Monday, July 31, 2017

Intentional Inefficiency

Oh, the blog has been a source of confusion lately, what with odd posts cropping up here and there on subjects like cats and garlic.  Some might wonder if I'm done with this game design series I've been writing all July and I'll begin by saying, no, I'm not done.

I'll sum up the last four posts and we can move forward.  I began with a disclaimer about setting, that it is something the designer has to sort from a personal perspective.  Finding a good setting is something that cannot be taught.  Nor can it be pulled out of a hat.  Create a setting that you know, that you can carry forward with full understanding of that setting and be sure that the setting is yours and no one else's.  Don't create a vision that can be compromised by another person's perception.

Then I took steps to establish some measurements that would define the campaign: starting with what sort of campaign would be potentially run, from casual forms to the sort of measured game I play.  I made a point about the particular "game" the DM plays in running an RPG, how decisions create a smoothly running system, from which it is unwise to deviate. I talked about the rigidity of that system, and moved to establish a template in which we could compare the rigidity of one system from another, those systems having extraordinary, high, medium and low rigidity.  I pointed out that it is easier for a DM to run a high rigidity system, but harder for a player to survive; whereas a low rigidity system increases player survival but multiplies the number of variables a DM has to control.

Next I talked about player confidence, from the standpoint that players are excessively confident that the worst case scenario will occur in a campaign, creating distrust and doubt, including a tendency of players to create answers to their concerns that support and validate their feelings of distrust.  These self-created answers then influence the overall tenor of the campaign, causing players to drift together into greater and greater distrust, even in games of low rigidity where their probable survival is high.

Finally, I provided tactics to counteract this worst-case-scenario thinking, with a goal to improve player experiences and encourage a greater sense of control on the players part.  I spoke of eliminating rules that aren't used or respected, increasing the use of rules that interest the players, ensuring that players understand what they're getting out of the campaign, not taking player feedback personally and making a decision to help the players with more info rather than letting them believe "facts" they make up themselves to feed their sense of distrust.

Good, let's move on.  I'll stipulate that the reader has decided on a setting, on a form of campaign, on a degree of rigidity in that campaign and is prepared to coddle the players a little bit until they adjust to the amount of rigidity the DM wants to run.  These things are all part of the basic structure of the campaign, along with giving the players a better lookout on what that structure is.  What do we want to think about next?

Let's come back to a quote from Ian Bogost that I did not include in my original deconstruction of his discussion of fun (though I told the reader to finish the video):
"Play is an activity of freedom and openness and possibility ~ but it's one that arises from limiting our freedoms rather than expanding them.  And it's why golf isn't just a nice walk ruined. Rather, as [Bernhard] Sweets put it, it's like asking us to accomplish something using only the means that are permitted by the rules of the game, where those rules prohibit us from doing so in a sensible way.  They prohibit us from doing something efficiently, in favor of less efficient means ~ and in fact, where those rules of inefficiency are accepted, just because they make the activity possible.  Otherwise, you just walk up and drop the ball in the hole."

 Here is the function of our game.  We can easily create a group of characters with perfect scores, with an unlimited number of hit points, with powers and abilities that make them invulnerable, then offer to them a series of goals that they can snap their fingers and accomplish, because as a DM we can make the full enactment of heroism and success an absolute certainty.  Or we can seek to impose inefficiencies on the characters that will make success less and less certain . . . so long as we retain the absolute rule that remains possible for them to achieve the goals they choose or have chosen for them, depending on the sort of campaign we want to run.

From there, the only discussions that is relevant to the function of our game are, a) what sort of goals are imposed; and b) what level of possibility of success do we wish the players to have?  All other discussions are either a question of structure (what exists) or irrelevancy.  Unless we tie the discussion of game play to the matter of "How does this make the character's experience more or less difficult in obtaining the sort of goal the campaign has," the discussion is meaningless.

Naturally, there will be no agreement on how difficult the player's success needs to be.  Consider: I used to play baseball.  I hit several home runs on ball parks when playing in high school, because I have big meaty shoulders and I could get my whole body into the swing.  I was able to compete at that game at the level of play that I was at, but certainly I turned no heads regarding moving up in level of play.  I was a better player than some, was certainly a much worse player than others.  The difficulty of the game, then, depended upon the level of participant with which I was allowed to play.  The increase of difficulty was measurable because the rules contained ALL the participants within the closed system of the game.

