Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Megaverse Explained

I think I just wrote a religion.

From my wiki:

All the substance that exists in the meta-universe of existences, sometimes called the Metaverse, originates from two fundamental planes defining the nature of substance, the Negative and Positive material planes. Between these two planes there exists a balance, but one that is fluid and ever changing, animated in a timeless void. In effect, the two planes churn together, becoming conjoined in such a manner that time is transiently brought into existence . . . creating a time 'period' which lasts many billions of years, in which all other existence is birthed and ultimately destroyed again.

The churning, conjoined happenstance manifests, initially, as the Elemental Planes, which may occur in varying degrees depending upon the incident of consolidation. The present relationship, where the elements are balanced and made manifest in the manner we recognize, is mere chance; another moment of churn would create utterly different, unfamiliar balances - but these are not matters with which we ever need concern ourselves.

We describe the focus where the elemental planes form the reality we recognize as the Prime Material Plane. This plane comprises the familiar structure of 'reality,' or the known universe, which includes Earth, the Solar System, the unnumbered galaxies and the widest reaches of intergalactic space. This existence is often simply referred to as the 'Prime Material.' The name itself is a misnomer, incorrectly given due to the subjective position of those prejudiciously attached to their plane of occupation.

Coextensive with the Prime Material is the Prime Immaterial, more familiarly called the Ethereal plane, an insubstantial reflection of the more substantial world, occupied by ethereal shades whose existence tends to slip in and out of the Prime Material, randomly or upon the will of the ethereal creature. On Earth, ethereal creatures are categorized as manifestations.

Through the accumulation of thought, following a long evolution initiated by the present incident of consolidation, further planes of semi-existence (generally referred to as the Outer Planes) came into being. The cognitive fury of millions of the Prime Material's inhabitants steadily served, over the space of tens of thousands of years, to vivify - bring to life - the unmistakable reality of these Planes beyond the simple understanding of the universe's first inhabitants. As each planet in the Prime Material became home to intelligent life, each outer plane that was conceived and therefore made substance grew in service with the individual culture's imagination. Thus, our outer planes are occupied by our imaginations alone - the outer planes created by the thoughts of other planets are unique to those civilizations. Though infinite, they are outside our ability to reckon and therefore outside our ability to visit. We may only visit those planes that our reckoning could create.

The first outer plane, slowly appreciated in Paleolithic times, with belief but without articulation, emerged as a vast, empty void that we call the Astral Plane, where endless vortices spiral out now to the Higher Outer Planes, which were necessarily forced to attach themselves to the framework that was previously created. Thus, to travel to any other outer plane, we must first cross the Astral Plane - which may be thought of as the imaginative existence created by the animal brain of intelligence. All other planes whose names are familiar to us are truly 'outer' in the sense that they are beyond the Astral.

Hm.  I need an image.

The Best Players

Today's contribution is the rework of this rule - it took me nearly three hours before I was satisfied with the balance of the table.  Not that people will agree with it or adopt it - but just because I was frustrated with the algorithm offered in the old DMG.

Has anyone ever noticed how very little actual description there is of turning undead in AD&D?  Maybe I'm getting old and senile, but I couldn't find the rule for it anywhere, certainly not in the index.  I'm sure the younger version of me remembers where it is.  Even the table on p. 75 of the DMG has no actual description of how it works.  Funny, dat.

My rewrite of the rule can be found on the wiki.

Here's a copy of the table, so that this post looks like I contributed something:

Do me a favor and resist telling me about the versions of the table in later editions (assuming they even still use this rule).  I greatly reworked the rule about four years ago - through game play, I've found it to be quite effective.  The newest change is to remove the clerical level from the equation - and indeed, to diminish the skill so that is it no longer automatically something a cleric has as a power (though there is some minor power if no knowledge of Dweomercraft is possessed).

Why do that?  Well, the sage abilities do add a number of different powers for clerics, though admitted the amateur level skills I've been working on are useful for information but little else.  This is part of my greater plan - to bring every power under the same general system, not to necessarily diminish the overall power but to allow the player to pursue specific elements of that power.

This is, of course, the error that 2e made, that I've railed against a thousand times - the difference, I feel, is in making the strength of the ability somewhat random, including the possibility that skills NOT chosen may become, through chance, as powerful as something that's chosen.  The logic there is that while the character may want to be a great leader, politician, mad scientist or whatever, the character's actual talents may balance towards other things.  Add to this certain elements of cross-training, while working in duality with the original character design of fighting and spellcasting, I feel that there is less chance of a character power-maxing themselves in a manner that others can then copy without fail.

Of course I'm in a room by myself here.  While I expect everyone else to pirate and hack the rules I'm making for their own worlds (and they are encouraged to do so!), I don't imagine anyone will follow my ideas chapter & verse.  Still, my goal is to organize the information until the structure is complete, comprehensive and repeatable in other campaigns.

Let me just add, I've never introduced a character development scheme that was so embraced by players.  Even if I only count the information distribution levels for amateurs only (identify demi-god, beast, manifestation, whatever), the players adore the idea that they simply know something without having to beg the information from someone else.  This is why they have me working hard on the system right now.

I was surprised with the agreement they made.  I explained that the depth of the system would probably mean I couldn't create the tables for every class, from amateur up to sage, in less than two years.  That would mean that if I wanted to reintroduce the rules sooner, either a) some classes would get benefits before every class did; or b) they would have to wait until I did the amateur levels only, whereupon they would have to make their final picks on their knowledge choices without knowing what the higher level benefits would be.

Unanimously, the players in both my off-line campaigns all picked (b).  They all felt that it was enough just to know the most basic skills they would get . . . even if that meant later on seeing something really amazing in another skill that they did not know about when choosing the skills they had.

When you look at some of what I've posted - here and here for instance - consider the unlikelihood of your guessing what sort of skills would be available as a master or sage based upon those things listed under amateur for Fungi or Bushes & Shrubs.  Meaning that the players, picking from amateur skills only, are shooting blind . . . and they are okay with that!

I have two explanations.  First, my players trust me.  Sincere, solid trust.  They know that no matter what skills they pick, I will make sure they are rewarded with something good.  That's the benefit of years of making sure they are enjoying the game.

Second, they trust themselves.  No matter what they get, they know they'll make it work.  They'll apply their imaginations, dig in and find a way to soak every bit of power they can.

You know what else my players told me - each party coming up with this explanation on their own?  Paraphrased, they told me, "Well, our characters wouldn't 'know' what there was to know about the knowledge study when they started out, would they?  Not being experts, they'd pick the subjects because those things interested them - knowing what they could do with the subjects later on would only come when the characters got smarter."

Gawd love these people.  I have the best players ever.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Socks & Faith

I'd like to ask the reader to forgive me if lately they have asked me a question and heard nothing back from me except a stony silence.  I assure you the silence is not the least stony.  It's been Christmas and I've been on vacation.  Combine that with the pressure I've been feeling to press on with the sage abilities - which is like flogging myself with socks full of dung - and you may get something of my present state of mind.  I find myself looking dully at ideas that I'm not presently working on like a ape in the forest seeing a bulldozer for the first time.

So, I'm a bit disconnected.  All I can suggest is that if you have a question that you feel strongly deserves to be answered, please ask me again - probably with some appropriately abusive sobriquet added in order to get my attention.

Wikispaces has added a feature that enables me to identify the number of unique visitors and the number of page views - so now I know that I'm seeing 60 some isp addresses and upwards of 400+ page views a day.  Some of you out there are dedicated followers!  That's around 7 average page views per person; a sign of real interest.

The site also lets me measure the number of edits I've been making.  This last few days it's been 30-35 a day, which - and you'll have to trust me on this - is a lot of damn work.  Yet the process is so achingly slow its easy to lose faith and give up.  But I hope to push on, keeping it together, making headway every day - even if this kills me.

(when you read my obituary next week, that will really make you stop and think)

So, yes, the emphasis on the blog will be on the various abilities I'm adding daily.  Sorry for any of you who wish I could get back to some other subject - unfortunately for you, this blog is enslaved to whatever thing my efforts are tied.  I can only hope that more of you will find things in the wiki that interest you.

Okay.  I'm going to get back to heroes and whatever comes next today.  Keep warm, keep happy and have a great New Year.  I'm planning a 12-hour running on Jan 1, the first of those I've tried in a few years.

