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.


  1. I am certainly guilty of looking for (and asking for on a number of occasions) an Alexis "handout," so I would humbly offer the following:
    I understand and completely agree with the notion that the only way a person can truly master anything well is to do it themselves, usually over and over and over. I would also say, however, that there are a LOT of us in the world that need to see that thing done well before we can sort it out for ourselves. I could read all of the books on differential equations I could find- I would argue that until I watch the professor stand in front of the class and actually solve one of the damned things, I might as well be reading recipes for making glazed carrots.
    I guess what I am saying is that, for some of us helpless beggars at least, our hands are out not because we want you to give us the whole package all tied up with a bow. We might just need a little bit to help us go "Ah ha! Now I get it!"
    Thanks as always.

  2. Verona,

    If you can find an online adventure that anyone can look at, then I'll deconstruct it. How would that be?

  3. My initial post was going to be in a similar vein as VeronaKid's. I was going to use an analogy of cooking.

    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.

    Given the increase in "food culture" it's easier for someone like me to bypass that stage and get lessons from the experts. I will never by a chef, but I have enough knowledge of how everything works together to create an appetizing meal.

    Having read How To Run, I can start applying the lessons. It won't happen overnight. I'll need to deconstruct the next several games to learn where to apply this knowledge. It is, as you've stated, work. Old habits will reassert themselves when I'm running my game because that's one of the side effects of stress.

    I would love to see you deconstruct an adventure. Perhaps let your readers know a few days in advance so we can look at it, draw our own conclusions, and then take a look at yours.

    By the way, Alexis, thanks for your work. It's harder to think through some of your points (as opposed to having things spoon-fed to me), but I'm usually happier with the result.

  4. Well, of course I would read that because I am sure it would be insightful and provide even more reasons as to why pre-made modules don't work as well as home made worlds, but. . . I am not going to learn to build a house well, for example, by learning why my neighbor's electrical system is cruddy. Or why the house across the street's foundation is cracking. I'd most like to see how to hammer a nail straight, and mortar a pile of bricks together properly, and wire a circuit so it doesn't catch fire first, no? Then it will become obvious to me where my neighbor's homes have shortcomings. Most importantly, I'll know how to build and upkeep my own house in the future. (This metaphor is getting hard to sustain. I'll stop now.)
    I can tell you that for me, far and away the most helpful thing you've written this year (in terms of what I have drawn from the most in order to run games myself) was your "How To Create an Adventure Hook" series of posts. "How To Run" was inspirational in that it got me thinking about creation outside of just painting miniatures and building dungeon rooms (which is where my own strengths lie), but those "How To Write an Adventure Hook" articles gave all of us that read your blog an insight, I think, into how a good DM accomplishes the concepts and ideals which "How To Run" lays out. I firmly believe that DMing well is every bit as complicated as the differential equations I mentioned in my last comment, which is why I for one really appreciate it when you take the time to work things out for us as if we are at your table playing the game. We're seeing the professor work out something very complex in front of us in real time. It's also why my wishlist for the Tao of D&D includes things like "Alexis' YouTube videos of DMing a dungeon adventure."

    I will continue to learn and be inspired and driven to create by whatever it is you write here. I will continue to learn and be inspired most effectively by the concrete examples of your own experiences you choose to share.

  5. Verona,

    My deconstruction wouldn't have as it's point, "why this is crap," but rather, "why did the artist choose this as opposed to that."

    Remember that ALL construction begins with deconstruction. Invention begins by taking apart something that someone else has made, piece by piece, thus determining why those pieces were included, how they were modified or changed to solve a certain problem - and then used to make the whole.

    I may write more of a post on that.

  6. Doug,

    The cooking analogy is excellent; having been a chef, garlic is crushed and minced with a knife, bread is made by hand with a pan and so on, with less work and more adroitly than can be done with a tool or a machine. I could show you in three seconds a simpler and superior way to smash and prepare garlic than with a press - the only reason you would not do it that way is because it never occurred to you.

    Of course you could be a chef! It only takes time, commitment and comprehension, like anything else that is done.

    Perhaps the thing to do would be to write an adventure first, THEN deconstruct it. Seems like cheating, though.

    I might write a post about that, too.

  7. I read a blog post yesterday about why it's pretty much impossible to create an "historically accurate" movie. One of the biggest reasons is that if the armored characters don't look substantially different, the audience has a hard time keeping track of who is whom.

    The author ended with "keep this in mind when you critically look at a movie. There may be reasons why the set director made the choices he did."

    When I understand that (and can compare that to what would be historically correct), I can understand better why the lead viking got a steel breastplate and the oldest viking got a gladiator's helmet. I would imagine such insights would be beneficial to your audience as well.

  8. Doug,

    One of my favorite tropes is that Reality is Unrealistic.

    Wish you would link that blog post.

    Your point is the reason why I continue to argue, loudly, that I'm not a simulationist. I'm not trying to recreate medieval battle - I'm trying to produce a game context in which the players are able to make game decisions - where the 'battle' bears some similarity to real life without being utterly bound by it. Playability is more important than reality!

  9. An Historian Goes to the Movies,

  10. I don't think you're negative based on anything I've ever read here. You have a position and advance it, as opposed to simply trying to negate other people's propositions. That's pretty much the definitional opposite of "negative." Attacking other propositions to advance one's own isn't negativity, it's rhetoric.

    Anyone calling you negative based on your blogging is conflating "negative" with "abrasive" or "dickishness." There's nothing inherently negative about being abrasive or dickish. You're definitely positive.

    (I've always thought your abrasiveness is mostly a device, but you may also just be constitutionally abrasive. You don't seem like an actual dick. Either way, irrelevant to the issue of negativity.)


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