Saturday, October 31, 2015

More Than Is Necessary

Scott Driver gave me this link in the comments section earlier today - and it is just the sort of thing that puts my teeth on edge.

99% of role-players will glance querulously at that confession and grumble incomprehension, but in all truth I consider this sort of 'advice' the real bane behind the endlessly poor play that characterizes games like D&D.  Do the bare minimum.  TSR's settings were created by "expert" game designers.  Spit out a culture and environment, slap a race in there, make up a villain and borrow a plot from a favorite book or movie.


I'd like to know, what qualifies TSR's game designers as "experts"?  The game had only existed in any form for a couple of years, the writing is hideous, the conflicts created were gradeschool quality and TSR failed as a company.  Dragon #256 was late enough in the day to know this . . . but here's Winninger pooping out another op ed piece proclaiming the genius of hacks who couldn't keep their own company alive in a period when D&D was expanding wildly as the next great thing.  It was never so easy to find D&D players as it was in 1981, before the media began its witch-hunt.  But yeah.  Trust TSR's experts.

"Borrow a plot"?  From where, exactly?  As I remember it, a situation that hasn't improved much, gamers prepared to do the bare minimum in world design ("it sounds like a lot of work") are expressly limited in the 'favorite' books and movies they mutually share.  Stealing plots is an old standby, but when Jeremy, Trent, Douglas and Andrew can all recite all the lines from Star Wars, Monty Python & the Holy Grail and Indiana Jones, what the fuck is left for these hacks?  Oh right, Winninger helpfully suggests the X-Files.

Omfg, gah.

Oh, and I love these vast strokes "to get your creative juices flowing."  Psionics.  Famine.  The fabulous, brilliant precision in having your world full of "suffering."  My, what an evocative word that describes exactly nothing of value where it comes to set design.  Then you can have your players solve the mystery of eternal night - won't that be an option full of player agency and possibility!

This is what we call low-balling a magazine piece.  Winninger was no doubt called upon to fill in a three-page hole between late-acquired advertising and so he cobbled this half-considered column together in a couple of hours.  It's fine for a blog piece, I write this sort of crap on my blog all the time and get praise for it, but this is pretty sad for paid work.  "I'll probably design a series of adventures in which the tree is threatened."  Yeah.  Fucking genius.  Especially in stating it as something he'll 'probably' do . . . since he isn't sure yet, given that he's describing something that hasn't fucking happened.  Why is Winninger describing something that might work if he probably does it, when one expects he's actually done something in the past that absolutely did work?  Perhaps because he hasn't yet.

This is the level of "expert advice" that DMs and players have counted on for two generations.  It has led to role-players cheerlessly scraping whatever scraps of detail they can get that might allow them something new to say in their next game, only to have their players blink at them when a phrase like "shambling mounds are actually former treant heralds who rebelled" falls flat on its face.  As it should.  Because in terms of player agency or the possibility of acquisition, it's non-contributory.  "So the fuck what?" thinks the wizened player, while the rest of the party vaguely wonders, "How does that help us find treasure?"

Both players and DMs need concrete advice, a set of fundamentals that will enable them to fix conflicts and consequences in a fluid game-format, where the rules are clear.  How much do I have to eat to go on fighting in this famine-stricken world?  If my character has lived in this world of suffering, eternal night and immunity from death, does my character have any reason to care?  How valuable would a campaign be if the 'mystery' to be solved was to discover why streams and rivers flow to the sea?  Do I and my fellow players have to be slaves to the dragon?  How much of my agency will be taken away from me by the DM using a dragon as a control factor?  If I'm a wizard, and I owe my ancestry and tutelage to some inhabitant from some island, how exactly does that stop me from doing what I want right now?  Some?  None?  Because I have to tell you, if this is going to be an issue in your campaign that I have to deal with every session, I'd rather just play the Keep on the Borderlands again.  As written.

There is a total disconnect in Winninger's suggestions - he seems completely disassociated from the setting existing for the purpose of gaming.  He has many notions about making the setting intriguing and full of possibilities, but his advice misses totally on the importance of this world being interactive.  He's like a video game developer hooting about gritty graphics and storyline, failing to realize his game is going to choke on the shelf because it's 90% cut scenes and side quests.  With micro-transactions.

This disconnect runs like a disease through most company suggestionware.  We exhort the importance of radical and yet minimalist game design, knowing that you, the DM, wants to be told that doing as little as possible is practical, while deftly ignoring the elephant in the room: that being, that once a game is in session, players are going to ask questions - all kinds of weird, off the wall questions - that the DM will need to answer, right now, without knowing what those questions will be.

The DMs who make the cut are those who can answer quickly, fairly, usefully and in a way that encourages the player to ask another question expecting the same, legitimate value.  The DMs who excel are those who can do the same with player suggestions and innovation - who aren't shaken when the player pulls out a rabbit.