In role-playing, good players will press a DM who runs a poor game and will end up running the table.  We would hope that the DM could then increase the difficulty of their ideas and "game" in order to give good players a run for their money, but there is no mandate to do so and often we see players with great skills and poor attitudes given carte blanche at tables they run from the bleachers, and will continue to run for years so long as the DM in that campaign does not balk.  Therefore, we cannot rely on the skill of the DM to set the standard for the difficulty of the campaign.  All discussions regarding the skill of the DM, or the ability of the DM, or the habits of the DM, are therefore meaningless when considering the overall function of the game.  DMs cannot be trusted, they cannot be measured, they cannot be adjusted or modified when not in working order, and therefore DMs, like any other participant, must be managed by a set of rules that offer no flexibility with regards to free play within the rigidity of the system.

If we are to propose a difficulty in the creation of our functional game, the DM's ability cannot be seen as a component of that functionality.  The DMs role must be established as clearly and as certainly as the players', or else we accomplish nothing.

I will let the reader think on that.  Then we can move on.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Legitimacy in DMing

You've known those Dungeon Masters. This is their campaign. They're in charge here. They've got their way of doing things and you better get used to it because that's how the game is played at this table. Want to run in their world? Get used to feeling their eye upon you; get used to a sharp rebuke for doing it wrong. Get ready to bend. Because if you want to play in this world, you're going to play the game their way.

Why do some DMs play like this? Is it that they like power? Are they bullies? That's an easy explanation. I have to question if it's right. A lot of these DMs play for years like this and a lot of them manage to retain regular players - though, from my experience, such players are rarely happy. So what's going on here?

Saturday, July 29, 2017


Hello All,

I was thinking.  There ought to be some kind of service the reader can invent, that I can perform here on the blog, that would be worth $1 on my Patreon for the month of August.  I won't ask for charity, not this time around; but the Patreon is going to be taken out in about 36 hours, so if someone wants to give me a dollar in that time, and suggest something I can give in return that's worth that much to you, maybe we can deal.

What'ya say?  Answer a question?  Explain something?  I'm open to suggestions.  Then you can donate a dollar to my Patreon for the month of August.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Barents & Kara, Again

I have always found maps beautiful. The colors, the lines, the stark contrast between land and sea, the strange shapes of the earth . . . but in a greater sense, knowing that what's represented are millions of people, the shape, and pattern of their lives, the boundaries of their worlds, the mountains and beaches they travel to see, shown in perfect clarity. As a young boy, I used to run my fingers over my grandfather's globe, imagining what it would be like to visit each place. I still do that.

Showing is a representation of my Dungeons & Dragons world, based on the real world. Early in my days as a dungeon master, I found that players had trouble identifying with ...

Vegetable Liquefaction

All too often, much emphasis in culinary science is given to finding and using the best possible ingredients. Yet this is but the beginning; cooking is process more than anything ~ and as I have found in my years in kitchens, most cooks, even chefs of excellence, have little idea what that process is.

Let us consider garlic, a common vegetable with uncommon properties. We all use it; and while we're told to choose the best possible cloves for making our dinners, most of us wouldn't...

(continue reading)

Thursday, July 27, 2017


   "She does not get eaten by the sharks at this time," my father said.   I looked up at him. "What?"   "You looked like you were getting too involved and bothered so I though I would let you relax."   "Oh, for Pete's sake," I said, "you'd think I was a baby or something. What kind of stuff is that?" I really sounded put out, but I'll tell you the truth: I was getting a little too involved and I was glad he told me. I mean, when you're a kid, you don't think, Well, since the book's called The Princess Bride and since we're barely into it, obviously, the author's not about to make shark kibble of his leading lady. You get hooked on things when you're a youngster; so to any youngsters reading, I'll simply repeat my father's words since they worked to soothe me: 'She does not get eaten by the sharks at this time.'

Let me explain something about user experience, or UX as the business calls it.  Every company that has ever created a design that failed after the release of the product has decided, in pure stupidity, that the solution to the matter will be to "educate the public" about the greatness of their product.  See, if you've spent two years preparing a product, writing copy about it, raving in meeting after meeting about the beauty of the product and the wonderful buzz it's going to create as soon as its ready to storm the streets, you just can't believe that people don't like it.  It isn't possible.  You're blown away by how good a product it is.  As soon as the public understands, this product is going to do great!

And so, faced with JB's question at the end of my last post, acknowledging the problem and asking the question, "so what?", I find myself thinking, "Well, hell, D&D is a terrific product and sandboxes are a great way to play the game, why don't I just educate people so that they'll understand how great?


If I were going to make an attempt, I'd use Goldman's argument, above.  You, the player, are in this campaign.  It has barely started.  Since you're the most important being in this game world, obviously, I'm not going to rip your guts out just for fun.  What are you, nine?

But I wouldn't expect that to make much impact, given that most of the participants of the game, whatever age they happen to be, ARE nine, or at least they desperately want to be, given that they sit in films about superheroes and screech daily, "It's not believable!"  So much for educating the public.

