about describing the tensile strengths of fishing line and rods, the value to be found in certain rod-making materials, concerns with the make and models of reels and so on about the equipment you carry, wear, rely upon, etcetera.  You discuss various breeds of fish, and the best tactics for catching these fish in different streams and different parts of the world.  You include maps on your blog where every stream throughout the continent is detailed as much as possible, not just in terms of what fish are found there, but where the best eddies and ponds are in those waterstreams, right down to describing the taste of the fish pulled from the streams for those who enjoy eating their catch.  You've wandered over these streams and you've fished for 35 years, and you've caught literally tens of thousands of fish from hundreds of locations.  In your blog, you discuss current flows, and the temperature of the water, the amount of clarity in the water and its effect on certain spoons and flies, and how best to make a fly that will work in particular stages of murkiness - from a table you design yourself to make this easier for the reader to understand.

And then, finally, you decide to write a book yourself.  You tell everyone that it's not going to explain the reason to fish, or introduce people how to fish, it's just going to talk about fishing to anglers.  Since no one has ever written a book like this before, anywhere, you're understandably anxious to encourage people to recognize that this isn't a book that starts, "What is fishing?"

Whereupon someone writes and asks, "Hey, who are you to have set yourself up as a judge of the one, true right and proper way to fish?"

There is, in fact, a lot of pain in that question.  There's a lot of years of reading junk.  Of having that junk passed off as credible advice.  Of finally accepting that no one, anywhere, actually knows how to describe better angling, and that it's a waste of time listening.  Of spending so long in a crappily designed hobby that the certainty that everyone fishing, everywhere, must be as good an angler as anyone else, because there is NO standard, period.  Nor can there ever be one.

For people who fish, this is a make-believe problem.  For the rest of us, we're in the shit.

It is a distrusting question.  It is a question asked by an aggravated, exhausted, disappointed soul.  A question that reflects all the nonsense arguments that have plagued the game since the beginning.  To be a role-player is to accept that babble, accusation, instigation, insult, hurt feelings, overthinking, over-interpretation, jumped-to conclusions, impotency, self-importance and smugness will be forever part of the hobby.  It is surrender to the weak sisters, the passive aggressives, the people finding their self-esteem in what their character does when the die roll comes out right.  It is quitting on self-respect.  It is quitting on the idea of quality.

So yes, to all that, to all the little dweebs moving around, picking up the book and thinking, "Wow, I never played a role-playing game before - I'd sure like to learn how to be an expert in a couple of days," I was thinking about a cover blurb that would tell them to just keep walking.  Not a market strategy?  Perhaps not.  But I'm not fond of the fall-out that's going to go the other way, when unaccountably stupid people say,

"It isn't about fishing at all!  It's about water and graphite materials mixed with a lot of stuff about getting into hard places and camping.  Junk, that's what I say.  Why doesn't it teach me how to fish?  I couldn't make heads or tails out of it."

Because if I market too widely, that's the sort of massive negative review I'm going to get.  And those who want a real book are going to look at those reviews and think, "Yeah, another incomprehensible dumb book about fishing.  Who needs it?"

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Jacket Description

I am working on this message for the back of my Advanced role-playing guide.  I'm not sure I want to go this harsh.  I would like to think I can encourage people to wonder, to be shaken out of the stupor of, "wow, another crappy book about how to DM," by realizing that this is the sort of thing WOTC would never put on a product:

This book is not for everyone.

If you have never played a role-playing game before, if you do not know what is meant by RPGs, NPCs, damage, health, stats or AC, then put this book down and move on. It is not for you.

This book is for people who want to read a book about managing role-playing games that makes them feel small, inadequate, ineffective and incompetent. It is only from first understanding that we know nothing that we can learn about the things we love.

This book has been written to show role-players how little they know.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

The Apex of Role-play

I don't see how people can say that this blog is abusive.  I simply make it clear what I like and what I don't like, then tailor the content on the blog towards that measure.  If the neighbor's dog poops on may lawn, I don't let the shit lay untouched in the interest of free expression.

I've been very deliberate about that metaphor.  The neighbour's dog is blameless.  It doesn't know any better.  The same can be said for many of the people who come and comment here.  They believe they have something of merit to say.  They say what they can the best way they know how. They are blameless when the content just doesn't make the cut.

Of course they are hurt.  The neighbour's dog is hurt when I catch it in the hindquarters with a broom. So it goes.  It is the only message the neighbour's dog understands.