Define Morality

Certainly one of the oddest sage abilities in the repetoire:

Gives the character knowledge of whether a circumstance or action is right or wrong, offering clarity in situations where the character may be suffering from a dilemma.

The correct answer in these cases should be framed so as to offer the best possibility for the character's survival without causing ill will towards others. Inherent within the knowledge should be elements of character restraint, generosity, fortitude and patience . . . the character should not insist that the forthcoming answer require no effort or that it should provide instant gratification.

Balancing this, should the character pursue the course suggested (and the DM must propose this knowledge as a guideline and not an absolute list of required actions), the DM should be careful to balance moments in the campaign in the character's favor, allowing the character to avoid saving throws or gratuitous attacks from monsters who could reasonably choose to parley instead. Naturally, should the character behave immodestly in situations, such dangers should increase, indicative of the character 'falling by the wayside.'

Remember that the character must deliberately choose to be introspective in order to determine a moral answer; the player is also free, once the answer is given, to take whatever action they like. The DM must be prepared to give an answer that in no way serves the campaign or the player - but rather, the answer should reflect what would truly be the least selfish approach to the problem the character could adopt.

It is suggested that if the DM feels that this is beyond their ability to give, it is suggested that the players as a group decide the answer, and that the DM then 'adjust' the campaign to empower that answer. Alternately, the DM could simply discontinue the use of this ability.

I would imagine that many DMs would pale and shudder at the idea of this sort of thing - particularly at the suggestion that the campaign itself should be moderated in favor of the player choosing to follow through.

I'm not certain everyone understands this, so I will wax a bit upon it.

Suppose the players find themselves trapped between two groups who appear to both possess a blood-thisty approach to life, seem equally difficult to approach and which pose an equal threat to the party. Not knowing which side to trust, the character with the Define Morality ability considers, silently, the situation, going over all the details learned to that point, in their mind studying the faces and the words heard from both groups.

What answer should the DM give? Particularly if both sides ARE of the same nature?

Fundamentally, I presume the DM has greater knowledge than the player, enabling a superior judgement call on what would be the correct side to trust. Furthermore, if the situation is well-designed, there should be good cause to believe that the appearance of the two forces is a veneer intended to hide the true nature of at least one force if not both. Finally, I propose that the DM should manufacture an inherent good that allows the player to know which side would, in fact, protect the player and party from the other.

At that point, the DM should say, "You can better trust Group B" - adding, to place pressure upon the player, elements into the action that would require the character to sacrifice, make promises or pledges, wait until the time is right and so on.

The player would then be free to ignore this advice, raise swords and perhaps succeed against either group - because the moral path should not be the only path! The player should not be punished for not deciding to approach the matter considerately.

However, the player should be meaningfully rewarded if choosing to follow the advice given by Define Morality - even if that advice does, in the short run, result in the character suffering somewhat. The moral path is not always the easiest! It is, however, the one that should bring the greatest reward, even if the long run is required to identify the full fruition of that reward.

I hope that helps define the ability. I would hope that a DM here or there would consider the value something like this could add to the campaign. At the same time, I also recognize how truly difficult it would be to either manage the answer once it was given or encourage players to accept it as truth.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Becoming a Functionary

It has taken me some time, but at last I feel I have put together a set of working rules to determine the acquisition, amount of responsibility and punishment for incompetence where holding a position within the state or kingdom is concerned.  Enjoy.

Take special note of the links for influence and incompetence on the linked page - particularly the latter, as I'm proud of the method I finally settled on for working out results.

Friday, December 26, 2014

The Snowden Effect

This is the third post of a trio.  The first is The Dungeon's Front Door.

Many DMs - particularly those with little experience, who require time to learn that the methodology is not a virtue - fall into the trap of believing that Newton's Third Law of motion ought to apply to role-playing games.  I made this mistake myself, and often, before time and wisdom supplanted the habit.  Every action should not have an equal and opposite reaction, yet no doubt we will always encounter DMs who stubbornly cling to the maxim.

On the surface, it looks very reasonable.  Player actions, it is presumed, deserve consequences.  If players blindly kill people, justice or some other principle should step in and punish the player for acting in a clumsy and stupid manner - particularly if the player has committed the crime in plain view, in the middle of a town full of guards, where the player is a foreigner without allies. It seems proper that punishment should follow crime like night follows day.

In fairness, this is true.  The trouble with Newton's Law of Role-playing - oh, and I'm sorry I haven't written the law out clearly and precisely - is that so often it IS a reliable, responsible way to run the game.  Stupid player behaviour must compel consequences . . . the problem lies in the definition of "stupid player behaviour," for all too often this is subject to a very vague interpretation by the DM, the one person who knows every aspect of every consequence that can potentially occur.  Substantially, from the DM's perspective, every action that doesn't follow heel-and-toe in the DM's belief system can absolutely be tagged 'stupid.'

Players, however, are not invested with the DM's knowledge - and what looks stupid to the DM, the source that invokes Newton's Law, can very much look quite the reasonable action to the player.  If the DM doesn't possess the empathy to understand this - and most new DMs do not - then a campaign will quickly become the invocation of Newton's Law in every circumstance.

Here I'll print Newton's third law, as played in far too many RPGs:  For every player action, there is an equal and opposite non-player reaction.

The error lies in the word 'every.'  It does not take long for a party to recognize this behaviour in a DM, nor to begin looking over their shoulders waiting for the trap that is due to spring when the DM decides to ultimately blindside them.  We might call this paranoia among players "the Snowden Effect" - since it results from a party, doing the best they can with the information they have, to anticipate the rain of shit that is due to result from the DM deciding what the appropriate 'consequences' are.

Strangely, however, there is a context in which Newton's Law of RPGs does not apply - that being, inside a dungeon.

Oh, this doesn't say that dungeons aren't full of consequences.  Step on the crack, break your paladin's back, that sort of thing.  However, dungeons are also filled with possibilities that have no consequence whatsoever . . . a point to which I have alluded, without explanation, for two posts now.  In a dungeon, my party and I may quite reasonably come across a humanoid stronghold, enter it, kill every being alive within, women and children included, pillage, burn and ultimately escape without any negative consequence befalling the party whatsoever - because what happens in a dungeon in role-playing stays in the dungeon.

Granted, we've had to overcome the consequence of waking the humanoids up, of having to fight them in their scores, of having to risk every trap and so on - but there's no one to hire an assassin to compensate for the squidgy spawn I smashed with my mace, nor a vendetta to follow the mass execution that has just made me and my party rich.  In a dungeon, the consequences are reasonable, predictable - and best of all, finite.  Eventually, with the cleaning out of the dungeon, the last consequence is put to bed.

Not so in the outside world.  Out there, DMs willfully and mercilessly ensure that every possible consequence that can be minutely justified will be conjured and used to haunt the party into the grave.  There is no last consequence outside the grave.

Consider again the four principles with which I ended the last post.

In truth, an imminent threat (point d) can exist anywhere.  The character can be sitting on a river bank, resting in the middle of the day, chewing a carrot and some of the jerky the party has brought along for provisions, when a badger can emerge from the verge inches away, only to go berserk upon the character's toes.  This sort of thing happens all the time.  No one is ever truly 'safe' - that being the sort of thing emphasized by the 'wandering monster.'

The world outside the dungeon can of course serve to upgrade the character (point c).  Hunting big mammals, clubbing to death some fellow as he emerges from a tavern and making off with his money, breaking into the guardhouse on the edge of town, looting the paybox and then dropping down the outside of the walls to safety, this sort of activity can be planned and brought to fruition without much trouble.  A player doesn't actually need a dungeon to upgrade their character.

Nor are narrow, cramped settings (point a) to be found only in dungeons.  Narrow settings exist whenever the player finds that only a few choices (perhaps two or three) are practical. It doesn't matter that these choices are limited by the underground or by circumstances - players will naturally seize upon what action seems best without those actions needing to be artificially limited by walls, doors and darkness.

The only real separation between the two sides of the Dungeon's front door is the matter of consequence.  It's here that I return to the argument with which I ended the last post.  You don't need a 'dungeon' to produce the positive effects of the dungeon.  What's needed is a reasonable and rational approach to consequences - when they apply and IF they apply.

Without a doubt, many DMs need to back off.  They need to accept that occasionally it's fine if the players overcome the guards in the guardhouse, grab the lock box and get away scot free without ever being found or brought to justice.  The DM arguing that this is unacceptable will have trouble explaining how this is fundamentally different that breaching a traditional dungeon, killing the inhabitants and escaping with the treasure.