Thankfully, I don't have to educate everybody.  I only have to bring you around, O Gentle Reader, and count on you to use a few tactics to convince your immediate players.  This crowd-sources the issue as best I can, while retaining the sense that I can say or write or do something about this tiger-in-the-bushes problem.

The goal here is to pull the wool over the players' eyes; not to educate them and explain why they need to view the game differently (they won't, and gawd knows I've tried), but to correct the interface in a manner that will counteract the impression the players will insist on having.  Not easy.  Yet the issue will not improve until this particular element about the campaign is corrected.

People are asking me all the time, how do I fix my campaign?  How do I win the trust of my players?  How do I make the world something they want to run in?  These are questions that every product designing company is asking: how do I make people like my product?  What does my product have to be in order for people to like it?

Step 1: Evaluate your campaign.

Most readers are doing this already, but what's needed is a specific list of what needs to be evaluated.  If the reader will consider any product out there, there are some basic rules that always apply; apply these to your campaign and you'll be fine.

Here's what you're looking for:

  • Whatever rule system being used, there will be dozens of features that are part of that system that no one actually uses.  Identify what those features are and get rid of them.  An example?  Virtually every pummelling system ever made, regardless of RPG.  Later on, there might be a fix for it; but for now, consider the actual feature is too boring to capture the player's attention.  Get rid of it.  But take note, don't use the player's opinion of what falls into this category.  Players will endlessly defend features in a game they don't use.  Like alignment.  They all think it needs to be there.  But when it comes to employing it themselves, it is strangely left out.  So don't ask players their opinions.  Watch what they do.
  • At the same time, take note of what the players are using a lot.  Your players are creative; if they're interested in something, they'll try to use it every which way they can, challenging your game's coherence as they attempt to play the rules.  Take your cue from that.  Increase your control over those systems with greater rigidity; make sure you give your players plenty of play, as these are features that they want to use.  So make lots of concessions.  But make those concessions fixed and clearly understood.
  • Consider what you're asking your players to do when they're running.  What are your expectations?  Are the payoffs for those expectations evident?  If your players are chafing when you give them advice or urge them towards a certain adventure, its because they don't see what's in it for them.  Unless they see that benefit, they'll see it as serving your needs and not their own.  That's going to create friction.  So instead, give your players as much as you dare before asking them to come on board. Make sure they can see where the value is for them.
  • Don't take their feedback personally.  Oh, believe me, I have a HUGE problem doing this.  I'm not preaching from a sinless place, oh no.  But just because I fuck this up all the time doesn't take away the correctness of not doing it.  And I'm seeing advice columns saying it all the time: "It's not my fault the user is stupid; they'll just have to learn to be smarter."  So rememeber: negative feedback is good. Negative feedback is good.  Negative feedback is good.  Keep saying it until you believe it.
  • Give the players help.  There's a lot of naysayers who will say this isn't the DM's role, but those people are wrong.  Throwing the players into the world and asking them to understand and adjust to everything without help only promotes tiger-in-the-bushes thinking (I sure hope you read the last post, or you must be lost).  There's no possible way the players can remotely understand what your world is about, how it works, how the people communicate with each other or what they should expect if you don't talk about your world and help the players ALL THE TIME.
  • Ignore the players when they tell you not to help.  Listen, when you run into this, you're coming face to face with people who have been programmed to think players are deservedly doomed to see tigers. This is where this whole tiger stuff begins; by DMs convincing players, and players convincing themselves, that there is a Chinese Wall between them and the game world.  Tear this wall down.  Get the sort of players who understand why it needs to be torn down.  There are hundreds of decisions to make and plenty of opportunity for the dice and the situation to go against the players; don't make it worse by making your players stand around in the dark.  If the players express tiger-in-the-bushes thinking ("the tower seems out of our league, in my view"), jump in and stress that there is no reason in the world for them to make that assumption.  In the past, I've let that kind of comment slip past unremarked.  I'm beginning to see this only feeds the players' stonewalling.  Once they make a declaration, they'll make it true in their minds by saying it, then keep repeating it and believing it until it becomes a fact that can't be adjusted.  This will bury their enthusiasm for doing anything that counteracts this assumption ~ and it is all based on the conjecture that there must be a tiger there.

This is certainly enough.  Looking through the link midway through on improving user experience will give a few other ideas (I'm really just paraphrasing the fellow's work and making it D&D relevant).  These elements above are what you need to work on if you want to get the rigidity of your game focused and help express better to the player how much play they have in that system.

As I said, not easy.  But start with trimming the unused stuff out of your campaign, then correct your personal addresses to the players' concerns.  You can spend the next ten years learning how to do just those two things.


