Tuesday, August 11, 2015

What Makes Me . . . Me

As ever, I'm seeing another well-respected, popular online presence eschewing the complex role-playing game . . . and blaming me for it.

Oh, it's very kindly worded and complimentary - but the message remains a very common indictment: designing a 'realism'-based world is too much work, requires too much time, is really not what we want from the game and simply isn't any FUN.  Ah that word again.

To wit: It may be very well for Alexis, he's craaaazy.  But it sucked for me.

It's taken me nearly two weeks to respond since reading the linked post from ChicagoWiz, during which time I've examined why it is that I'm so crazy.  Some have posited that I am autistic and others that I possess an obsessive disorder . . . but these are simply theories posed by people who haven't met me in person, who cannot see through the internet lens what I'm really like.  According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders, I lack the necessary symptoms for either ailment.

What, the reader hasn't read it?

Then what is it?  I'm not definitively crazy.  There must be something that makes me enjoy the work on my game world.  Hm.  Enjoy the work I do . . . enjoy . . . no, nope, can't quite put my finger on it.

I suppose, if anything, I have a capacity for envisioning the end of any project I start.  I think that's important . . . that when starting a task, we must have the wherewithal to see ourselves eventually coming to its end, however long that may take and however difficult it may be to get there.

Take a simple issue that used to come up in my world back in the those first five years that I ran my world, back in the early '80s: spells.  In those days, being teenagers and not having much respect for authority - and fancying ourselves experts in physics, chemistry, medicine and so on - there were many arguments that began around the game table about the effects of fireballs, lightning bolts, charm person, how quickly a person could be roused from a sleep spell, what actually could be ordered to others under the influence of suggestion, how hot armor got under heat metal and so on.  It seemed that every week we were arguing about something having to do with how the spells worked - and each of those things required a ruling from me, the DM, as to how it would be played in the future.

By '83, there were so many precedents that had been established around spells and their application that the Player's Handbook was becoming difficult to depend on to sort out these arguments.  So I decided that the only solution would be to rewrite the spells to ensure that the precedent changes we had made were accounted for, hopefully ending arguments.  In making that decision, I was following in the footsteps of every legal clerk in every judicial system in the world facing the exact same problem.  I was proposing a 6th century solution.

I don't know if the reader has noticed, but there are a lot of f'ing spells in the Player's Handbook; and more in the Unearthed Arcana, which was also part of my world.  There are 40 first level spells belonging to the mage alone.  All together (counting duplicates), there are 588 spells. And 72 cantrips.  I count duplicates because each one of those had to be accounted for and perhaps nuanced for the specific class.

This is an incredible job - for a time when I was working with nothing more than an electric typewriter.  Yet I jumped in and began, diligently working my way through about half the spells in the space of two years (mostly just accounting for changes we'd agreed upon and changes I chose to make after reading the spell and recognizing there were issues the Player's Handbook hadn't accounted for).  We're talking at least 30 minutes a spell, or about 140-160 hours of steady work.

I know what most DMs would do - they would conceive of the project, see the rationale in starting it . . . . and then quit sometime after the 10th hour.  On the whole, they would, at each attempt, work an hour or two - so it would take six or seven different tries at starting, getting through a few spells, stopping and encouraging themselves to start again just to get as far as 10 hours of work.

I'm different.  Once I recognized the need for the project - the end of arguments around my gaming table, which would smooth out my game and allow for more actual playing time - I dug in and stayed dug in.  I remember I started one weekend in the summer when I was stuck at the family cabin, where my parents steadfastly refused to keep a television, where music was something that was restricted to what my mother would tolerate - so I had nothing on anyway.  As such, I would work as many as five to nine hours at a go, every day, actually looking forward in the morning after breakfast and doing dishes and finishing chores, to sitting down with the PH and rewrite spell after spell.  Very soon I had a big pile of hand-typed material for my players to look over and memorize.