As a side note, I am surprised when I hear complaints about the 'meaningless' use of wandering monsters, merely because the presence of such monsters are irrelevant to the adventure.  Once again, back off!  Why is the wandering monster meaningless but the wholly convenient trap between rooms 19a and 19c perfectly in keeping with good gaming?  How is it that the presence of a monster that the party can quickly dispatch, without consequence, earning themselves a bit of experience and perhaps a bit of treasure (depending upon the monster), a completely unacceptable thing?

It seems to me that there are a number of arbitrary judgements cast about regarding what makes for outside dungeon play and what's acceptable for its counterpart inside.  We need higher principles than those.  We need an understanding that reaches past the artifice of the dungeon for what makes enjoyable, lucrative advancement balance the satisfying benefits of immersion.  We need a doorway the players can comfortably stand in, where they know with reasonable assurance what risks they take when moving back and forth through that door.  Finally, we need it hammered in stone what benefits both sides offer the campaign and why players should care.

Write that on your Dungeon's door.  Be sure to write it on both sides.

Free Parking

Continuing from Wednesday's post:

While this may read like a lead-in to a discussion of dungeons that do not incorporate the proximity issues of traps and monsters, the reality is that no one wants that.  For all their irrational faults, dungeons hold a legitimate place in the game-play of RPGs comparable to Free Parking or Pass Go and collect $200.  After struggling through campaigns heavy with ramifications, the making of enemies, intrigue, suspense, significance and what not, the player is also entitled to land on a square occasionally that momentarily eliminates all that intensity.  It doesn't matter that dungeons are illogical, baseless, flimsy in design or even laughable on occasion.  We have to have them.  Their presence offers the player characters growth - manifested in the game as a leap in game points necessary to improve themselves (upgrading) through new powers and greater wealth.

Upgrading is necessary - without it the game grows stale, primarily because each repeated use of a given power reduces the novelty - and therefore the emotion surrounding the use of that power.  A boost is occasionally needed, regardless of the 'meaning' behind that boost.  The DM who patently ignores the need for that boost in favour of immersive gaming - where game-play is based on interaction, character development, investigation into conspiracies and so on - all the time will find a table of disgruntled, dissatisfied gamers.

This does not suggest that immersive gaming isn't all important.  It is.  More important, unquestionably, than the dungeon.  The two are not, however, in competition with each other.  This is what makes the dungeon such a sweet problem solver where it comes to the game's enjoyment overall: the dungeon can, at any time, be easily implanted into the immersive game at any point, enabling the players to continue developing themselves and their characters, while at the same time getting a shot in the arm that let's them upgrade and enjoy their new, enhanced superiority overall.

We need to understand that the dungeon does that.  Moreover, we need to recognize that the placement of that dungeon's front door in the campaign becomes the make-or-break point for the perfect balance between immersion and character enhancement.

Why the front door?  Because that is the threshold.  That is the moment when the players are looking forward to the deep, meaningful rewards they expect to obtain while at the same time looking back at the campaign they are momentarily forsaking.  For a session or two, they know, the baddies outside in the world will be shut out while the players venture inside . . . and yet the baddies will still be there when the time comes for the players to leave.

Even if the purpose of the dungeon is to solve some problem that exists on the outside; even if the outside pursues the players into the dungeon as a means to bleed the inside and outside realities into each other, the door both in and out remains the clear dividing line.

The reality outside allows for freedom of movement, opportunities to escape the present situation and begin anew some place else, the assuredness that the enemy or death is not inches away . . . but it also means an almost total lack of control over anything.  The outside world, even if it is only a hundred miles across, is far too large to be effectively managed; there are too many creatures, too many organization, too vast a network of power-plays in effect to ever allow the players to feel fully comfortable.

The reality inside offers the reverse.  This hallway can be perfectly controlled by hammering nails into each end and then posting guards; even an excessive number of enemies can't begin to match the population of a single city in the outside.  The enemy and death may be right here, within reach, but it is an easily guessed at death, an easily understood enemy, something that can be handled with direct tool use plus brutality.  Here, there is no freedom of movement - and yet, oddly, that seems to bring each choice into a comfortable clarity.

The party understands that there is a difference here.  They grasp the reality change again and again as they cross that threshold, both ways.  Going in, the party tightens, grows deliberate, sets themselves to make work of the environment through careful ordering of themselves and their methods.  Coming out, the party relaxes, eases off from the pressure of imminent consequences and begins to chatter jovially about what they will do individually once they reach the nearby town. Going in, the party's faces become grim; coming out, they smile.

I am describing a balance.  I don't say the balance must be 50/50 . . . or even that the balance should be the same for every DM and every party.  That would be nonsensical.  I do say that some sort of balance should be evident in every campaign and that the DM should be conscious of the balance.  Steps need to be taken to implicitly define the relationship between both sides of the Dungeon's Door and what elements of each side are or can be bled into the other.

More to the point, we should stop pretending that there is no difference.  The dungeon offers rewards that immersion play cannot offer - not without the invention of ridiculous, ad hoc and thus meaningless rewards for immersion play.  How does it work that organizing a fiat or willfully finagling a result through planning and deliberation somehow translate to the combat readiness of the character, the purpose underlying every point benefit and enhancement?  Conversely, how can tramping through halls and rooms, foiling traps and killing monsters produce a meaningful character experience?

I'll go one further - if the campaign means to offer experience and health rewards for "role-play," in order to make the immersive game that much more important, why not go the extra step and eliminate all point systems?  If you do not want your game measured by the players desire for combat, remove the rewards of combat entirely!  Reduce combat to what it is for real people in the real world - a terrifying, awful experience that brings no reward and can only result in injury or death.  Eliminate the benefits of combat and the game must become an immersive character-based campaign or nothing.

Conversely, if you will have a game that embraces the dungeon in its full glory, then do the same. Get rid of intelligence and wisdom, burn down any rule that contributes to characterization and play for the one abiding duality that remains - live or die.

I don't believe rpgs are improved by either attitude.  I believe that both must be embraced, in the balance that I've been arguing.  I believe that the players out there who rail for one ideal or the other are foolishly single-minded and limited in their perception of what this game offers:  BOTH.

This much, however, should be obvious.  Though I have been beating the drum for several paragraphs, I don't believe that the last four or five hundred words will have enlightened the reader by any appreciable degree.  Yet my goal requires that I establish a baseline from which we can advance to greater things.

Let us return to first principles.  The last essay and this one exist to establish these characteristics that go up to making a dungeon: a) that the dungeon provides a narrow, cramped setting where it comes to decision-making; b) that a dungeon offers temporary freedom from emotional/situational consequences; c) that a dungeon offers meaningful opportunities to upgrade the character; and d) that an imminent threat exists.

Just to hammer those points home, the dungeon is straightforward, I can kill whatever I want without giving a damn and I'm going to get rich doing it, even if that means I could die any second.

Viewed that way, what is a dungeon?  Does it need to be brick and stone?  Does it need to be underground?  Does it need anything except an opportunity to kill or be killed?  It does not!  A momentarily lapse in the tight, rigorous control of the campaign - or a deliberate place where the controls are overlooked for perfectly acceptable reasons (such as the Free Parking space) will satisfy the requirement!

I'm going to take a break for a bit - but I'm not done yet.  I've got to extrapolate on this last paragraph, don't I?

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

The Dungeon's Front Door

Here we stand at the dungeon's front door.  Behind us spreads a world of choices, the freedom to load our junk up and strike out towards other places, towards other purposes, with whatever ambitions that we may possess.  Once we cross the threshold of the door, however, those choices will quickly be reduced.  If it happens that we do not 'clean out' the dungeon, if the dungeon proves to be deeper than our pool of abilities, our hit point total or our health, then steadily the only remaining choice will be to get out or die.

We enter understanding this.  If we are not compelled to enter by virtue of the campaign or the predestined will of our characters as determined by the DM, then entering the dungeon is a contractual obligation: "We resolve that our personal freedoms will be curtailed by degrees as we delve deeper into the dungeonscape, recognizing that by doing so we may be trapped, overwhelmed by monsters, magically transformed or otherwise cut off from supplies and help.  We do this of our own free will."

Rarely, in my experience, do players contemplate the consequences of stepping across that front door. Yes, they recognize that they might trip a wire, dump themselves into a chute and awaken on the fourth level down.  Yes, the recognize that after a certain point they will be run out of spells, health, healing items and equipment.  There is a moment of trepidation they feel before walking through the front door, which is the tension in the campaign the dungeon offers.