I'm going to be regularly making links between my blog and content that I write for Vocal media.  Many of these articles will not be about D&D.  Some of them, when I think of a good short subject, will be.  I will probably delete Brass Carrots from this blog and move it there at some point ~ it has proven to be one of my most popular posts, ever.  Understand, my interest is to get published; and Vocal media pays money for content (not much, so far).  If this blog will drive traffic there, I'm going to use this blog.  Please pay no attention to content (such as things about cats) that hold no interest for you.

And Now... Cats

About a year ago, I became a boarder in a house with three cats. It isn't that I actively dislike cats; I am merely indifferent towards them, but I've had to live with the consequences of moving into what used to be Himeji's room— the young girl pictured above.

Two of the cats are boys: Keiichi and Panda. Keiichi, a moggy American shorthair, is by far the older, moving on past 10 years now. Panda is a tuxedo, about seven, and a definite bully. Himeji is just two and a half, is much bigger than both the boys and wholly inexperienced in the ways of tough guys. Prior to my arrival,

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

One Saturday, Long Ago

It was, I think, a Saturday night. I was 15. I had crossed the street to knock on a friend's front door, to find out if he wanted to do something and he told me, "I can't, I'm playing D&D." I had never heard of it.

A game? Yes. "Can you explain it?" I asked.

"No, I can't," he said. "You have to ...

Confidence Abounds

Every campaign, I've found, possesses players with a degree of doubt that is expressed as "worst-case-scenario" thinking.  To a certain extent, it is overthinking, the tendency to see dangers and demons where none exist; but as I continue my investigation into game design and user behaviour in relation to RPGs, I am thinking more and more that what I've witnessed these many years is a lack of confidence.

Now, this is a tremendously loaded word ~ and a heartily misunderstood one.  I direct the reader to the work of Dr. Richard Petty of the Ohio State University Department of Psychology, who takes note that confidence is something that our culture seems to want very badly:
"If you go into any bookstore ... you can learn how to get the ultimate self-confidence, unstoppable confidence, instant confidence; and if you're a dummy, there's a book for you: Confidence for Dummies."

People regularly confuse confidence with a lot of different things, with self-esteem, with bravery, with the capacity for motivation, as a recipe for guaranteed success, even as something that can take the place of physical prowess: the only thing stopping you from climbing an ice wall, right now, is your lack of confidence. Confidence, we are told, can conquer any obstacle.

This is not what confidence means at all.  Confidence is nothing more or less than the conviction that your opinion about anything is correct or incorrect.  If I ask you your name, you will confidently tell me what your name is, as you have every reason to believe that you know, at least, what you are called.  If I ask you if you can swim the English Channel, you can confidently tell me that no, you're not capable of that.

But what if I ask, are you a good DM?  Where is your confidence there?

Perhaps you imagine that the right answer is to forthrightly answer, "Yes, damn it, I'm a great DM!" as you've been fed on a steady diet of "To name it is to claim it" or "Thoughts make reality" or other such sentiment that sure to be found in books about gaining confidence.  To which I will ask the next question: if you are excessively confident that you are a good DM ~ if we recognize that this might be overconfidence ~ is that a good thing?

I want to make the argument that a lack of confidence is not necessarily a drawback.  In many ways, a lack of confidence is a reasonable defense mechanism.  If I go to the bushes over there, will there be a tiger?  If I'm confident that there won't be, will that help if I go to the bushes and there IS a tiger?  And if I'm equally confident that there is a tiger in the bushes, and there isn't one, how have I created boundaries around my free will that ought not to exist?

Now, this whole tiger in the bushes thing, this is something players do all the time in campaigns.  As they are talking about what to do next, they are bound to make presumptions about the rigidity of the campaign that are perceived to exist (when they don't) or perceived not to exist (when they do).  Here I want to give some examples (with apologies to the players), in order to deconstruct what is being said and how that reflects on the confidence of the player.  All these examples come from my online campaign, but I'm not going to give directions, for the player's sake.

"I'd like to see how deep this pool really is - it would be good to know if we could swim across without real danger of drowning."

Note that what has been described is only a pool of water.  The DM here (me) has not made any mention of the water being any threat ~ yet it is automatically perceived, confidently, that a threat is possible or even probable.  That's reasonable.  This is D&D.  But for lack of a definable threat, the player has created one of their own . . . one that does not, in fact, make sense.  The depth of the pool has no relevance to the ability of the character to swim across it without drowning.  If the character can swim, the character can swim; and the player, given an opportunity to think the sentence above through, can see immediately the error in thinking. In the moment, however, the only critical element is the sense that there IS a threat, that threat is certain to be connected to the depth of the pool (since a deeper pool enables a larger, more dangerous monster), in which case swimming might be necessary and it is far harder to swim and fight than to walk across a shallow pool and fight.

