Friday, August 12, 2016


Long time commentor and fellow wiki contributor Maxwell Joslyn has recently written two posts about training soldiers, here and here.  This has got me thinking about the instruction sage ability rules that I intended to create more than a year ago (which has since been ignored) - and that is a good thing.

Still, remember Maxwell as you read this post . . . you did ask me to read your blog.

Before we can talk about what people can learn from training or instruction, we need to talk about what instruction IS.

Let me start by saying that my university instruction was a joke [Classical History & Archaeology].  This isn't to say that I didn't learn something, or that I didn't do well (I floated between an A- and a B+ through my seven years as a professional student), but that the actual expectations I was expected to satisfy were paltry at best.  Here at the University of Calgary, fairly standard for Canada, a semester lasted four months, during which time I took five courses.  A typical semester for me during the last two years would have been, typically, two seniors level courses in Greek or Roman history, a mid-level course that was a degree requirement, a language course in Latin and a random course that I would take because it interested me: history, political science, English literature, geography or religious studies, most often.

This would mean a test a week in Latin, 5 mid-term tests, 5 final tests, three papers of 2,500-3,000 words in length and typically, for the option course, a paper of 500-1,000 words in length (even for English, which is pretty damn sad).  Oh, and I would have to fully read about six books and scan maybe another 15. This isn't much work in a time span of 120 days - though of course everyone I went to school with complained constantly about their work-load.

Fact is, we live in an age where, if we are prepared to do the work adequately, there isn't even a need to shine in order to obtain the so-called "education" that can be claimed for the rest of one's life.  And once the work is accomplished for a given part of the field, say Greece during the Peloponnesian War, I barely had to remember any of the details a year later when taking courses on the Hellenic Period or Alexander the Great. Even though I took Latin, there was no requirement to read the content in Latin or even exhibit any skill in the Latin at all in other coursework - and I didn't have to take Greek to complete my degree.  I only needed one language or the other.

It's things like this that expose the University-as-factory reality . . . and which produces, in our minds, the idea that IF an ordinary person wants to grow into a 1st level fighter some day, the only question is how long and if they survive battle.  In other words, if they put in the effort, the will automatically get the paper.

But in fact, this is really bullshit.  Whatever lies soldiers in the real world tell themselves or the public, every soldier who has done a two-year tour of duty in the real world knows about half a dozen guys in their squad who weren't worth shit, who survived through luck, who never did learn to manage themselves in a fire fight and half a dozen other inadequacies that were glossed over because they were in the unit and therefore entitled to be there.

In game terms, however, we're not designating a fighter as someone who has passed the training or who has been appropriately patted on the head and given a diploma.  We're actually evaluating whether or not they can fight.  Yes, Dennis the Lackwit can swing a sword.  Hell, I can swing a sword.  But is Dennis actually proficient?  Does he suffer the -3 proficiency penalty or not?  Does he have four proficiencies or just one?  Is Dennis, in fact, a "fighter."

At present, I do use a rule where experience does serve as a stand-in for determining whether or not Dennis is "combat-trained" or "first-level."  But that is actually a pretty crappy system.  Because we have to understand, in a world where "education" isn't about servicing an economic business model, not only is failing possible it is probable.

This is the problem with the experience system that many have developed: it rewards luck, not ability.  What is wanted is an instruction/training system that acknowledges that luck is only luck.

Is experience important?  Yes, I think it still has to be there.  The soldier that has all the training but has never actually faced combat is not the equal of one that has.  So some combat - real combat, the sort where people die, not merely sparring - has to be part of the selection process.

The other part, however, has to be a combination of the subject's potential and the instructor's acumen.  It has to acknowledge that most subjects don't have the potential and that most instructors don't have the acumen.

While my education was a joke, this is only the beginning of the laugh riot that manifested as my professors.  I did have some very hard-case instructors, who really pushed my boundaries; my Greek History instructor Waldemar Heckel and the fellow who rattled my head in Latin (who seems to have vanished from the world).  I had brilliant instructors who I spent as much time with as possible, like Barry Baldwin or Janis Svilpas, who used to buy me beer at the local Highlander Pub because I was a poor student.  But those professors were rare - and because the others were so easily gotten around or duped, or possessed such low expectations of their students, I could spend 90% of my time getting the paper for Heckel just right while sloughing off a paper for some hackneyed Geography prof in a couple of hours, sometimes the day it was due.