At the same time, players venture in with one, overarching expectation.  The dungeon will have treasure.  No matter what the dungeon may look like on the outside, no matter how ancient the doorway might be, no matter how irrational it is that piles of gold should have accumulated through random process into the possession of monsters living dozens of miles from the nearest town, trade route or moneychanger, the dungeon must and will contain piles of gold coins, worked gems, crafted jewelry, difficult to manufacture magical items and so on.  For those are the rules.  This is the balance of the contract.  "We, the players, venture into this dungeon and abandon our sandboxy privileges in exchange for prizes and riches we could not obtain otherwise."

It is in the dungeon that the metagame is forced upon us.  DMs worthy of the game cannot present a dungeon that is no more than empty tunnels and passageways, as would exist in the real world.  There must be things living down there.  These things must have treasure.  Any alternative to that equation makes for bad gaming.

The reasons are easy to explain.  The game is about improvement.  Dungeons, part of the game from the beginning, have been established in the game's mythology as necessarily existing, because in the player's understanding the dungeon is the fastest and most advantageous means of increasing the characters two measurements of improvement:  experience and treasure.  The DM can no more ignore the mythology of the dungeon than a film-maker can ignore the mythology of a happy ending.

Any subversion of that mythology is done at the DM's peril.

Yes, there are games that throw out the dungeon.  There are no doubt games where the DM says frankly to the player, "There's no guarantee that this dungeon will possess treasure."  There are films, too, without happy endings.  However, these will never be popular.  Where it comes to the DM and the DM's friends, running as players in the campaign, popularity is key.  It must be courted.

Players understand this as well as anyone - and in understanding this, they cheerfully toss away their 'rights' of agency freely upon encountering a dungeon in expectation of all the treasure they're going to gain.  The expectation is so high, in fact, that often the certainty of that treasure breaks the tension the dungeon offers.  Dungeons may even lead players to interpret the dungeon's presence as a guarantee offered by the DM for the player's advancement.  Thus the statement becomes, "We, the players, venture into this dungeon knowing damn well that the DM is going to come across with valuables and magic - in fact, that better be the case!"

So as the players enter the dungeon's front door, they are less concerned with the loss of their freedom than with their expected, even privileged ideas about personal gain.

Morally, this has represented a kind of sin - specifically, avarice.  Where personal well-being or safety is sacrificed in the expectation of base gain, philosophers and dramatists have long sought to hoist the patently immoral individuals upon their own petard - making them the victim of their own plots.  Where dungeons are concerned, this could mean having the individuals buried in a trap that could never have killed them had they been wise enough to keep out of a dungeon.  In role-playing, however, this option is expressly off the table.  The DM is not a moralist.  The DM cannot punish the players for avarice, since the game's point systems are all based upon rewarding greed rather than punishing it.

This places the DM in a difficult position.  While wishing to place obstacles between the players and the guarantee of wealth existing in the dungeon, the DM's choice of obstacles cannot be seen as contrary to the player's wishes.  Overuse of death traps or mechanical means designed to separate players from their equipment - or players from each other - are seen as manipulative and inconsistent with the game's purpose.  The DM is obliged to give the players a good game - but this does not include producing a dungeon scape full of puzzles that turn out to be insolvable (at least for the party at the table), endless empty rooms which drain the party of its verve, masses of monsters that are obviously too powerful for the party to overcome and other such hindrances.

Since no two parties are alike, the line between 'hindrance' and 'good game' can fall anywhere.  Some parties will cheerfully accept limb-rending traps that require the introduction of new character after new character.  Other parties will see the inclusion of such things as cheap and mean-spirited.  Some parties will view the assault of a dungeon as a logical series of adventuring starts, retiring to town between each foray to resupply and start again.  Other parties will not stand for this sort of long-lasting nonsense; for them, the dungeon must be completed by the end of the night, for who knows when they will run again?

The need to service the party once it has entered the dungeon provides its own form of player agenda - for no part of the game will prove to be as contentious as the party's view of how a dungeon ought to play out.  No party would stand for the presence of a death trap inside the dungeon's front door, nor the DM's plaintive argument, "You knew you were taking a risk by going inside!"  The party knows that exposing them to any danger within the dungeon without a clear and reasonable warning of the dangers ahead perpetrates an unfair advantage that, though possessed by the DM, cannot be employed by the DM.

More plainly stated, once the players enter the dungeon, the DM is reconfigured into the party's caretaker.  It is not enough to say that the dungeon has walls and door - the DM is obligated to give hints and clues throughout the dungeon that transmits information to the players about what comes next . . . hints and clues that are not necessary in the free agency of the wilderness.

The separation of dungeon and wilderness is inherent in aspects of the dungeon mythology - the presence of traps and monster proximity.

It is supposed - again from the mythology - that traps will proliferate in any dungeonscape, no matter how ancient and untended the environment.  Even in tombs that are hundreds of years old, it is routine that wood never rots, string and thread under tension never gives and that metal rods, brackets, switches, gears or such ever rust or seize.  No matter how complicated the design or how unlikely it may be that the various hundred working parts will produce the desired result without failure, the desired result is certain to occur.  Traps, within the game, must be viewed as living entities that work perfectly from the day they are installed and set, until such time as they go off or they are unset.  Though it would surely require magic to keep a trap in such good working order, without maintenance, even over the space of a single year, traps possess no magic aura that can be detected.  Somehow, traps - though made by ordinary, often dull-minded creatures - exist in an alternative universe where their substantiality is kept forever hidden.  Within role-playing games, we create life when we form a noose or a spring trap, without knowing we have done so.

This unreality is never questioned.  Traps are such nifty things that it is impossible to imagine a 'true' dungeon without their presence.  Traps are not, however, encountered in such numbers in the wilderness - or even in urbanscapes like towns, cities or individual lairs.  A single trap may exist to defend a trunk or a singular, unused doorway, but it is assumed that since people move around in the outside world, traps are infeasible.  They retain a practical existence only in places where people are rarely expected to investigate.  This premise is universal.

As with traps, which may reside at any moment within inches of a character inside a dungeon, it can also be said that, at any time, there are monsters that wait in eternal readiness within a few feet of the party.  Once again, this seems unlikely in the wilderness.  In the wilderness, most large monsters, along with monsters moving along in numbers exceeding thirty or forty, produce evidence of their existence: the sound of their movement, physical evidence of their passing, things left behind and so on.  In a dungeon, this is not so.  A dungeon door will appear to the character exactly the same, whether the room beyond is empty and full of dust or full of bloodthirsty humanoids with weapons in hand, slavering for the moment when the luckless point pulls the door's handle.

Doors are sacrosanct dividers between the 'inner world' of the monster's lair and the means of entrance the party has used.  The door will not look as though it has been used regularly because the monster within will never have used that door.  There will be no evidence of trash - unwanted material junk - ejected out of the lair by the inhabitants, though any culture would see the hall or the room beyond the door as an obvious dumping area.  Nor will the doorway that is never in use be bricked up, spiked or blocked by sacks, boxes and endless other material.  The door may be stuck, but it will open - completely - into a room that will seem to have been expressly designed to give the door itself free movement.  We must assume, therefore, that the residents of dungeons revere and worship doors, treating them as inviolable ways into their world that must never be obstructed. Unless, of course, the residents choose to bless the door with a trap.

This proximity to monsters means that the party will forever have the least amount of warning possible before finding themselves in combat.  Monsters will rush full-on from darkened corridors without a sound until they scream their blood-lust before surprise-and-initiative rolls.  Monsters will appear as perfectly camouflaged representations of dungeon walls, floors or ceilings, even though the camouflage is only meaningful where light has been cast.  Monsters will shoot forth from springs, pools, small holes in the wall and such as though fired from launchers that degrade into immateriality immediately after use.  Slimes, molds and jellies will deliver death-dealing measures of acid or disease from a glancing touch, with such volatility that a ten-pound iron bar will degrade to dust in a few seconds.  Paralyzation or poison, when it occurs, affects the entire body instantaneously, as such effects are somehow carried through the body's systems by means other than blood or lymph.