This produces a muddle in the player's agenda, between the confidence to identify the problem and the lack of confidence in expressing a response to that problem.  Yet the DM doesn't create the muddle; the player's own presumption that there must be something under the water, because this is D&D, compels the player to jump past the certainty into the realm of "what can we possibly do in this worst-case-scenario I have just invented in my brain."

"Would we have enough daylight to trek back? That'd come to 12 hours of hiking today. I imagine there'd be some kind of forced march damage for attempting it ..."

Again, the player here is speaking confidently from the point of view of being out in the woods, a good distance from town, with certainty measuring time that hasn't happened yet and presuming, reasonably given the complexity of my game, that forced march damage would result.  However, no actual knowledge was acquired before the statement was made.  Knowledge was asked for, but before waiting for the answer, the player felt it was necessary to give their own opinion on what would be a likely answer, then a likely consequence for the answer the player has given himself.

Once again, the presumed answer is a worst-case scenario possibility: a tiger is definitely hiding in the bushes.  Why not simply wait for an answer, then make a judgement based on that answer?  As it happens, the trek would not be 12 hours back to town (coming out, they were feeling their way ~ going back, they already knew the way) and at any rate, I don't award forced march damage for 12 hour periods.  But the player confidently believed this was a reasonable assessment of the situation, an assessment that a DM might reasonably make in a campaign, and felt it necessary to express the assessment as part of the process of running.

"Now I understand that we want to move along towards the interesting bits, but ... we don't want to dive into a pit trap head first."

Again, this is a very common sentiment for any RPG.  But it is, again, worst-case-scenario thinking.  Why specifically would it be presumed that the DM has something specific to be gained from creating a situation where the player's primary action would then produce a consequence of this proportion.  Note that the player does not express concern in terms of, "If we start, it will surely get dangerous."  No. The confidence here is that a yawning pit trap will gobble up the players once the first step (equated to diving in) is made.

It can be argued, and very reasonably, that this is legitimately nothing more than exaggeration.  Yet why exaggerate?  What purpose does it serve?  Very clearly, it serves the purpose of recognizing that there may be a tiger in the bushes and that going towards the bushes, even carefully, even with preparation, would be a very stupid thing to do.  The confidence is that overcompensation, over preparation, is a necessity in role-play, since what can happen so very often does happen.

Now, we can each make a guess as to the origin of this thinking.  Some can argue that the origin of D&D modules stressed the deadliness of traps and dungeons, leaving us with a legacy of mistrust, since so many DMs wholly embraced the mindset that player characters exist to be killed.  Some can argue that there is a very legitimate reason to behave extremely cautiously, to always prepare for the worst while hoping for the best, since presuming there is no tiger would be very stupid.  And finally, some can argue that if experience teaches us anything, the dice are very fickle things and that characters, in the long run, are too precious to squander on a string of bad luck.

Frankly, I feel that all of these explanations, and the confident predictions themselves, stem from a consistent, extremely rigid structure with virtually no free movement in it.  In the last post, Getting Started, I made the point that the easiest system for the DM to run was one of extraordinary rigidity.  To this I will point out that, whether or not that is the degree of rigidity that we play with right now, it is an almost dead certainty that was the system we played when we initially began playing the game, at a young age, with others who, being young, had a limited understanding of game design and a non-existent understanding of how to promote positive, meaningfully satisfying user experiences.  Such concepts did not manifest in our young minds.

So however we want to guess about the reason, because of the culture, because of necessity, because of pragmatism, the facts are that we were trained to look for the worst-case scenario while taking part in minimalistic, strict, high potential threat campaigns, as throwing monsters at parties indescriminately is the first and foremost tactic of every young, uncertain yet eager-to-make-a-great-game DM.

We can't help ourselves.  We're so confident that this is a reasonable course of thinking to possess that we can't separate ourselves from the illogic of it.  Take any part of either of my online campaigns and read through the players' comments for a few minutes.  Example after example will be found there, following the same pattern: question-assumption-probable consequence, neatly describing the player's confident readiness to fail.

This habit ~ for it is plainly a habit, I don't imagine for a moment that any of my players are consciously aware of the pattern ~ makes it very difficult to run a low rigidity campaign with plenty of free movement in it. Consistently, I have to correct and correct assumptions, walking the player back from the precipice of their imagination, knowing all the time how easy that makes it for me to create stress when I want the players to be uncertain.  It is far, far harder to create bravery, or self-reliance, or confidence for a positive response from the world ~ particularly online, where I cannot use the tone of my voice to encourage the party to believe that this NPC really is a friend, and not an enemy, as he would undoubtedly turn out to be in a more rigid structure.

Moreover, it helps me understand a certain player's attitude towards the tools at their disposal a little better. There are players who, not from a need to empower themselves, but from a certainty that failing to innovate will surely result in death, will obsessively dissect every tool and rule that comes across their path.  Every weapon, every tactic, every spell, every bit of information, is seen in terms of the edge between life and death; without this one extra possible use of this specific tool in a situation that they confidently perceive will eventually make itself known, they feel they are certain to fall short of the mark and die.