Is it unfair.  I suppose it must be.  I am very unfair about considering myself to be the last and only arbiter of the content on this blog.  Frankly, I delight in the unfairness the position offers.  Having followed through upon the agreement between myself and blogger, I have been accorded the privilege of moderating comments, deleting things that I don't like and generally controlling the content on this blog.

However, recently I was told this policy has resulted in there being only sycophants that read or comment on this blog.  The former I know to be not true.  The stats plainly indicate that a fair number of people come here from sites that have universally condemned this site.  As regards to the latter, the commenters . . . well, hello sycophants.

Apparently, you don't disagree with me enough to ease the consciences of those people who "don't" read this blog because of all the abuse.  You are not taking me to task enough.  Or rather, those of you out there who dare to take me to task are being brutally suppressed and thrown out with the trash. Therefore, to those of you who wisely lick my boots, good on you, glad to have you here . . . and watch your step.

This week we had a dialogue about 'role-play' vs. 'roll-play' - and I must admit to being quite bored of it.  In fact, I find myself increasingly bored of the standard memes of role-play flame wars.  None of these things really matters.  The fellow on here yesterday defending the right to subvert the dice in order to promote role-play because it makes his game better completely missed the point, because he plays the same old game in the same old way, with the same old assumptions about what makes good game play: be interesting.  He is convinced, just as so many are convinced, that because the name of the game is 'role-play,' the most interesting thing about RPGs is the common, ordinary, day-to-day discourse between the players and the guy on the street.  As if the most interesting thing about your life is the chat you had today with the guy at the bus stop.  Or the coffee bar.  Or the five minute blather about nothing you shared with a co-worker.  So interesting.

Is this all we have?  Do our 'dreams' really come down to "I want to pretend to speak to a guy on the street and ask directions?"  Is that as far as it goes?  It sure sounds like that.  It sounds as if the 'apex' of RPGs comes when the harbour master saunters over to ask us our business.  Big whup.  I'm sure excited now.

No, no, don't bother to agree.  I already know you do.  You all know your place.

I had this stupid idea when I began playing that fantasy had something to do with fulfilling ambitions, along with the will to acquire, and apply myself to those tasks.  I had aspirations - and those weren't quite managed by bullshit dialogues that take twenty minutes of game time between me and the bartender, or me and the wench that brings the beer.  Seriously.  I've spent quite a lot of time playing this game, and I cannot imagine anything more boring than another twenty minute dialogue with another cardboard cut-out of a bartender's persona as invented by a guy who reads David Eddings. Shoot me in the head, okay?  (I know you will, you sycophantic drones, you).  When does it come about that another bartender convo has edged into the "holy crap not again" zone?  Because as near as I can tell, with some of the folk here who unwisely disagree with me, it never does.

Really.  I have four hours to run a game and I'm going to dedicate 12.5% of that time to another shit dialogue between the party and a bartender, a harbour master, a butcher, a baker or the chandler, er, candlestick maker?  No thank you.  You know how long these conversations should go on?  Two sentences.  You know how many dice I want to roll for that?  None.  Why?  Because I don't freaking care what their answers are.  I can't think of a single question that the party would ask one of these people that wouldn't simply be answered straight.  I will roll dice when a player gets physical.

The reason for that is because I don't make a village the Land Of A Million Secrets.  Villages are, you know, villages.  People grow food.  They slaughter cows. They don't have educations.  If they do know a secret about the local lord that eats little children, the party is never going to know about it from them because they don't want to die.  This isn't cheap television where everyone furtively pauses and hesitates and runs their words together and are plainly hiding something, so that it takes twenty freaking minutes to pull a plot point out of them.

Holy crap that is just bad play.

Even television manages these scenes in 90 seconds.  And since the DM wants to tell the player the plot point, why don't we just say, "After a lot of argument, the butcher tells you."  For the love of green apples in a girl's special cupboard, let's get the fuck on with the adventuring huh?

Oh, but 'role-playing' is the 'apex' of RPGs.  Yeah.  Right.   I'm just going to move over here a moment and pound my head on this table.  No reason.  When you have a lot of sycophants that agree with you all the time, you'll understand.

Now, I think every player in every campaign already knows this.  I think they know it because they sit, and wait, and wait, and sit, and listen to the one player that wants to talk to the butcher run through every . . . single . . . damn . . . facet of this conversation.  I think they know how much they just wish that we would get the hell on with things, but they don't say so, because, well, because they have bought into the argument that this is the game, because they have been told this is the game and because it is the only style of play that they have ever seen.  So it is a necessity.  Got to have role-playing in a role-playing game.  Can't have a game without role-playing.  No sirree.