We have to presume that the kind of education necessary to make Dennis into a fighter, or Billy Brightboy into the William the Conjurer will not be like I've just described.  We're talking 24/7 training, hard core, learn the content and repeat, repeat, repeat, the sort of brutal expectation we demand of firefighters, doctors and professional soldiers - acknowledging that there won't be visual aids, there won't be ready books to read, there won't even be classrooms, desks or institutionalized interaction and study groups to depend upon . . . and probably not the benefit of getting up each morning and training with a squad of people just like ourselves.  It will be one-on-one instruction: uncertain, lonely, shaming, without pre-packaged goal posts like completing a course or getting past a mid-term.  The training will be soul-sucking and emotionally destructive, as no one will be permitted to grade their instructor or stage a protest because something the instructor said bears some tiny resemblance to a racist remark.

The student will be at the instructor's mercy . . . and the only test that will be passed is whether or not the instructor cares to spend another day screaming the same epithets at this student who just isn't getting it.  The measure of success isn't the time we put in, it's the potential exhaustion of the instructor - and when the instructor cuts us loose, we are done.  Period.

From the instructor's perspective, it is all ability.  The boy who is 10 who comes to the instructor to learn to be a fighter doesn't start with an 17 strength.  The young girl of 11 wanting to be a thief doesn't have an 18 dexterity.  The ability stats are potentials that can be squandered without the right training.  Our Billy may someday have a 17 intelligence and a 16 dexterity, but he doesn't have those things at age 9.  Under the right instructor, those heights are possible - but a second-rate instructor is going to get Billy to maybe a 14 int and a 12 dex.  Because that's how it goes.  Look around you at the Olympics as they're passing by; all those athletes striving and rising and breaking records are the hammered clay of professional trainers without whom they'd have done well at their city intra-murals and not much better.

It isn't enough to say that we have such and such many would-be fighters and it takes one to four years to make a fighter: that's 20th century thinking, where everyone is entitled to put letters after a name because they paid for it.  NO ONE in a pre-industrial world gets to be an expert without someone to teach them - that is why we define Aristotle as the student of Plato and Plato as the student of Socrates, but we don't give a damn who Dawkins' teacher was or who taught Chomsky.  These guys had great instructors, but who the hell remembers that Harold Bloom had M.H. Abrams as a teacher?

No, I'm not going to link any of those people.

Where rules for D&D are concerned - so that I can fill that empty page under sage abilities - I want some kind of detail that explains how far a player character can take a given adopted NPC student.  Specifically, I want some mechanic that forces the player to sacrifice something . . . time, obviously, but something more would be desirable.  Sacrifice transforms a mechanic from a process into a game.  That's what we want.  We want the potential for training strangers into active allies into an uncertain, potential risk investment where the consequences have meaning.

I haven't figured out how to do that, yet . . . but I think, at least, I have defined the problem.  The solution is inevitable.


James said...

For one, isn't the sacrifice opportunity cost? Any time you spend doing "x," you aren't doing "y." In game terms, this means that as you specialize/get higher level, this leaves less time for improving skills, making friends, that sort of stuff. Of course, since at the moment, leveling up is tied to not only increased aptitude in your chosen class but increased skills, this is really difficult to showcase, but what you are proposing is a revamp of the leveling system anyway.

On some level, it may even make sense to not think in terms of levels, but in terms of years, where you can potentially improve your class or skills in a given year (given proper instruction and commitment)

Maxwell Joslyn said...

Message received. Thinking hat on. (Although it might have to be subconscious thinking as I leap to some other part of the game and work on that.)

Alexis Smolensk said...

Please allow me to correct you James,

I'm not actually making any points about changing the way in which characters level. I am speaking only of initial training. Once that initial training is accomplished, experience then works as the ONLY increasing mechanism.

I'm only saying that initially, when a person knows nothing, actual instruction is also needed.

Maxwell Joslyn said...

Hey, you typo'd my last name. Can you please fix it?