That clearly speaks of long-playing in an extraordinarily rigid structure ~ for such players rarely view their actions as the critical factor, or their in-group behaviour, elements of the party's strength that are far more powerful than the tools being used.  Other players can't be controlled; they can't be relied upon; and in any case, they are almost certain to die quickly and early.  Only that which exists in my own pocket will save me; so it is what is in my own pocket that most concerns me.

And that is understandable.  Because it is, again, a trained sort of confidence.  It comes with a conviction that this is the way the game is played.

If the reader is a DM wanting a freer, more potential-driven sandbox campaign, undoubtedly you've been running straight into this behaviour.  Yesterday, I wrote that a low rigidity campaign was easier for players, as the number of consequences and enemies pursuing them was lessened, increasing their likelihood of survival and success.

What I did not say was that players confidently believe this is not possible.  It can't be easier, because whatever the DM might suppose, the players themselves are confidently sure that the world is full of consequences and enemies, ready and willing to kill them.

If we won't describe them, the players will describe them for us.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Movin' on Up

Some of my readers will remember my writing a post last year entitled "Acts of Faith," in which I talked about the circumstance of being an artist.  That post has been removed from the blog, as a condition of my posting a rewrite on Vocal Media.  The article can be read here.

It wouldn't hurt me at all if the reader would kindly click the link for the article, as my payment for the article is keyed to how much attention it receives.  Therefore, you could do me a great kindness if you would go there, let the mouse slowly scan past the paragraphs for all of 30 seconds, before passing on to something else you're doing.  Free for you; might mean money for me.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Getting Started

Before reading this post, be sure and read this.

Let's suppose that everything you've done as a participant in your chosen role-playing game can be shelved. For whatever reason, none of the players you have now or have ever had will ever play in your game again, and yet you have four utterly untried players waiting to play in your campaign when you are ready to run.  I'll stipulate that they are ready to wait a month, a year or a decade, as long as it takes.  For the moment, however, you're completely free of all ties and responsibilities; none of the adventures you've run will have been experienced by the new players (so you can run them again, if you wish) and nothing that exists in your world right now must needfully exist unless you choose to retain that condition.

For good measure, I'll add that you're guaranteed another 20 years of life, with enough money to live it however you please.  Satisfied?

Now, what sort of world will you run?  I think we can take it that the gentle reader has plenty of experience with role-play, else you would not be reading this blog, so you have some notion of what ideas have worked for you in the past and what haven't.  You probably have a pretty good idea what system you want to run, since it is the system with which you're most familiar and comfortable, so this is unlikely to change.  You might decide to augment the system somehow, or spend a year or two (with your comfortable wealth) working on aspects you've never been able to iron out to your satisfaction.  We can take this as given.

An assessment of the internet indicates that you are likely to run one of the following campaigns:

  1. A game that is adventure driven, in which the players participate in a series of disconnected adventures that exist in a "world" that serves as little more than a cabinet in which the adventures are stored.  The primary goal is to set up a single session or short series of sessions that can be run over a few weeks, a few months at most, before giving up the reins of control for a time to make a new adventure or to make way for other DMs, perhaps other game systems, which can then be enjoyed on a revolving basis.
  2. A game that is a sometime distraction, chosen from a list of possible games that might be chosen on a given night, in which the DM is by no means certain (anyone might be up to the task).  It really wouldn't matter if the game were Settlers of Catan, Forged in Steel, Call of Cthulhu or the Masquerade.  D&D is just another game.
  3. A game that is a light-hearted romp, with simplified rules and concepts, largely narrative-driven and full of character-to-character interaction. The goal is to produce a pleasant evening in which companions can experience the pleasure of acting the part of someone in a fantasy setting, exchanging their usual traits for traits of a series of imaginary personas, who can act with minimal consequences and maximum opportunity for success and conquest.
  4. A game that attempts to depict an actual, personal struggle of an individual in a complex, potentially harsh and unforgiving environment, in which the measure of success depends on the careful preservation of a series of potentially depleted resources, usually expressing a limited capacity for survival and purchasing power.  This last concentrates on problem solving and accounting, since every aspect of the character (including the character's personality) is considered to exit in measurable, finite quantity.