Over time, DMs who can manage games never 'force' themselves to create more than they must.  They can't help themselves.  Creating more than is necessary becomes a sort of drug.


Last Saturday during D&D, I was introducing my players to the new rule about injuries, something I conceived of and intended to add to the game since the last time this group had played, way back in the beginning of July.

We discussed the rule and the possible problems in calculating out injury damage vs. hit point damage, but on the whole the players were open about giving it a try.  No one was actually injured the other night; in fact, in a four-hour running, no combat occurred at all.  The players made their way to Herat, in Aria (NW Afghanistan), spoke to the Cult of the Magi in that city, had a long discussion about the Zoroastrian medallion they need to return, ending at the lip of a mysterious religious well filled with milky water and the promise of a dungeon below that.  But I digress.

In discussing the injury rule, the player who manages the character Olie expressed his appreciation for my coming up with clear rules that dealt with this sort of conditional situations realistically.  I answered that it bothered me to have a character, player or non-player, fall from a fifty foot height without there being any chance of a believable, crippling injury.  "Otherwise," I said, "The character takes their damage and just gets up, ready for combat.  Without any explanation."

"Magic," muttered Olie flippantly, that being precisely the answer we would both expect from a game that just doesn't give a damn.

Which sent me off on a brief rant, talking about how 'magic' is firmly defined in the game - existing as spells that must be cast in a set amount of time by a present magic user who must be within range of the event to cause the magic to occur - and how it cannot, therefore, be used as a hand-waving gesture by the DM without greatly undermining the verisimilitude of the rules themselves.

I am sure, gentle reader, that you're quite ready to forego a repetition of that rant here.  Most of you have already heard it.

The whole 'magic' explanation - or any other similar handwave - is just too darn easy for the DM who doesn't want to dig in and do the job properly.  It is similar to the alignment solution, that sooo easily removes any necessity for real character development, just as the player's tactic of dead parents/need for revenge neatly sidesteps any need to be original.  Such lazy crap isn't limited to role-playing games, obviously . . . we see film after film released every season that begins with the same synopsis, asshole finds random member of family has been killed and goes after the killers in response.  Because concocting a believable plot-line that includes masturbatory violence is really, really hard.

Exposition is what we call it when the participants in a situation are informed as to that situation's important details.  Such as having a disrespectful sub-commander cough out several sentences of story detail to Darth Vader at the start of the picture to explain what the hell is happening for the viewer, who has only just arrived.  Exposition is considered to be acceptable whenever the viewer, reader or role-player fails to notice - due to the drama of the moment - that what they are hearing is exposition.  Exposition sucks enormously when it is painfully obvious that the writer needs to dump so much information that the story is put on hold for several minutes - such as the enormously shitty history lecture given at the start of Serenity.  Exposition is even worse when the characters are telling each other things that both ought to damn well be aware of by then, highlighting the fact that this conversation is only happening because there is an audience of some kind.  One expect the characters to then turn to the audience and say, "Did everyone get that?"  I believe Rick Moranis in Spaceballs does.

Dear reader, if you have run a campaign in the last year that includes any of the following, have your players bitch-slap you: 1) a lone character that approaches the party and starts outlining an adventure that has yet to happen in any way, shape or form to the party; 2) you have put exposition into the mouth of a king, noble, wizard or other person vastly more powerful than the party; 3) your players are told for the very first time of a MacGuffin's existence, followed by it's present location and the importance of getting it all in the same conversation.

Somewhere out there in the gaming universe there is a piece of shit work called the "The Lazy Dungeon Master."  I've read it, end to end.  I spent a lot of time reading everything I could find on how to DM before writing my own book.  I want the reader to consider the value of a book entitled, "The Lazy Playwright" or "The Lazy Film Director's Guide."  The reader should also consider the value of any book called "How To Phone In Your Campaign" and "How to Treat Your Players' Favorite Pasttime As A Fucking Burden."  If those titles don't bother you very much, try "How To Drag Your Ass Through A 3-Hour Running" or "Making 20 Minutes of Cheesy Detail Last Until Midnight."

Then ask yourself if you'd like to run in that campaign.  Or would you rather, possibly, running in a campaign where the DM took the time to think of serious answers to questions like, "Is my character injured from the 50 foot fall" or "Why is this Zoroastrian Medallion important."  Answers that would keep all the players fixed and dramatically involved.  Answers that don't offer easy, direct and obvious solutions, leaving the players to debate vigorously upon the best course of action.

Oh hell.  I was going to talk about magic and handwaving, and I've ended up talking about work.  Again.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

The European Edge

I promised to talk about Zoroastrianism but rest assured, I'm not going to go deep into it.  If the reader knows nothing at all about the religion or about Zoroaster himself - or Zarathustra, as he's sometimes called - then it's worth digging into the subject, if only to get a conceptualization of a lot of the crap that permeates the texts of both the Bible and the Koran.  However, we'll leave all that on the shelf.