Players are used to this - and yet, there remains an understanding that the full employment of these monsters must be proscribed into the campaign in a very deliberate fashion, one that does not require the characters to experience too many monsters adjacently in too short a time.  Characters are entitled to moments where they can surge, regain health, re-incorporate their spells, locate every coin and valuable in the room, spend the necessary hours dividing 35,891 gold pieces six ways (or potentially into 34 different shares), debate over the value of valuables, argue loudly the distribution of treasure without being heard, etcetera, etcetera.

Well, it is Christmas Eve - and as I am Russian, I will be giving and opening my presents this evening.  So this seems like a good place to rest.  There's more to follow, but I'm gathering my thoughts on that for the moment.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Five Dungeon Starts

The following scenarios are all written to require no previous adventuring, no NPCs telling the party about a dungeon, no need for a mcguffin and no promises whatsoever about what the dungeon may contain.  I've never used any of these - they are freshly invented since yesterday.


The party has settled in for the night at an inn located in a large city.  Not long after midnight, the thief hears footsteps on the roof.  They cross the roof towards the lane outside the inn and there are two thumps as people drop to the ground.  The thief is reminded that there is a window that looks over the street in that direction, and naturally the thief rises and looks outside.

The thief sees two figures arguing silently next to an open sewer grate.  One is holding a cloth made into a sack, and this seems to be the point of contention.  The sack gets shaken up quite a bit.  Finally, one gives up the sack and climbs into the grate first.  The second figure lowers the sack and then follows, pulling the grate back in place.

The thief naturally goes out to search the street and finds a single earring worth about 10 g.p.

If this does not encourage the thief to follow, with or without the party's help, then say that the next day the thief is in front of the inn, eyeing the grate, remembering the night before.  A young boy, well dressed, appears and sits next to the grate, eating an apple.  The boy opens his satchel and draws out a small roll of parchment.  When the boy thinks no one is looking, he extends the parchment towards the grate.  The thief sees two fingers rise above the level of the grate and take the parchment.  The boy finishes his apple and goes away.

The dungeon starts under the grate.  The first level is a second-rate thieves guild, but there may be lower levels dating back centuries containing who knows what.


The party finds themselves in a small village of about 35 buildings, where they hope to pick up enough food supplies to begin (or continue) their journey.  The local grocer has nothing in stock, but he promises that he has a storehouse two miles distant - could the party wait for an hour while he sends his helpers out to get it.  He offers to buy the party a drink at the local alehouse for their trouble.

The alehouse seems to be under repairs - and the party is asked if they don't mind drinking on the back veranda, since it is a nice day.  The veranda overlooks a rather marvellous, attractive valley with small dairy farms scattered along the bottom.  About half a mile away, on the opposite side of the valley, the party can't help but notice a large burnt out area surrounding an immense, blackened manor.  Upon inquiring, the tavern keeper admits that the house was the former residence of the local lord, who apparently died in an altercation - about a month ago - between himself, his wife and his wife's lover.  It's generally agreed that all three died in the fire.  Just now, there's no word on who will be heir to the land, but all is fine as the neighborhood is populated by decent folk.

"Oh yes, the house was searched.  It is a great mess inside, all collapsed.  About ten bodies were found, the others certainly being servants.  No telling what's under the rubble - but no doubt the king will have men here before we need worry about treasure hunters.  More ale?"

Under the house, obviously, is a dungeon.


The party has stopped at a roadside inn, a somewhat fortified, ancient place where the rooms are a bit expensive.  The owner is a pleasant fellow, generous and anxious to emphasize the age of the inn as this seems to be the chief selling point.  The inn was a fort during the time of the ancient kingdom that preceeded the present era.

Mid evening, during the player's meal, the innkeeper approaches the strongest member of the party to ask if he can get some help moving something in the cellar.  "My helper's back has been strained," says the innkeeper.  "Do you mind?"

Likely, all the party together will try to help, but the innkeeper will assure them that there isn't enough room for them all and that it's perfectly safe.  Hopefully, the party can be convinced that this isn't a trap.

The object is an immense iron stove, which the innkeeper needs moved across the small 10x10 foot room under the room's trap door, so it can be hoisted up into the kitchen.  "I moved it here when Warner was my helper," says the Innkeeper.  "Warner could lift anything."

The character finds the stove incomprehensibly heavy, but with the innkeeper helping, they proceed to shift it across the room. Then, just before getting it place, the innkeeper slips and the stove topples, hits the wall and the rights itself again.  The innkeeper is on his butt, attending to his knee, which has been knocked terribly hard.  He asks the character to take the lantern from its hook on the wall so they can look at the knee more clearly.

As the character rises and moves towards the stairs into the cellar, he or she detects something odd about the air.  It has changed.  There's a draft coming down the stairs now, though a very slight one.

Between dealing with the innkeeper's knee and perhaps calling another member of the party, an examination where the stove hit the wall will reveal a quarter-inch slit between blocks, which will be sucking air from inside the cellar (evident from any flame placed close to the slit.

Behind the wall is a dungeon.


While the party is setting up camp, one of their horses is spooked by a huge spider.  The spider is easily killed, but the horse has broken free and wandered off.  Setting up the camp before dark means that only one player has time to go get the horse.

The horse leads the character on a merry chase.  Just as the character nearly get the horse, however, the character is attacked by three kobalds or two goblins (a minimal group of some intelligent humanoid).  Presuming the character easily dispatches these, it occurs to the character that these seemed to appear as if from nowhere.

If the character searches, the horse will poke about the immediate area, keeping within a dozen yards of the character.  The horse will then step into a hole, make save or not; failure will indicate the horse has fallen down a set of hidden stairs.

Feel free to offer a reasonable chance that the player will find the stairs before the horse, if the character is a thief, assassin, monk, druid or ranger.

The stairs lead into the back regions of a humanoid lair - and a dungeon below that.


While travelling in a forest or in the mountains, a male character moves behind some bushes along the road to pee.  As he does, he begins to notice that the soil where he's peeing is draining off a rock, and that the rock itself seems to have an image being made dark by the urine.  The player is free to spray his pee a little wider and reveal that there seems to be a carved stone just under the surface of the ground.

Further examination will reveal a buried stone slab, seven feet by four, three inches thick, covered with images and runes.

Under the slab is a dungeon.


Do you see the pattern?  Happenstance.  So much is easily provided by happenstance.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Mallet Whacking

After some introspection about Saturday's technical problem of connecting the player and the dungeon, I realized that I'd failed to mention craptologist Joseph Campbell's theories on mythology, with the hero's journey neatly shown below:

For the record, I loathe this diagram, I loathe the poor, cherry-picking scholarship that led to this diagram and I loathe the second-rate scholarship that has led to many ignorant junior college English professors embracing this diagram.  I'm not the least sorry if any given reader finds this insulting. Campbell was a hack, right up there with other pseudoscientists like Wilhelm Reich and Erich von Daniken.

But of course, if you promote a theory that every myth corresponds to one ideal, then sell this theory to a million would-be myth-makers, the result is an endless string of shit Hollywood films about chosen messiahs that are called forth to an adventure because it is 'fate,' preferably with characters who are orphans and yet somehow specially manufactured so as to be the only proper saviour.

Thus I did leave out the most obvious and annoying solution for the player + dungeon problem . . . make one of your players "the one" and then pour convenience, ability and invulnerability all over the character like a big sploosh of anointing oil, guaranteeing success in all endeavours.

For the few young here who haven't had time to know better, I warn you away from theories that try to hammer human culture of any form into a single mold.  The result in the end always turns out to be an unsightly mess mashed into a round hold by a wet, dripping mallet . . . but we shouldn't expect that to keep some 'scholars' from trying.  The world seems much simpler if it is neatly packaged up in a bow, even if it takes 200 pages of incomprehensible language to 'prove' that it is so.

The History You Build

I saw The Empire Strikes Back, in the theatre, when I was 16 . . . and to this day I do not understand why I saw that film very differently from other people.  During the great reveal about the bad guy being the father of the good guy, when others were staggered by the shock of it all, I was thinking, "Really?  The writer thought we would swallow that bullshit?"

Apparently, the people did.  Except me.  And so, where movies are concerned, I took a different path.

Yesterday, I saw a film most will think obscure, The Hundred Foot Journey.  I did not think it a very good movie, but I don't mean to go into why.  I will spoil it a bit, without describing the plot.  The movie is about cooking; it includes a lot of food porn.  In the final climax, the writer makes it very clear through the choices of the characters that modern fusion cooking is devoid of soul and passion (compare the father's philosophies about food at the film's beginning with the son's end-of-film decision).