I did eventually burn out, however, though I would come back to the project for a week at a time.  But then I got hold of a Commodore 64 - so naturally the goal changed to getting all the spells I'd already rewritten onto electronic format.  That meant going back to the beginning again and starting over . . . which was fine, because the pages I'd written were already covered with more precedent changes that had built up over more game play.

So, another hundred or so hours as I ploughed through all my old work and put it on digital.  I remember in those days I was doing that with everything, taking all my type-written notes and making them computer written notes, printing them up again for game runnings.

But then the Mac came out and my Commodore died . . . so if I wanted to have those spells still in digital format (and I did want that), I needed to type them out again, which I did - another hundred-plus hours.  And still I hadn't gotten through more than two thirds of the total spell list.

Well, it has been 25 years since I moved over to a Mac.  I changed to a Pentium in '98, but thankfully the work I did on my Mac was transferable so I didn't need to copy it again.  Unfortunately, however, there had been another 10 years of precedent setting . . . along with all those other spells that never got rewritten.

I have made one more rewrite on those spells since then - to put them onto my wiki, where the players can read them any time.  And the battle goes on to finish all the spells for every class, once and for all.  No, I haven't finished all of them, not yet.  I've left out the highest level stuff.  Some aren't on the wiki yet, particularly the mage, which is still kept in a fat plastic textbook that makes its way around the gaming table.

It isn't that I'm crazy.  It's that I have a clear and practical sense of what the work will do for my campaign.  The wiki format is so open that I can make changes in it during the campaign, letting the players quibble over the wording as I make the change - and they can refer to the spell themselves on their computers or tablets immediately after.  And because I have done the rewriting of spell precedents extensively and diligently, I'm very good in anticipating problems, clarifying them, fixing them in terms of immediate-need game play and then implementing those changes in my head without hanging onto the old versions.  In fact, I prefer to look at the spell as written (which I can do in a couple of seconds, since I can search the wiki) rather than depend on my memory.  And how many arguments are there about spells during a game session?

None.  Zero.  Zilch.  I haven't heard an argument about what a spell does in literally years.  We see a change that needs to be made and we make it.

How did this happen?  I was willing to work at the original project for more than ten hours.

But why was I able to do that?  What is it about me that I am programmed in that particular way?  What fixed my brain in such a manner that however endless and incomprehensibly big the project, I wanted to keep at it?

For that I have to make this post last even longer.  Settle in and get comfortable.

When I was six, in 1970, my mother and father learned that there were lots for sale around Sylvan Lake in south-central Alberta.  My father had grown up in the area, in a series of little one-street towns where his mother worked as a one-room schoolhouse teacher.  His childhood was spent in places like Markerville, Dixon and Barrhead in the 1940s, places with a hundred residents and board sidewalks, where his childhood was spent fishing, hunting and working at far more chores than I ever had to do.

He knew Sylvan Lake and when he and my mother learned that a quarter-acre lot could be purchased for as little as $1,000 dollars, they jumped at it.

When I was seven, in 1971, I was taken up to this lot where my parents erected a big two-room camp tent, each room being about 10 x 8 feet.  One side of the tent had a plastic floor, for sleeping, and the other side had no floor at all.  The side without a floor was large enough for a full-sized picnic table, a cooking area and space for storage.  The other side easily slept a family of five.  I'm the youngest of three kids; my sister is 18 months older and my brother is five years older.

This tent is where I lived every weekend for three years, while my father began building his own cabin - a butterfly A-frame.  I went looking for an image but all I can find are ordinary, familiar A-frames; the difference in the butterfly is that the cabin is square and the ridgepole runs from one corner of the square to the opposite corner.  It makes a big space.  My father's cabin was 27 and a quarter feet square with the ridgepole 23 and a half feet above the ground.

My father, an engineer by trade, took his ideal cabin to an architect who drew up the plans my father would follow.  That first summer, he needed to dig 16 nine-foot post holes in an exact 4 x 4 pattern that the cabin would eventually sit on.  Each posthole would then be filled with concrete and topped with a 30-inch square concrete pad.