 Of a sort, Zoroastrianism is a strongly observational religion combining elements of alchemy (the conception of the four elements, earth, air, fire and water) with the perceived difficulties that every human faces of whether to perform acts of good or bad.  This is then mixed in with concepts of predestination, creation and existence, some of which are distinctly twists upon Vedic philosophy (Hindu polytheism).  Whereas virtually all the details about the order of the universe and matter are deeply in error, one gets the feeling from reading extensively into Zoroastrianism that the founder and his immediate adherents were trying.   After all, we're talking about an obscure period sometime in the early to mid first millennium, BC.  We shouldn't expect a profound scientific revolution.

This post intends to address a minor point associated with the religion that has been ascribed to Zurvanism, a Persian cult within Zoroastrianism that is responsible for giving us the concept of the Magi.  These are theological thinkers that are mentioned in Herodotus' Histories and also by Aristotle and other Greek writers.  The reader will immediately note the obvious connection between the title and 'magic' - and indeed this is the origin of the word.  The Greek magos, meaning a conjurer or a charlatan, became applied to individuals who read palms, omens and who performed slight of hand, so that 'magician' became any person who could stupefy an audience with such tricks and insight.

Stories arose of the Magi being wise, causing the insertion of the "Three Wise Men from the east" into the Christian myth.  The three stars in the belt of the constellation Orion were called the 'Magi' up until the Middle Ages in commemoration of the event (the stars point at Sirius which was widely considered to be the 'star' that they were following).  The Zoroastrian cult that arose in Rome was that of Mithra (which many will remember from the Conan series as the cult of magicians).  Mithra, curiously, was known to have been born on December 25th - and in many parts of the eastern Roman Empire was heavily associated with the saviour Christ. A diligent study of religious iconography post-Zoroastrianism will turn up all sorts of these things.

But consider my D&D world that takes place in this same environment, with much of the same history.  Suppose that we argue that the Magi were not merely religious hacks wandering about doing card tricks.  Suppose magic is something that's real . . . and that the presence of the Magi in my world's ancient history actually references the moment in time that magic was invented.

I know that many players have given very little thought to the logic that an existing magic would be a technology, just as any other development would be.  If magic were real in our world, the origin of that magic would certainly be a major subject in universities (which would seem strange to our eyes, no doubt).  We only give little thought to the concept because magic isn't real . . . and therefore it's origin as a failed philosophy is of very little interest.

Given that it is a D&D world, however, and that characters and their enemies can use magic, we must suppose someone, at some point in time, created the first spell.  No doubt it was a cantrip, but it would have led to a radical revision of the world and its potential.  In my world, that individual who stumbled upon the first form of humanly controlled magic was Zoroaster.

Now, if the reader will allow, I will point out once again (as I explained yesterday) that there are no human cultures in the New World.  Even if there were, they would have crossed the land bridge between the Old World and the new long, long before the birth of Zoroaster.  In my world's case, no human ever did cross that bridge.  My Siberia is full of hobgoblins and norkers (which I perceive as a sort of caveman goblin/hobgoblin that goes back 15-20 millennia in time).  When the humans in my world emerged out of Africa, their descendants ran into these non-human cultures and were turned back.  Therefore, no diaspora into North America, no native human races at all in the New World.

Those races that do exist in the New World have had very little contact with the cultures of the Old.  They would have had some contact with their personal gods, however, so we may grant a developed religion among the Inca and Aztecs, as well as the other races I mentioned in my last post.  However, no Zoroaster, no magic.

So, just as the real Europeans entered the New World with guns that the natives had never conceived, in my world the Europeans possess magic.  That is their edge.  The Bokkeer may have telepathy, but this is a genetic development, not a learned skill.  The Helsith may transform as they age, but once again, they have no control over this.  Wild magic exists everywhere, but the technological construction and adaptation of magic, in the form that we call spells, that doesn't exist except where the breakthrough in logic has occurred.

Thus, a small town of 700 Spaniards can thrive amidst a culture with several hundred thousand natives.  Of course, there has to be considerable care taken, as the potential for Tucapel is far, far greater with these more dangerous non-human races.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Cultures in Paraguay

Making a map isn't enough.  Presuming the party will someday be wandering about the area, it's necessary to create some sort of culture that will infringe upon their actions while promoting new ideas and adventure possibilities.  Supernatural mojo and monsters in the Chaco, lost temples and whatnot stashed in the jungles of Brazil won't do it (sorry JB).

Let's look again at the map I posted yesterday, with a few added labels:

Helsith, in the upper right, corresponds roughly to Mato Grosso and Mato Grosso do Sul.  Supay, to the department of Santa Cruz in eastern Bolivia.  If the reader will look closely, there are four small enclaves that can be found in the vicinity where indicated as 'Spanish Missions.'  These represent the few localities that I could find as founded before 1650.  Spanish occupied Paraguay (in 1650) consists of this:

That is, the small area surrounding Asuncion (upper left) and the Misiones district (right).  This consists of nine centers, most of which were small missions, Jesuit and otherwise.