Yet, when I investigated what the critics had to say after watching the film (it is something I do), not a one said anything about this.  Every single critic was completely wrapped up in the relationship between two cultures, one of them Hindu and the other French.  Because, unfortunately, the writer obscured the theme with a thick veneer of racism and insider/outsider conflict - and since the audience is easily obsessed with neanderthal concepts like skin color and cultural bias, that's the only thing anyone writing about the film seems to remember about it.

Where it comes to deconstruction, I'm sad to say that amateur critics or reviewers have trouble drawing the threads together of how the subtle conversation in the first act has relevance to the character's dilemma in the third.  I feel this same issue is what makes audiences unaware of contrived moments in a film - not paying attention to the details, it seems perfectly okay if the two main characters suddenly become lovers.  It's okay if the villain is suddenly the hero's father - even though the basis for this are a few random phrases about the father that could apply . . . well, to anyone.

This is why many of you are so confused when a professional critic seems to love a film that seems slow, purposeless or even moronic.  The merits upon which they judge the film are not based upon the film's enjoyability or measure of escapism - they are seeking the relationships between the phrases and images used at different parts of the film to express a specific idea or emotion, along with the quality and specificity of both the method and the purpose.  Any film where this is done very well will become enjoyable through multiple viewings, because the number of errors are so few.  Compare this with what I wrote a couple weeks ago about seeing the flaws in everything.

If we are going to deconstruct things, it isn't enough just to look at the details.  We must look at the bigger picture.  We want more than how the adventure is constructed, we want to be clear about what the adventure will provide.  What messages does it send about your campaign?  How does the end of this adventure contribute the player's will and desire to step forward into the adventure to come?  How are you selling yourself and your skill as a DM?  It only takes one adventure with a cheap, second-rate twisted ending to plant the seed in your player's mind that you - the DM - are unreliable. That you're out to fuck them.  Think about how you feel when you see another movie released with actors and a director that you've learned not to like.  Hell, are you going to see those movies?  Then why suppose that players are going to come back and run in your world again, faithfully, when you've proven yourself unlikeable?

The great, exciting idea you have for a twist ending today may screw you in the long run.  Look at how the end of Empire completely destroys the evil bastard Darth was in the first movie.  In the Return, Lucas had to bring in the Emperor to provide a reasonable villain (as Darth was reduced to puppet-status); in the pre-quels, there's no comparable villain at all.  To play that one, cheesy reveal in the second film, Lucas mortgaged the farm.  All the films since have been - from my point of view, I'm afraid - unwatchable shit.

Who am I kidding?  I can only ever watch the first one.

You may view your adventures as independent of one another, but in fact you and your players acquire a history through your efforts.  Nor does it matter if this history is acquired in any given genre or system!  The adventure you run in Rifts will affect how your players view you during your Pathfinder campaigns.  You may have switched to 5e, but your adventure scheming and design from 4e is still with you.  And don't think that you're safe from this if you run modules - you choose which modules to run, a reality that reflects upon your character, your philosophy and your method.

If you wonder why you can't seem to make any system work, then it is time to understand that it isn't the system, it is you.  You need to change.  You need to grasp the groundwork you've already laid down - and you're responsible for ripping that groundwork up and replacing it with turf worth playing on.  Which you'll never do if you can't accept that you need to deconstruct your own method with a clear, cold, ruthless eye.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Taking to Pieces

Spent a little time seeking a definition of deconstructionism online and came up short.  Apparently, this is one of those subjects that has been co-opted by scholars who are more interested in obfuscating process than it's practice.  Looking at the straight dictionary definition tells you very little; wikipedia is such a mess that the website itself is encouraging users to simplify and make sense of the page.

Normally, in a situation like this I would jump back in time fifty years and locate an older, more judiciously edited article about the subject - but deconstruction is a relatively recent philosophical approach, lacking a clear, agreed-upon central premise.  This has not stopped it from being applied to virtually every field of study.  In other words, deconstruction is now a soup with a million cooks, all of which are ready to defend this or that principle of deconstructionism as though it were a giant academic internet flame war.

Result:  I can't tell you what it means.

I mean, I could try, but some dunce with an undergraduate philosophy degree would soon be carping about how I missed including the important perspective of Hartman, Miller and De Man, plus whatever other precious scholar of the moment is right now in ascendency.  It's always good to remember that the bullshit argument was invented in a shiny ivory tower.

Still, I'd like to argue the value of deconstruction, which is difficult without a definition.  Shall we try, then, to get a working framework, one that doesn't incorporate all the crapology of the linked wikipedia argument?  Yeah, what the hell.

This etymological dictionary tells us that, prior to 1973, the word was used primarily in reference to building and architecture.  That brings us back to the google dictionary in the link above, which uses the phrase "taking to pieces."  This is a sufficient framework for me.  Deconstruction is "taking to pieces."  With that, we can toss Derrida and the whole incestual butt-fuck investigation of these three words into the dumpster out back, then move on.

Why take things apart?  VeronaKid expressed half the reason for doing so in a post I wrote Thursday, the comment that started this post.  We take things apart so that we can understand what went wrong.  What, in the coroner's opinion, killed the patient?  Obviously, this can be helpful, as it can suggest ways that we could avoid creating a similar circumstance that would cause another patient to die.  More to the point, if the event is something that is ongoing - such as the patient is dying right now - then deconstructing the body in various ways will tell us what we need to be doing to suspend the inevitable result.

These are not reasons, however, that I would give for deconstructing a module (the idea I proposed).  I'm not interested in where the module "went wrong."  I am, however, interested in the examination of how the module was designed to solve certain problems - problems that face the DM whether or not a module is employed.

I find myself wondering if the average DM, involved in the creation of their own adventures, is even aware of the problems the module solves.  If that is the case, then, of course, many a personally-created adventure will fail.  The problem wasn't solved - or perhaps it was solved in a manner that never directly considered the problem - and the ensuing adventure suffers from the oversight.

Let's take the first problem - and one that continues to annoy and be insurmountable for everyone, not just RPGers.  The party is here, in the town, and the dungeon is there, somewhere outside the town, in an unspecified location.  Technically, the players don't know where it is, so they must somehow learn of the dungeon if they're going to go there.  How does this learning take place.

Modules have no doubt tried most everything, but the most common solution early on was the 'rumour.'  This was supposed to relay the necessary information by chance; the party overhears some people at the next table talking about the horrible events going on near such-and-such mountain caves.  Overuse of this idea, however, led to such stupidities as parties approaching the bartender to learn if there were any 'rumours' (try it with a modern bartender sometime) . . . and that in turn led to post-it adventure boards that parties could check whenever they were in town.  Metagaming of this kind solves the problem of getting the party to the dungeon - but at the same time, it begs the question, why have a world at all?  Why not just have pathways between dungeons?  Why not have a glowing sign that says, 'This Way to Dungeon'?  Why not a series of hawkers and stalls all along the route to the dungeon, selling potions, magic items, maps, medieval cheat codes and so on?  Why not have a dungeoneer's market place right in the dungeon?

Things we have all seen.

Medieval Romantic poets solved the problem (player + dungeon) by simply having their subjects roaming all the time, so that dungeons would be stumbled across at the start of the tale.  Since these poets did not have to account for many of the things that an RPG campaign does, it was convenient enough to create a quest for an item that could not be found, thus justifying the endless, itinerant wanderings of knights and wizards through endless empty forests.  The Robin Hood myths solved this problem by stuffing the merry men into Sherwood Forest, which then became a general crossroads of the world where everything ultimately came to them.  Both of these methods continue to work as platforms to support episodic television.

You, the creator, are faced with no less a problem.  You may try having an NPC anviliciously tell the players where to go, try to hire the players to go there, threaten the players if they don't go there or ask the players to come along.  I've often used the last option.  The rumour can be expanded into something that is more prevalent than a myth or a story by the fact that the creature is right now attacking the town, such as Beowulf or Smaug.  When the creature retreats, the party naturally follows.

Whatever you try to do, it will help if you view the matter as a problem to be solved, rather than simply inventing a set of circumstances to initiate the adventure.  You can't produce unique situations until you understand what technical difficulty each situation is meant to overcome - and that is what the player + dungeon problem is: a technical difficulty.

I suggest, for now, that you simply relax, remove the trappings of a possible adventure from your mind, then consider how to solve the problem.  The party is here.  They need to be there.  How do we do that - preferably without the party noticing?