Here is the tool my father used to dig
 16 nine-foot deep post holes.
When we left the cabin lot that fall, I remember the sixteen pads all in place, all neatly and precisely lined up.  My father had training on building oil derricks and designing drill-holes that went down thousands of feet, so he knew what he was doing.  Still, I can barely comprehend what was in his mind as he steadfastly dug each hole . . . and what it took for him to drive 110 miles from his home in Calgary to do the work on his off days to do the work.  Certainly the notion had no direct impact on my mind when I was seven and watching him do it, hauling up each clod of clay he'd scrape by turning and turning the handle on the tool pictured above.  My father's other accomplishment that year, I remember, was building an outhouse - big enough to double as a tool-shed.

When I was eight, 1972, my father built a frame of 2 x 16s that rested upon the concrete pads he'd built the year before.  Some of these were nailed together to make 4 x 16s or 6 x 16s, depending on the load bearing each frame would do.  He had the plans - but more importantly he had an ideal in his head of what his cabin would look like.  All through that summer in '72 he fixed the frame with no one other than my 13-year-old brother for help, preparing his immense cabin, interrupted on sunny days when it got too hot to work so he could take us to the town beach or to go fishing, his first love.

This beach.
As August came, he'd finished the frame and he began to lay out the deck, built of 1 x 4s.  The deck extended outwards from the cabin, with a width of four feet, on three of the cabin's sides.  This means the whole deck we built that August (because even a eight-year-old can pound nails) was a rectangle 35 x 27 feet.  The deck was as far as we got that year; I see it still in my mind's eye, a big wooden expanse about 30 inches off the ground, one that I hopped up on thousands of times.

The next year, as I matured into the full age of 9, my father began building the frame of his cabin.  I remember the walls coming together as each day we would look forward to hearing a funny song on the radio, one I did not identify for another 28 years.  The only words I remembered from the song were "long-haired hippy-type pinko fag" . . . which my mother found both funny and disdainful at the same time.  That was my mother.  According to wikipedia, we were listening to the song climb the charts in June and July 1973.

The walls went up and then the ridgepole, a 6 x 12 beam 38 and a half feet long, set a dizzying height above the floor.  It was only 20 feet but it seemed impossibly high.  My father wouldn't let us little kids, my sister and me, go up there, but my brother helped him.  Frankly, I'm afraid of heights . . . but I can see my father walking along the ridge pole from end to end without hesitation, without the least fear.  In college, in the 50s, he had worked high atop those old oil derricks seen in old movies.  My mother, however, would give him shit if she saw him doing it.

He got the roof on that year.  He and my brother fitted the 1 x 6s in place from the bottom up, until a weather-proof peak, mostly through the month of September.  My mother had put the pressure on - she wasn't going to do another whole summer in the tent again, so she wanted the cabin to be livable the next year.  Forever after, my parents would always refer to the cabin at their 'big tent.'

The walls were left with plastic hammered over the frames for that winter, to be finished the next year.  I remember my father beginning early in April so that we could move indoors by June.  The big job that year was placing the windows - my father's plan called for 24 window panes that would transform the forward corner of the cabin, the one pointed at the road, into an arrangement that rose from the floor to the top of the ridgepole.  Each group of twelve windows, then, set into frames, made a single span of glass 9 feet wide and 20 feet high on either side of the corner.

With all that he had done up until then, mostly on his own, it says something about the man's character that he felt he needed this extraordinarily aesthetic touch added to the size and volume of the cabin.  The windows transformed the front living area into a sort of cathedral, not the sort of thing one usually associates with the word 'cabin.'  From the road the shape and the glint of sun on the windows made the cabin very noticeable . . . and as we were the first lot the traveller came to when coming down the county road to the cabin village, we were noticed.  I often met people in Calgary who had been out that way (there was a boat launch on the lake that got a lot of use) and I could always explain which cabin had belonged to my parents.