The remaining localities shown on the map are all 'native' cultures.  Of course, none of these are human cultures.  I had no interest in filling the new world with human populations, which would be quite boring - and for the most part I'm not that interested in Amerindian culture, except where that culture became relatively advanced, as with the Aztecs, Olmecs and Incas.  I realize this creates a strongly anti-politically correct stance: I'm simply taking most of all that and throwing it in the trash.  I imagine there would be some who would find that remarkably insulting.

Nevertheless, I believe my world is better for it.  If I'm going to place cultures that the Spanish must face in my world, I would much rather those cultures be as unusual as possible - and somewhat removed from traditional D&D races, as well.  The rest of this post will be about those cultures: the Helsith, the Supay, the Bokkeer and the Guarani-Neembucu.  I feel I must point out that all of these, and what is below, were conceived entirely in the last three weeks, somewhat forced upon me by realizing I would need to fill up the map with non-Spanish creatures.

The Helsith

Here I do borrow from the Monster Manual, but with a twist.  The Helsith are lizard humanoids, somewhat like 'lizard men' from the book.  The development of humanoid lizards for the Amazon & Parana jungles is logical . . . but of course there are several lizard species, so we can easily imagine several manifestations of humanoid lizard cultures.

'Helsith' describes both the creature and a large kingdom, but for the purpose of this post I will refer to the creatures as 'Sith' to keep it simple.  Helsith represents a very old culture, dating back 6000 years, with its source in the upper Guapure river in modern day Rondonia.  It has a high population with many large cities above 15,000 creatures, so it is a considerable political force in the continent.  Note that the Spanish settlements are nowhere near Helsith.

The Sith are differently behaved depending upon their age.  The young are far less threatening, being about 5-6 feet in height, having typically around 7-14 hit points, attacking with bite and claws, being fast moving and full of energy.  As the Sith age, they grow considerably in size, until being around 9 feet tall - but as they age, they become wiser, less interested in raiding and conquest, much more ponderous in nature and slower-moving.  However, their hit points increase into the 60-80 range and they attack only once with a devastating biting attack or with weapon.

This tendency towards patience as they age makes the elder Sith more approachable and appreciative of the necessities of politics and negotiation.  It means that parties are far more likely to encounter the hot-blooded younger form, as they raid surrounding areas without much concern for things like treaties or good relations.  At the same time, it also means these younger raiding parties tend to lack strong, intelligent leaders - for as the Sith shed their skins, they simultaneously grow wiser and cooler-tempered.

The Supay

These are a passive, highly social group of humanoids developed from the Capybara, far more intelligent and organized than typically conceived rodent humanoids.  In shape they are somewhat like dwarves, with barrel-shaped bodies and large trunk like legs.  They have a strong, flexible neck and they attack with both weapon and bite in combat.

On the whole, they don't seek wars with their neighbors.  They occupy the area around the Spaniard missions and are friendly with the Spaniards because that is the Supay nature.  If pressed, they prefer to retreat into the Chaco swamp rather than fight; this works well for them, since they live much of the season in temporary bivouaks in the wild, often abandoning their established stone villages for months at a time.

They will also act as intermediaries between different cultures in times of war, as they are highly trusted and known for their fair dealings and honesty.

The Bokkeer

This represents a master-slave culture among cats, where they masters are highly intelligent humanoid jaguars.  As humanoid cultures go, the master Bokkeer are far more jaguar than humanoid, commonly moving onto all fours in attack rather than using weapons.  They are far more intelligent than most of their neighbours and highly reclusive, there being only nine highly isolated settlements where a large number of them dwell.  Even at that, only 10% of the population will be masters.  The remainder, the demi-Bokkeer, are displacer beasts (which are semi-intelligent).

Each master Bokkeer will share a telepathic connection with up to 20 demi-Bokkeer, which will attack at the Bokkeer's instigation if so directed.  Masters do not share demi-Bokkeer and cannot control those of other masters, so the culture tends to be based upon the intellectual power of a master to control so many underlings.  Even the weakest masters will control at least four demis, making the least of them considerably dangerous.

Thankfully (for the Spanish) the Bokkeer are not especially territorial and are somewhat tolerant of other creatures.  So long as they are not personally threatened, they are willing to correspond, trade or even aid travellers - but they are excessively distrustful of large numbers or any show of weapons or personal protection.  Any number of interlopers above ten, especially if armed, are sure to get attention . . . this will usually mean a watchful eye from creatures designed to move silently and quietly through the natural vegetation of their lands.

The Neembucu & Guarani

A note before I start; the name 'guarani' is stolen from the actual human native that dwelt in Paraguay before the Spanish.  I'm not above using a good name.  No other association should be assumed in its use here.