If you're reading this blog, still, it is probable you're looking to start option number 4, obviously the least enjoyable of the lot.  I don't want to paint this improperly.  Everything about the last option discourages any sense of "fantasy" within the definition of a fanciful mental image, typically one on which a person dwells at length or repeatedly and which reflects their conscious or unconscious wishes.  When I began playing D&D, it was clearly understood that the "fantasy" aspect of the game was a clear and understandable description of the setting and only the setting, in no way related to mental fantasies about being rich, powerful, loved, important and so on.  This notion that somehow RPGs are there as a fetishistic manner of living out a life that can't be lived out for real came after, when participants began to displace their sense of unfairness of the game's willingness to kill them when the die turned against them or they did something stupid with the unconscious defense that the game was made for "fantasy purposes" and not as a game where adequate play was the measurement for success or failure.  This led to promotion of fancifulness as the primary motivation of the participants and the complete discounting that the original meaning of "fantasy role-play" meant in a setting with magic and other supernatural elements such as monsters and terrain not ordinarily found in the real world.  In no way does Tolkein, Lewis, Howard, Moorcock or Baum suppose a world in which death, sorrow, misery, unimaginable danger or probable failure are inconsiderable, yet here we are, where "fantasy" worlds are more akin to the sort of fan-service promoted by the Smurfs or My Little Pony.

I'm not interested in those worlds, so I'm going to assume that the reader is the sort of fool who sees an RPG like a golf course, a thing to be devoutly embraced and, simultaneously, devoutly resented ~ and for those who have no idea what that means, I recommend more golf or less reading of this blog.

Then how do we go about starting a campaign based on #4?  Like a novel, or any artwork, we should start with our motivation for initiating the process.  What do we expect to get out of it?  Why, for heaven's sake, do we want to be a DM?

I've been thinking about this quite a lot.  It's worthy of a long post, but I've written about a hundred long posts already on the blog so here I will just sum up.  In the same way that the players are faced with a world which they must problem solve in order to thrive in that world, the DM is faced with players who must be convinced that they have the power to influence that world according to the strategies they employ, in a believable manner, within a boundary that possesses near perfect "play" within the fixed system the DM has invented.  Keeping that system fixed, or running smoothly, without kinks or hitches, even when information is necessarily lacking because it must be invented believably on the spot, exactly within the confines of the previously operating system, is spectacularly difficult and a problem-solving feat that puts player problem-solving to shame.  To make a good game, the DM cannot casually move out of the groove that has been previously established, or the whole system quickly goes wonky and flies out of control, with the player's psychological responses being the determiner for how "off" the campaign becomes.  As the DM deviates more and more from the groove, the players' reliance on the system spins further and further out of balance, until the DM can't put the campaign back into working order because the players' memories won't allow this.  The campaign is broken and stays broken ~ and survives from this point forward by replacing players with independent, proactive imaginations with players with needy, resigned forbearance.

This is the game I play.  My attempt to keep the wheel spinning with grace sometimes ends badly, with players who express boredom or distrust of the campaign, bringing about its end (an end that I accept rather than evade).  Sometimes the attempt enables the game to remain in play for years, until circumstance or separation ends the effort.  It is clear to me, however, that the thing I most get out of the contest is the rush to stay ahead of the players, to first enable them and then compensate for that enabling, then to predict them without predicating that prediction on my power to make the world act any way that I wish.  The more I put my hand in the system, the more smudged the lens gets, until neither I nor the players get anything out of what we see going on.

If this is not the reader's motivation for running the #4 campaign, then I dare the reader to put forth an explanation that is as thorough, as researched, as measurable and as definitive as that which I offer.  No feelings, please.  My description of the groove, as I call it, is part and parcel with the whole design of the campaign, from the maps to the rule-system to every judgement call I make from beginning to end, connected to this blog and every point of advice I've tried to give.  It isn't a "feeling" ~ it is a conscious effort to balance the needs of the campaign's difficulty against the needs of the player to believe they can act fairly and freely to counteract that difficulty.  My personal sentiments as to how I "feel" about being a DM do not enter the equation.

I like it.  That's as far as my feelings go.

Very well.  How are we going to set up the mechanism in which play occurs?  Remember Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman's definition of play: free movement within a more rigid structure.  What, then, is the free movement and what is the rigid structure?

We want to have a clear concept of how much free play the players ought to have.  In this case, I'm not speaking of the players in relationship to the DM, but rather to the actual world itself.  The world is the rigid structure; but different worlds, and different genres for that matter, offer a wide range of rigid structures that will appeal to different players.  In each case, we can measure the rigidity in terms of the potential for conflict between the players and everything that is not the players: how interested is the setting in the players, how much capacity does the setting possess to observe the players and how likely is it that the setting will take steps to counteract the players' actions.