Over the next years, as I aged into being a teenager, my father built the kitchen, the fireplace and hearth, the second floor, the boathouse and patio above it, brought the bathroom inside (at last!) and more, all on his weekends and during all the three-week holidays he and my mother would take.  I didn't travel to Eastern Canada or Florida or Europe as a kid because I was sequestered on a little corner of real estate my father loved.  When the cabin was built, however, it was a thing of beauty, a warm and pleasant refuge from the city, surrounded by old growth forest (my parents refused to put in grass), three hundred yards from a secluded beach and miles and miles of acreage and forest that could be investigated and explored.

The corner of water is Half Moon Bay,
with Kasota Point on the right.

The cabin is gone now.  My father decided he could no longer afford the property taxes and he sold the lot for $450,000 about three years ago.  The cabin was smashed to the ground.  I've been out to see the lot where it was, to prove to myself that the building really is no more.  This also says something about the man's character . . . but that's another story.

Somewhere in its building, without my knowing it, my father's state of mind must have affected my own.  He built a cabin and I built a world - but it amounts to the same thing.  I'm accused of some pretty intense madness and in turn I raise the reader one ridge-pole, 23 feet above the ground, put in place with a block-and-tackle, one 37-year-old man and a 14-year-old boy.

This doesn't seem like so much.  It's really just putting in my weekends, one after another, knowing what's waiting in the future.  That's the key, really.  Knowing that what's worked on today, what's struggled with today, what's exhausting today and what seems like so very little progress today doesn't mean very much when it is steadily part of what tomorrow will be.

That's my madness.  I don't live in the present.  I'm part of it, I enjoy this steady manipulation of numbers, words and images, but I don't live here.  I live in the future . . . and when I look around me, in the present, at all the maps, all these blog posts and the pages on my wiki and whatever else I've accomplished, I don't quite believe that I've really done all of it.  On some level, it seems to have sprung into existence all on its own.  Like someone else broke into my computer and put it all here, exactly the way I would have wanted it.

I don't know if the reader can understand.  I do know that anyone - anyone! - can duplicate this experience.  It is only a question of volition.


  1. Deeply impressed. Not that I don't know you, after so long. But it still rings something, deep inside, to see the matter put down like this.

    I predict this will also be one of those posts that impress readers so much so much that you don't get the commensurate amount of answers, so here's a reader making a first impression at that.

    It IS beautiful, at this state of construction.

  2. I think it's all a matter of what works for you, your current campaign, the RPG you're playing, and the players at your table. Since I've been DMing 5e, I've felt that a lot of extenuating circumstances that had to be adjudicated by the DM back in 1e have been clarified by the rules as written.

    I have a fair amount of rules lawyering that goes on at my table, and I've had to find ways to dampen that at times. I have assigned one player as official "rules lawyer", and I often consult him at the table, but I've definitely clarified that I reserve the right to overrule interpretations and even rules as written. Thankfully 5e reinstates the DM as rightly in that role. I do try to make clear my reasoning whenever I "pull rank" as the DM, and I still allow for some counter argument, but I then just make it very clear when the issue is settled.

    Some of my players are more simulation-ist than others. A couple are very concerned with the physics of what's going on, and don't feel satisfied until the world behaves in what the consider to be a realistic way. Others are all about the story-line and dramatic moments, and aren't much concerned at all about the simulation aspects.

    For me, I'm a believer that there is no one true way to build a campaign ... I like the "toolkit" approach. Pull in bits and pieces of what works from various approaches, and make your own way out of them.

  3. You childhood sounds like the start of a great national novel, a great read.

    As I find with many of your posts, they offer inspiration for my own campaign at a date or time when I am at crossroads. At the moment, I am staring down the barrel of a 1 to 2 year build commitment to enhance my campaign. Your post inspired me to turn the shotgun around and set my sights on the target.


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