These two cultures surround the north and south sides of the Spanish incursions in Paraguay.  Both are not humanoid in any way, but are rather Entish in design.  However, unlike the great and powerful ents from Lord of the Rings or European conception, these creatures are much smaller, much more bush-like in form and far more communal.  (My players, once told about them, immediately tagged them 'Bushents.'  Snigger).

Guarani and Neembucu differ in vegetative form.  The Guarani are spreading, full shrubs atop low trunks, with large leaves.  They prefer high country and deep valleys.  The Neembucu are more akin to bottle trees, with fat trunks topped with a small collection of branches.  They like innundated glades.  Both forms are less than 10 feet tall (3 meters) and typically possess 6 hit dice.  

I don't see these creatures as 'protective of trees,' since I view ordinary trees as unintelligent and therefore competition for good water and comfortable glades, where the Guarani and Neembucu would prefer to dwell.  Thus, ordinary trees tend to be displaced in favour of settlement.  These settlements tend to look like well tended copses of trees, filled with carefully designed canals or levees, rice-paddy like shelves in hillsides or low stone dams to create a shallowly flooded plain.

Like most other races in the region, these tree-cultures are passive and respectful of others - but they vastly outnumber the Spanish, who must be very careful not to cause an uprising by the Guarani.  There simply aren't enough Europeans in the region to 'conquer' much of anything.

A Few Additional Thoughts

So how is the Spanish survive?  Remember, this is D&D, so I allow no firearms or muskets for the Spanish to possess, while these races are clearly advanced in engineering, social design and military power.  They are also considerably greater in number than the real world native population (Santa Cruz and Mato Grosso were hardly occupied at all, which helped the Spanish and Portuguese to choose those areas for settlement).

Well, the answer to that question will come with the next post . . . and it begins with Zoroastrianism.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Issues in Mapping Paraguay

Paraguay is the first map I've added to my game world that is south of the Equator.  This became the first problem I had to manage in mapping the region, because it meant having to figure out the dimensions of the sheet map in reverse.  I'll explain.

In choosing a map projection that would work best with a hex-design, I went with the world viewed from the two poles.  I've explained this before regarding mapmaking, but giving a quick explanation, the world is like two sides of a hexagonal coin, the top and the bottom.  I don't have an image of the world depicted as a hexagram (more's the pity) so I'll have to show two circles instead:

This means that the distortion is greatest towards the Equator . . . but I solve this problem by having the inhabitants of the planet dwell in an illusionary haze that supposes that the world is a sphere and that the universe acts in accordance with that supposed truth.  It is important to always remember, this is my D&D world, not a pure representation of any so-called 'real world' that may exist elsewhere.

Because I've been mapping in the northern hemisphere, I'm used to designing my maps leading away from the north pole, thus managing the distortion the hex-map creates habitually with this in mind.  To map a portion of the southern hemisphere, I had to reverse my thinking and design the maps leading towards the south pole, since I did not want to turn the map upside down in representing it (we're used to having north be generally at the top of the map, even in the southern hemisphere).  This actually gave me a headache.  It is difficult to explain why - since I can't express the problem fully in my own mind.  Let's just say it made it hard to determine the exact shape of the sheet maps regarding that 60-degree turn that happens as one circumnavigates my hex-map world (see the mapmaking link above).  Thankfully, Paraguay was not on a parallel that required that turn.

Once figuring it out, however, I began laying out the hex elevation details for the necessary maps.  In a close-up view of either this new map on the wiki or this one, there are little numbers in the corner of every hex.  This is the elevation in feet above sea level for that hex (though there are variances within the hex that I have to imagine, though that isn't important right now).  If the number is in italics, then this indicates the highest habitated elevation in the hex (not the highest point, just the highest point at which people live).  Numbers not in italics represent the lowest elevation.

In making any map, I have to start by diligently placing these numbers in every hex.  Initially, every hex is tagged with the lowest elevation; the black circles on the maps linked above indicate that these hexes do not contain rivers and that the numbers should be altered from highest to lowest.  The difference this makes gives a good indication of the elevation changes from hex to hex, aiding in the maps representing the world.

The more information I have regarding elevations, the more precise I can plot the course of the rivers.  With Paraguay, the plan was to determine the basin of rivers that ultimately drain into the region - the Parana River from the east, the Paraguay River from the north and the much smaller Pilcomayo River from the west, among other smaller tributaries.  To do this, I needed to know where the continental divide existed between the Paraguay-Parana basin and the Amazon basin, to the north.

This proved difficult, because much of central South America is empty.  Very, very empty.

Google Earth helps with this.  I could tell from images that most of the Amazon basin leading up to the heights of central Mato Grosso is full of hills and low mountains.  I could then speculate that the dividing country between the river basins was mostly hilly jungle - human access is dependent upon river travel.  Therefore, virtually anything for which I don't have data (meaning there are no habitations there) could be counted as inaccessible higher altitude jungle.