The very best solutions, obviously, are when the party starts off without thinking about it - when they themselves are focused on the outcome and not the instrumental process of getting there.  How are you going to manage that?  What will work in this instance?

Take some time.  Think about it.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Time Saved!

Earlier today, Doug of Doug's Workshop made a comment that I'd like to run with a bit, specifically this part:

"Many people 'learn to cook' not by understanding the principles of the art, but by using the gadgets sold. Garlic press? Sure, you need one because garlic is awesome. Bread machine? Yes, because fresh bread is terrific."

This got me thinking about gadgets in general . . . but before I go off on a tear about the way playing modules kills the imagination, I just won't.  Instead, I'll talk about cooking.

Garlic, for instance.  What you need is a good knife, one where the blade is about an inch deep.  Like the one shown.  Clean off the garlic clove you want.  Place the clove on the cutting board.  Then place the side of the knife over the garlic clove.  Point the knife blade towards you so you won't cut yourself.  Press down on the side of the knife with the heel of your hand, steady but hard, until you feel the garlic crushed between the knife and the board.  Pick up the knife.  The garlic should be very flat, split into several pieces and wet.  If the garlic is still one piece, you haven't pressed hard enough.  Now chop the garlic with the knife blade three or four times.  Your garlic has now been crushed.  Scoop the crushed garlic up with the knife and drop it into your pan.

Up to three cloves can be done at a time, if they're warm.  The total time this takes is about two or three seconds.  If you're in a hurry, you can do it in one second - but I wouldn't recommend hurrying that fast until you've done this about seven or eight hundred times.  Since the chances are you already have a knife in your hand when you need the garlic, this will save you a great deal of time in putting down the knife and picking up the garlic press, then putting down the press and picking up your knife again.  The knife does a better job, too.

Why do garlic crushers exist?  Because, a) people are afraid of big knives; b) refridgerators can be sold to eskimos; c) it sounds like a good idea; and d) it never occurred to your mother or father that a knife can be used to crush things.

In short, ignorance.  If cooking shops did not carry garlic presses, they'd be harassed by would-be cooks until they did, because the presence of garlic presses has become so expected that shops can no longer ignore them.  This is a sign of the supreme victory a marketing department can ultimately have over a population - eventually, even cooks will buy them.  I worked in a number of restaurants where garlic presses could be found among the various tools.  Ignored, of course.  Such things are purchased by kitchen managers and restaurant owners - people who 'cook' for a few minutes between office hours.  Real cooks do not have the time that garlic presses demand.

But there is something to be learned here, where it comes to the time we take to prepare things. We suppose, if there are two hundred garlic heads and the garlic press can crush one head every minute, then the total time it will take to crush all the heads will be 3+ hours.  Whereupon the cook comes along and does the pile in 40 minutes.

It is easy to think you have the right tool and the right method; but it may be that you've simply missed a lesson or two along the way.  I get that people watch that idiot Ramsey scream at people and waffle on about food with bucketfuls of meaningless adjectives, but actual restaurant cooking is about ordering actions in the least amount of time - those that survive are those who can keep their heads about them in a dangerous environment.  Cooking isn't about gadgets, it isn't even about skill.  I could teach any one of you a reasonable amount of proficiency with a knife if you did it every day for a year.  Cooking is about paying attention.  Noticing details.  Recognizing slight color changes, an odor in the air, a certain alteration in sound.  If you're told what to expect, it's actually very, very easy to manage these things.

If you've never been told - or you have been told and you refuse to listen - then you will always be a lousy cook.  But then, conveniently, we can identify the lousy cooks very easily.

Hm.  Now that I think about it, DMing works the same way, doesn't it?

Dungeon Vacations

While others are chattering about the 'end of the dungeon' (or even idiocy about the 'end of the RPG'), I might just as well ask the question, what do I think a dungeon is for?  What purpose does it serve?

First and foremost, from the players perspective.  Dungeons are a sort of combat-in-a-bag; unzip it and get straight into hack-and-slash without all the hassle of intrigue or reason.  A dungeon can have a strange monster sitting right below the surface that the party can jump in and overcome in a short time, with expectations for a decent treasure and as little consequence as possible.  This last is all important - the denouement following a dungeon raid is expected to be minimalistic.

That is what makes the dungeon 'fun.'  In we get, hack a monster, get out, conflict resolved, return to normality.

It may surprise some people that I encourage this sort of thing - but I do!  Players need to blow off a little steam, pull a fast reward and sort out some of the tension now and then by compressing a huge and difficult to comprehend world into a tiny zone of a few corridors and caves.  A dungeon can be much more than that, obviously, but there is a price the players pay for deeper dungeons - one that I'll pick up later.

As a DM, dungeons are good placeholders.  If I'm working out some rule changes or I'm anxious to hold off the campaign for a bit while the season changes, I've had time to update a table or two or I'm otherwise interested in relaxing the encumbrances of running the whole world, a dungeon offers a break.  I, too, can enjoy shrinking the world down to a small size and therefore having even less to prepare.

I know that for many of you, dungeon preparation is a big job . . . but I think that is because many of you miss the point.  The clue is to be found in the 'dungeon design contests' that permeate the net - it presupposes that better dungeons are those that are fabricated and interwoven on a deep level, such as graphic adventure puzzle video games like Myst (sorry I can't give a later example, but I despise these games and thus I don't set out to memorize their names).  The framework of a game like this inevitably becomes a rat maze mixed with a Rube Goldberg machine, in which an overly elaborate, over-engineered set of circumstances are carefully dovetailed into an adventure that endlessly requires the players to pull lever A before pushing in button B after killing monster C moments before entering door D that leads them to platform E and so on.  In effect, it is a railroad where everything - not only the adventure but everything - is predetermined right down to which drawer in the cabinet you ought to open first.

This, to me, is the anathema of the dungeon concept.  Players, in my experience want to kill in dungeons, not solve puzzles there.  Puzzles are the waiting rooms of dungeons.  They are far more enjoyed by DMs, who know the answers, then by players - again, in my experience.  I have had players who liked puzzles, but even they have admitted that they'd rather solve puzzles in a quiet, personal framework like a jigsaw or a crossword, then having to do so with three or four other players who aren't into it.

The difficulty with the long dungeon - and complicated over-engineered adventures inevitably become long dungeons - is the lack of choice that accumulates over time.  In my sandbox world, as the player enters the dungeon, the player adopts those limited choices as a responsibiliity. Having entered, they make a handshake agreement - "We will enter this dungeon and suffer a lack of choice in expection of the combat and treasure we hope to receive."

If, however, the dungeon traps the player, this contract becomes increasingly exploitive, leaving the player to say, "When we entered this dungeon, we had no reason to expect that we would be forced to remain here for eight continuous months of real time adventuring."  Complaints about the dungeon will increase session by session - most competent DMs, I feel, will begin to get the hint and find the players a way out of the dungeon before complaints become rebellion.

But why wait until then?  Why drag the players through endless empty rooms, meaningless imagery and mindless traps if those things are no more than a buffer between the player and their treasure. What sort of player-game behaviour are you anxious to teach?

I am not clear on why players must go through some kind of made up scourge before they fight the monster and get the treasure.  It is understandable for video games - these are played alone, the combat mechanics are necessarily simplistic and without all the timewasting, such games could not be sold for $60.  But note that the more successful video games just now are those where you just start playing.  The whole value of candy crush or farmville (or whatever is making a billion dollars this year) is right there from the start.  You don't have to sit in a waiting room before you earn the right to play the game you came to play - you jump right in!

The 'game' part in an RPG is combat.  Role-play offers huge numbers of other features, the interplay of emotions, implementation of status, accumulation, personal growth and investigation, but those parts are not played as a 'game' the way combat is.  These other things are mental acquisitions, that are best when they sooner or later lead to conflict.  Nothing equals combat in an RPG than when the success of a mental acquisition hinges on the die roll played out through a game conflict.

Sometimes, however, the players just want to hack.  For that, fitting in a small side hole is a convenience.  Small, so that when they want to return to their mental acquisitions, they can step out, brush themselves off and get back to business.

Dungeons are vacations.  When you try to make them more than that, the result changes.  Think of it as the difference between spending an interesting week in Paraguay compared with living there all the time.

(Sorry, JB; was the most obvious example)

Thursday, December 18, 2014


In the interest of fostering enthusiasm . . .

There's no question that I am generally seen to be a negative person.  Most would consider me anything but fostering, since I seem far more concerned with tearing down than I am with offering aid and support.