Except, you know, role-playing is rushing somewhere, and fleeing, and fighting the clock, and making a choice between dilemmas, and suffering great loss, and having everything suddenly go to shit, and having to figure out how you're still going to do the thing you were going to do before that guy died and left you holding the bag.  Role-playing is a lot of gawddamn things, but most of all it is getting past all the dross and the boring and the let's-act-this-out-in-painful-detail . . . because hell, I only have four hours to let these guys find the guy that will tell them where the guy is, so they can ask the guy the one question they need to ask to get the answer that will get them past the door and face-to-face with the frightening dude who has his hand on the lever already that's going to guarantee that the thing is lost.  I don't have time to saunter and rub my false mustache and dream up clever character traits that no one right now gives a shit about.  All they care about is that damn lever and its position right now.  Character?  Character is found in whether or not the guy pulls or doesn't pull.  That's all the party cares about.

The rest of it, the stuff I see when I watch other people play, the lacklustre dull dragging blandfest that's going on when I'm sitting next to a table that's supposed to be in combat but looks like six people waiting for a job interview, is just awful.  That is what the people arguing the nonsensical particulars about role-play vs. dice-play just don't understand. They're not in the same ballgame. Hell, it ain't the same ballpark, it ain't the same league, it ain't even the same fuckin' sport.

The role-play they get themselves wet over don't mean shit.

How to Learn How to Role-play

Well, I have a confession.  My upcoming book, How to Run: an Advanced Guide on Managing Role-playing Games, does not contain a section on 'how to role-play.'

I considered this for a long time.  I realize that there are DM's who don't know how to role-play, who find it daunting, who even feel silly while doing it.  They would probably like some sort of guide that told them how to adopt voices or speak with conviction, or how to act out the part of a noblewoman as opposed to a char lady.  No doubt, they must believe there is a 'trick' that can be taught.

The reality is that any advice that I could offer along these lines would be trite and unsatisfactory. Advice that I've seen in the past tried to point to examples or situations: if you were a dragon and you had lost everything to a party of adventures, how would you feel?  Or the advice is very general and therefore meaningless: have attitude; make it interesting.  And so on.

I saw little value in pursuing this course of instruction.  The opportunity for people to initiate the learning process on how to role-play came when they were children, when any L-shaped object served as a gun, when a set of playground bars served as a spaceship or a castle, when an empty field covered in snow was a distant planet and so on.  I can only express my sympathy for readers who wish to play D&D but did not invest this very important effort at an early time in your lives.  It must suck for you.

I recommend having children.  This is not something I'm likely to put into a 'how-to' book so I'll say it freely here.  Make yourself tolerable enough that a member of the opposite sex is willing to - at the very least - fraternize and give you occasional access to the offspring.  Obviously, you might want more than that, but occasional access will at least teach you how to look at the world as a mystical, marvellous place.  That is, if you're able to communicate with children unlike a parent with his or her head up your ass.  You may think that's obvious, but I remember being a child and a parent that could breathe air that was not coated in brown seemed like a very rare thing.  So in following this advice, I suggest not getting 'stuffy' with your head.  This will enable you to observe, and participate, with a human being that will be able to both teach you how to 'make believe' and tell you honestly when you're really shit at it.

I do not recommend attempting to make believe with someone else's children.  Just don't go there.

Very well, you've received basic instruction on how to role-play.  Here's what you're going to have to do next.  Enjoy what you've learned.  Recognize the 99% of those around you that are your own age have already decided this is either impossible or emotionally retarded.  Try to view these people as your child instructor would - or as you would, if you were a child.  Perspective is very important. Try to have some.  Try to grasp that stringing a bunch of words together that are creative is 'childish' and that 'childish' is a wonderful thing.  To be 'like a child' is to be inventive, suspicious, immersive and free from 'head-up-the-butt' syndrome.   Children demand proof of friendship every day and will make instantaneous enemies of people who are selfish, miserable, abusive or otherwise impossible to get along with.  Children like to learn.  Embrace these things.

Step three.  Rid yourself of everyone around you that cannot embrace these things.  Just get rid of them.  If they cannot accept your being a free spirit an hour or two a day - if they don't know the meaning of the words 'free spirit' - then show them the door.  These people have already adopted death of mind as a preferential condition to life.  Cut them out of your life.  Their influence on your thoughts will only go to bad places.

Very well.  Your players should only consist now of people who can embrace role-playing.  You should be able to participate in role-playing games knowing you are surrounded by other people who embrace them.  Enjoy.