This is a bit obscure.  Let me show the size of the Paraguay-Parana basin by showing the dimensions of what I needed to lay out in order to determine it:

Looking at it in one piece for the first time (I've been looking at it in seven sections), it actually looks smaller than I supposed. Ah well.  It still makes the largest river basin system I've mapped, so that's something.

The scattering of green hexes across the top of the map are those hexes for which I have no information for the latitude/longitude of that hex.  The hex is therefore colored to either be a highland (dark green) or a lowland valley (light green) in accordance with the vegetation.  The greenish-brown hexes in the Paraguay map on the previous post indicate a Chaco vegetation, what's called a xerophytic open forest (on this post, it is similar to the image for 'Di - caatinga,' except that it's much flatter and much wetter).  The darker green hexes represent a galleria-type forest, a mix of tall grass and jungle trees, a sort of dense savanna.  South Mato Grosso and all of Mato Grosso do Sul provinces correspond to that circular area of pink-orange (the upper Paraguay basin), something I'm pointing out because mato grosso in Portuguese means "thick bush."

Steadily, with Google Earth, the data I could use from the hexes I did have information for and a little fudging here and there (it is my world, remember; I can fudge if I need to), I did get the various limits of each basin (Pilcomayo, Paraguay, Parana, etc) worked out.  After that, it was just a matter of calculating the river sizes and drawing the rivers out.  Well, sort of.

See, I felt I had to plot some of the towns in Mato Grosso and eastern Bolivia in order to get those rivers properly placed (a bit more information helps).  Brazil was easier, the upper Parana valley is well inhabited.  Plotting towns means investigating towns, researching their origin and establishing their political backgrounds.

Now, I absolutely wanted a Spanish/Portuguese presence in South America, so I felt that any town that was founded before 1650 had to exist, regardless of the circumstances.  1650, incidentally, is the historical year on which my world is based - and there are many Spanish colonies founded before that year.  None of them, however, happen to be in Mato Grosso . . . or eastern Bolivia and western Paraguay.  Or eastern Paraguay, for that matter.

In Part II of this post, I will write about what I did about that.  Making a map of Paraguay isn't enough.  Some considerable thought has to be applied to what lives there.

Saturday, October 24, 2015


This is a present for JB at B/X Blackrazor.  The explanation for its appearance can be found on this post's comments.  I have gotten more views directed from JB's blog than any other, except direct from Google - so thank you, JB.  Keep the viewers coming.

Did not take me months after all.  I started this the day I finished Burma, Oct 22.  So, three weeks and a day:

I finished this about 20 minutes ago.  I would write about it now, explaining this and that, but I'm actually running a game at 6pm, 19 minutes from now.

So this is a teaser.  I'll write about it as soon as I can.  And put clearer maps on the wiki for it.

Sunday, October 18, 2015


I'm learning new definitions for stupidity.

Each night at work, I take my break out the back door of my restaurant workplace.   The same area serves as a smoking place for patrons, so there is a prominent ash basin where I sit.

This next part applies to both human behavior and stupidity.   The distance between the ash basin and the alley back of the restaurant is about 40 yards.   During a 15 minute break, an average of three to four desperate people check that ashtray.  About one in 20 find something.   I presume these people check about 20 ashtrays behind restaurants to get a butt.

This gives me pause regarding the basic principles surrounding the sustaining of life by conserving  energy. Screw the ill-health caused by smoking. These people haven't grasped the matter of surviving long enough to get cancer.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Why We're Not Great DMs

I have been speculating about the enthusiasm expressed by the fellow at the Edmonton Expo two weeks ago: "I would like to see how you run a game!"  He was remarkably dramatic about that, given that we'd spoken for less than 15 minutes.

The speculation has cluttered my mind because it is not the first time this sentiment has been declared in the last few months.  I've heard it several times, perhaps four or five, one of which inspired this rather vicious post (that was followed by two insightful dissections, here and here).  The ire that emerged in writing that post has been part of the speculation as well.  I find myself wondering why I was angry; and I find myself thinking, if I had possessed the time or the wherewithal to actually show any of these people, what would I do?  That is, to impress them.

DMing is not whipping out a guitar and reproducing Free Bird's bridge to prove one's talent.  It isn't performing Howl at the drop of a hat or demonstrating Bergerac's skill at improvising degradational poetry.  Nor is it a solo performance, bestowed upon the party with pomp and sotto voce.  DMing is, as I wrote once upon a time, jazz.  A form of imagination jazz where there is no audience.

This, I must reckon, is where the anger smoldered underneath the post I wrote.  There is a sense that the player imagines that somehow the great DM will - from some supposed pool of wisdom - a fully-formed adventure.  Naturally, this shall then progress throughout the evening with unimaginable grace - because that is how great DMing works.