Yes, I agree.  I have done my best with that.  From the start of this blog, I've set out to blast the sort of games I've always hated - railroaded games, simple-minded games, games run by tin-pot generals, games based on cheesy bought materials, etcetera.  By the time I wrote my first post in 2008, I had certainly 'fostered' a long and bitter distaste for these things, a distaste I have given free rein in the past six-plus years.

I don't think it is quite washed out of me.  Another six years should do it.

To 'foster' is to offer food, to nourish and to support.  I have always felt that food given ought to be good food, food that will do more than simply fill your belly for an hour or two.  I'm not in the habit of giving brimstone and treacle.  I could easily draw up dungeon room after dungeon room - working my way up through the monsters not merely in terms of stats but in actually laying out an encounter for each and everyone.  Hell, I've cooked up at least three thousand such encounters, it's part of running the game.

Yet I do not see that as offering food - for me, it has the sick taint of charity.  I would rather that you, the reader, took it upon yourself to produce that list - to create a single, stand-alone encounter for every monster in whatever game set you play with.  Not to post it, but to DO it.  To feel the confidence that would let you do it - and to learn how so many of the monsters are pathetically similar, so as to be interchangeable.  Expecting you to do it, pressuring you, producing the guilt that makes you try, will do more to improve your game than me spilling my brain over these pages.

See, that has been the problem from the beginning.  What people want - more freebie crap to insert into their campaigns - is not what people need: the ability to do it themselves.  The resistance against self-reliance is a conditioned response, one that has been promoted by the consumerist culture.

There is a belief that it is impossible to improve on what can be purchased.  Bought material is so much prettier and nicely laid out, with art and shiny paper, that home brews pale by comparison.  I find it the height of idiocy when a DM flips open the module they've just bought so their players can Oooo and Aaaah over the content, as though any boob can't just go out and buy the same damn thing. I wonder how many realize this translates into the same idiocy that makes people feel special or superior because they bought one sort of mass produced status symbol as opposed to another.  People ask me what my problem is with the bourgeois middle-class . . . there it is, the idiomatic ideology that supposedly confers importance to the purchaser.  It is an odd sort of pride that was a fundamental part of my world where I grew up, which I have long since turned my back on.

This perceived status is coupled with a sense that producing an encounter or an adventure is a HUGE work load, as the would-be maker stares into the amount of so-called work pressed into your average store-bought adventure.  "Hell, it took how many people how many hours to produce that adventure? And now I'm supposed to reproduce this, on my own?"  As if most of the content written down isn't painfully repetitive, superfluous, obvious to a DM or otherwise unnecessary to setting up and carrying out the campaign.  The reason every nut and bolt must be included in the plans results from the possible stupidity of the user.  The company is culpable to the user, no matter who that user may be, so the company must design for the dumbest possible person with enough money in their pocket.

Designing your own adventure means skipping over 90% of the details - but you don't do that, because you've already been coerced into thinking you have to write everything down.  This to the bafflement of all of us who hear about some out there taking 15 hours to prepare their weekend campaign.  15 hours?  I spend about 20 minutes doing any actual writing down, myself - and this I can usually do right in front of the players, as they're settling down to play.

There's a true story about James Whistler, the painter, that wikipedia is nice enough to have included. In it, Whistler wins a case in which he supposedly overcharged a client for two days of work.  The crux of the case came down to the client feeling that he had been cheated, because Whistler hadn't worked long enough or hard enough for him personally.  Whistler felt - rightly - that a life of experience was a perfectly substitute for time.  I don't spend 20 minutes preparing my campaign because I don't respect my players; I spend 20 minutes because the whole adventure is laid out, in detail, in my head, where it does not take me 15 hours to design.

The community and I do not see eye-to-eye on this point.  Where I would prefer to 'foster' the community, the community wants the work done, in its entirety, right now.  They've been trained to expect it, to parade it about when they've got it (as though buying a module makes them cock-of-the-walk) and to disdain all other work as crude and second-rate.  Faced with this, I find myself given to draw out my pitchfork and my torch and go to work.  If I can't explain the better way to play D&D, then I am damn well going to demonstrate why the accepted way is pure shit.

It's been a good year, though, because I've been able to do both.  On the blog, here, I continue to tear and rend, while I have presented a book that is 100% positive in its fostering of gaming.

On both counts, I still have a lot of work to do.

Compositional Mistakes

Damn, I have been so sick.  Walking dead sick.  Hit me Monday evening and has hardly let up.  I'm a bit bleary now as I write this Thursday morning - wondering where the hell two days went.

Ray Doraisamy called me out on my Backstage post with this quibbling point:  "Those who ask 'where do you get your ideas from' may be seeking the answer to 'what's your process - what mistakes have you made that we can learn from before we make those same mistakes ourselves?' "

The question is my fault.  I wrote in the post that outsiders tend to think that composition (writing, music, art, whatever kind of creation being done) is easy for the composer . . . and I failed to state clearly afterwards that original composition is NOT easy, it's difficult and aggravating for everyone. Going a step further, original composition defies process, since whatever methodology you've used in the past for other compositions, it invariably fails when you try to apply it to something new.  Part of the creative process is the creation of a new 'process' for every creation.

In my book, How to Run, I propose an argument that in order to create your world, you have to think about it.  At length.  You should brainstorm, writing down as many ideas as you can accumulate over a period of weeks before beginning to create.  The idea is to create hundreds of ideas, without measuring them or confining yourself to one limited perception.  This takes practice - particularly in keeping yourself from becoming fixated upon a single idea in exclusion to all others.  Moreover, all this practice can only occur inside your head.

Because you are a very different person than me, you will eternally view this process differently from me.  There's no getting around that.  Even if we stumble across the same idea, we will approach it from our personal viewpoints, creating problems which are equally personal.

Creativity is not 'science.'  Two investigators in science will inevitably find themselves facing the same issues in resolving a matter because those issues occur outside their experience.  The problems are created by the world, not the scientists.  But where it comes to composing, we create our own problems - because of what we choose to see as a problem than needs to be solved.

I'll try an oversimplified example.  Suppose we each decide to write a story about a homeless man living on the streets of the same city, where the man's wife and daughter have died, leaving him without the will to gather his life together and move on.  Certainly, we can both imagine coming to the same specific circumstances behind our individually proposed novels; even a few changes in those circumstances won't matter much.

The question is, how will you and I solve the homeless man's dilemma?  Some might feel his problem is disassociation, that what he needs is a family of some kind to support him - thus they write a novel on how this man finds a family.  Others may feel he's disenchanted with the world and that in order to regain his pride, he needs to help the world make a change.  Others may feel the man's problem is insolvable, preferring to write the novel in terms of the homeless man circling the drain until he dies, to highlight the horror in society.  Still others will view the homeless man's recognition that he's never accomplished anything, so he changes himself to be a better person.  And so on.

None are right.  None are wrong.  They are all individual, as individual as the creator.  The value isn't in the idea of the book or in its manifestation, but in the alacrity of the story telling and the design.  A great idea will do nothing for you as a composer.  Nor will a really great theme.  You've got to make the story valuable yourself, through having the skill to compose the thing.

You'll find, very quickly, that giving the thing true merit will mean changing yourself as a person in order to rise to the occasion.  Producing the How to Run book changed me!  It forced ME to see the game differently, to self-examine and accept that what I knew before was secondary to the new knowledge I was gaining.  This is what good composition does.  It changes the composer.

I can't tell YOU how to avoid the mistakes I'm making because you're not writing the same composition.  The mistakes are unique.  It may sound well and good to think that there are a finite number of mistakes to be made in the world, and that once you stop making them you'll be a great composer, but that's nonsense.  There are far, far more mistakes to be made than I could ever point out - hell, I don't even know the mistakes you're going to make in your career!  I'm on an entirely different path.

This was my point before - that there are no short-cuts.  There are no right ways.  Mistakes are necessary - beneficial, even, in that they produce a composer with unique skills.  The endless question, "How do you do it?" is begging for a cheat code.  And there is no cheat code.

I'll say this about my writing and making money from it.  I didn't quit.  Everyone else around me that also wrote or played an instrument or dreamed of making it big someday, they mostly quit.  One by one.  All the ones I know now who are still at it, they have some level of success.  Like me, not a great level of success, but some.

So don't quit.  The biggest mistake is quitting.  Best advice I can give.