The expectation of instantaneous production of campaign wonder has escaped my scrutiny.  It has lurked here on the blog all this time but it has never been directly addressed.  I speak of working and developing a campaign and carrying the drama and immersion to the players all the time.  Yet I don't say, "Oh, and by the way, this is going to take several runnings."  I don't say it because, fundamentally, I pretend that everyone understands this.  When I meet people for whom several runnings is something unwanted, my instinct is to dismiss them.  As voices, as players, as anything having to do with bettering the game or my personal world.  I rank such people - people who play games for one night - with stage performers who don't rehearse, musicians who don't practice and writers who resent grammar.  I dismiss these people because they don't count.

However . . . when I speak to a new DM with new players in a new world, I must confess that my advice has never included the words, "You don't win your players over with one running."

That ought to be the first thing I say.

I do field that question regularly: "I'm new at this, I want my players to like my game, I don't know what I should concentrate on," etcetera.  I usually promote starting with a familiar system and getting more familiar with it.  I encourage expressing to the players what the DM is trying to do.  I promote booting players who deliberately seek to upset the game.

But let's put all that on a back burner.  I don't do any of that stuff, do I?  I'm insanely familiar with my system.  My players already know what I'm trying to do and I know how to convey that without having to hit my players over the head with philosophy.  And I rarely boot anyone, because I don't have those kind of players.

Step-by-step, I've built a game approach that bypasses the need for disclosure, by attempting to involve players as much as possible with their own characters and, in turn, the agendas of those characters.  This approach allows for time spent - I expect a new player to spend at least three solid runnings in my world before there's any chance of their being invested.  Therefore, I do not waste time with quibbling failed ideas like bribery, optional skills, nifty toys or promises of great power or success.  I encourage new players to believe that the world is harsh, dangerous and indifferent, making strong suggestions that making wrong choices in initially developing a character will lead to dire, near-guaranteed consequences of death.

Why?  Because I want the players to feel they're getting into something bigger than they are.

Immediately we start rolling up a character for them.  I remember when I used to roll up characters for the old school games we played, how simple and easy they were.  I do not have my players roll up simple characters.  Rather, I dump great piles of detail on my new players immediately, giving them a load of class skills and a complex character background with no choices (except where they happened to fix their ability scores), telling them, "This is what you are.  This is what you can do.  This is what's happened to you.  Deal with it."

Why?  Because I want my players to be stunned at the depth and detail they're encountering, making them feel inadequate and thus immediately dependent - not upon me, because I don't have the time, but upon their fellow players.  I want every new player to wallow in considerable mounds of new intelligence and uncertainty, because it promotes a sense of doubt and insecurity.

Insecurity will quickly drive the sort of players I don't want from my game.  It will be too much trouble for them, too much annoyance, particularly where it comes to other players and their similar issues.  Good players, on the other hand, will see opportunity and a desire to better themselves as players in order to live up to my expectations.  They will love and adore the detail and respect the work that went into creating it.  They will appreciate my efforts and be more willing to grant my words legitimacy in light of what I've already demonstrated.

Then the new player is shown the equipment list.  They take their 90 or 245 g.p. and find themselves facing a massive excel list with 1500+ items on it, organized in a confusing fashion.  If they beg for something simpler, I remind them that market towns and their goods are not laid out alphabetically.  Again, the player is overwhelmed: omg, where do they start?

I haven't even started running them in the game yet and already they are well behind the curve.  If they're going to beat the curve, they're going to have to try.

That's the crux of it.  That's why this post is titled as it is.  Because I am not a 'great' DM if I have no players who are willing to try at being players.  When I start off the campaign, I'm anxious to see who has the gumption to try.  That is why my campaign is likely to start off something like this:

It is early afternoon on a Sunday, May 5, 1650. Four of you are resting yourselves on the porch of a town gasthaus, the Pig, at the corner where a narrow lane meets with the town square. You‘re waiting for your friend Kazimir to arrive. Not long ago, you watched the usual scattering of most of the citizenry from the town cathedral’s doors from your usual place across the square…whereupon the gasthaus threw open its doors for business. A number of stalls and tables were quickly erected by teams of young boys in the employ of their merchant masters, a goodly number of them against the side wall of the church, where you can the usual piles of vegetables and sacks. Various less blessed members of the town are picking them over, haggling with the sellers and stuffing their bought wares into sacks to be hauled off to the various common quarters of the town.
The bartender, Helmunt, fills your drinks at no charge. Upon an agreement, the four of you have been given the privilege of drinking free in exchange for your endorsement, your willingness to put an end to any trouble and the simple fact that you represent the higher end of Helmunt’s clients. He has hopes that your presence on his front stoop might expose the quality of his kitchen to a few of the better members of the town.
You’re bored. This has been the routine for nearly two months now. You four, Tiberius, Josef, Delfig and Anshelm, met on a cold morning in mid-spring (for the region), finding yourselves all stranger, fairly compatible with one another and equally of the opinion that many of the vicissitudes of life are unappreciated by most. At the moment, however, you could stand a few more changes than there have been.

What have I said?  Have I described anything like an ordinary gaming module?  Absolutely not.  Why?  Because I don't want to give my players an even break.  I'm not a cruise director.  All I'm willing to say is that you're here and you see things.  Deal with it.

No, seriously, deal with it.  Get off your ass.  Do something.  Figure it out for yourselves.  I've been running the game for a long, long time.  You can be damn sure that any sort of adventure you've ever read in any module, ever, exists in some manner in my world.  Your problem is to pick the adventure and then go get it.

I am not a great DM.  Neither are any of you - particularly if you're the sort of sad fellow who thinks drumming up a two-dimensional adventure and presenting it as a drive-through two-hour "experience" at a Con makes you "great."

I have great players.  Players who rise to the bar, who clear it.  I have those players because I make the bar insanely high and then I show no remorse whatsoever.  Want to play?  Be ready to spend time.  Lots of time.  Be ready to get addicted.

We're not great DMs.  At the end of the day, we might manage to chair a great game.  Which is actually better.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015


I should be clear about this: I'm not too busy to write. I'm too miserable.

The shock of coming back from something like the Expo to a world where I'm cooking for a living has been hard to suffer.

Why? Because of answers like I heard the other night. Someone expressed a desire to holiday in Jamaica and immediately received the answer, "The drugs are great there."

These are not my people.

I'm am increasingly of the conclusion that the real trouble with marijuana is the potential it has to encourage people to remain uninformed in a world where the only subject that holds their interest is when the next opportunity to smoke comes.  I do have empathy for these poor people.  The time they spend working is, in some ways, worse because on the whole they're jagging for their next hit.  Which explains why they talk about it constantly.

On the other hand, I'm thoroughly convinced they are blessed with less brain activity overall . . . while I am stuck in endless fleeting thoughts I can't sit and evolve in my mind due to small, endless distractions.

Maxwell mentioned in a comment yesterday that the Burma map was probably a matter of grind, grind, grind.  He's right.  The Burma map proves I have time to write blog posts.  I'm drawing back from these because I know - as this post is already proving - that I'm becoming more single-minded about certain issues.

Really, how much of this self-describing shit does the reader need to see?

So the days go by, I work on obsessive projects and wait for the economy to change, so I can find an office job again and get the hell off my feet, returning to a world where people are polite to one another and speak in whole sentences.  When that happens, my stress will fall, my bank account will grow and I'll find the motivation to think through a creative process, building arguments and proposing functional changes to my world and the greater game.  Just now I feel so dry on those matters that it has become a form of misery.  I want my brain to kick in and think of something new - which it would usually do, as people who have read this blog can attest - but the brain has run down and there is no foot around to kick it.

Physically, I'm great.  I've lost about 25 pounds in six weeks, most of it around my waist.  I'm tightening my belt two holes smaller than I did in August.  For all the lack of energy I have, shoving it into the workplace, overall I'm stronger and probably fitter.  It's a terrible exchange.  I'd rather be fat, on my ass and thinking than thin, on my feet and dead-headed.  On the other hand, my partner has expressed her pleasure at the new, smaller me.

So there's that to be grateful for.

Friday, October 2, 2015


Well, this didn't take long.  Largely because there is so little historical information about Burma online (due to it being run by a fanatical, murderous, highly ignored by the West government that may be supported by the C.I.A. to enable them to obtain large quantity drugs they can sell in the U.S. in order to support their actions without needing to go to Congress - or so I've been told).

Enjoyed this.  Not sure what part of the world to do next.  I may, for fun, work on the source of the Nile.  No good reason, but what the hell.

The wiki has information for the Map Key. Updated sheet maps on the wiki can be found here:

F 12 - Namkin
G 14 - Irrawaddy
G 15 - Laos
H 16 - Andaman Sea
H 17 - Gulf of Siam


Thursday, October 1, 2015

Pursuing Failure

I was thinking yesterday of the old chestnut, "Do not be afraid to fail."  Sometimes these things retain their merit even though we hear them so often that the cease to have meaning.  Yes, yes, right, strive hard, work, try new things and don't be afraid to fail.  Got it.

We should really look at those words as often as we have the time.  Translated, they also mean, don't play it safe.  Don't do the same things that were done before.  We have too much a tendency to repeat our efforts based on "what works," as though what has worked in the past automatically exempts us from any responsibility to find what might work better.  Or differently.  Or with profound, unexpected results.

Gaming is like that.  If our campaigns are built too solidly upon what has always worked in the past, they bind us in a straightjacket.  We are limited.  Our games grow into participations in tradition and dogma, making the 'transformative experience' of gaming into the square-peg into round-hole problem.

Just a daily thought for the reader to ponder upon.