In giving some examples, I want to express strongly that I am not speaking of any specific game system or any specific game setting.  Setting is something we can leave for later on.
  • Extraordinary rigidity.  This is more likely to exist in games where the scope of the game is somewhat minimalistic, particularly in games where participants are expected to be a part of a clan and where the enemies are part of other clans.  In such situations, players have to both survive attempts by other clans to kill them, will steadfastly adhering, or appearing to adhere, to the strict rules of their own clan.  Another example of extraordinary rigidity occurs in high tech games, where mechanical surveillance is constant and common, where everyone is under suspicion and where a large population encourages draconian methods to keep order.  Another example might be a dystopian environment where the number of potential threats is so high that there's hardly a moment when the players are not at risk; a dungeon might fit this description as well, or a high tech environment with a "raft" of some kind (planetoid, ship) immersed in a highly toxic or otherwise deadly environment. However, though player choice may be limited, the play in the system need only be enough that the players can sort out wrong actions from right actions, encouraging them to move cautiously but nevertheless successfully through that 'scape.
  • High rigidity.  In each case, this will likely be reduced examples of the above, mitigated by short periods in which the players are not under threat or have reason to believe, within certain circumstances, that they are safe.  Spy games, where missions are interspersed with returns to base, or some fantasy campaigns where the participants are able to return to a "safe" town from a dungeon, would fall under this category.  If the town has minimal opportunities apart from resupply, which virtually all space outside a certain "free parking" zone expects the most dangerous of confrontations, then the system likely has little space for players to diddle around doing their own thing.  I don't describe a railroad, exactly, but if we're talking a game rich with superheroes or supernatural, highly aware gods, then the players are going to find themselves consistently interrupted by reprisals that are the result of their previous actions, regardless of the players attempting to settle down or seek compensation in some manner other than adventuring.  We can consider any game where the players are pitted against a host of known adversaries, or where their activities lay the ground work for future, necessary activities for survival, as one of high rigidity.
  • Medium rigidity.  Effectively, the players exist in a relative bubble of indifference from the setting until such time as they begin to impress their actions upon the world.  In a similar way to the above, there are a series of consequences that are stirred up by the players' actions ~ but unlike a high level of rigidity, these consequences may not necessarily lead to conflict.  Whereas it is taken as a given that Batman and the Joker will never make friends (high rigidity), a medium rigidity enables the characterizations of non-players within the campaign a degree of flexibility that will (for example) enable the Joker to get help and to change.  The players may create the circumstances of a war but may then enable the possibility of a truce, rather than the war becoming necessarily ongoing and unresolvable.  The campaign, therefore, enables periods where the players are able to sew up loose ends and, for a time, drop out, reasonably expectant that they will be undisturbed for a period ~ however, this also assumes that when the players again begin to meddle in the affairs of the world, they will once again find themselves in the soup.
  • Low rigidity.  The indifference that the setting was prepared to award the players at the start of the campaign, as described above, is more pronounced and less likely to alter, except in situations where the players make a considerable attempt to make themselves noticed.  Unless the players doggedly make efforts to encourage conflict between themselves and the setting, the setting is largely prepared to let them go their own way.  This doesn't mean that the players won't meet with potential conflicts, but most of these will be disjointed or disconnected, such that the players won't be able to rely upon a concerted effort of the setting to kill them in order to find purpose as gamers.  Put in a world that feels indifferently towards them, the players must be proactive in making changes to their situation ~ no one else in the setting will do it for them.

Any of these structures may be considered "rigid" to a different degree.  To put it in mechanical terms, the controls of a helicopter are extraordinary rigid in their expectations of the pilot.  A small plane would have a high rigidity in expectation.  A car, a medium rigidity.  Finally, a bike would have low rigidity.  A bike can easily be ridden, even turned, without touching the handlebars; it is easy to manage because it extends not very far and perfectly visibly on all sides of the rider.  A car, much less so, though it can be driven without touching the steering wheel.  It cannot be turned, however, without doing so.  A plane is harder still, as it is not wise to take one's hands off the controls for more than a few seconds (a passenger jet is less rigid than a car, with moments of considerable rigidity).  Finally, a helicopter will not allow the operator to let go at all, without the probable result of a crash.

All are perfectly effective vehicles, all are fun to drive, all serve a different purpose and all have free movement in a more rigid structure.  None of them are "better" ~ just different.

The DM needs to have a clear idea, however, of the world's intent towards the players.  It is no good rapidly or randomly switching from one degree of flexibility to another without warning, as this will simply confuse and then frustrate the players, until they are prepared to let go of the campaigns controls in vexation.  Once the degree of fixedness is understood by both the players and the DM, however, and maintained, the game can grow into a pleasing, effective user experience for all involved.

Part of the decision must be the DM's potential for staying in the groove!  Surprisingly, a loose and indifferent campaign is much harder to run than a tight, rigid campaign, in that the amount of variables and grey area expands rapidly once the players are not asked to account the same for every action and counter-action they take.  It can take a lot of time for players to sense the logical difference between "we really pissed everyone off" and "we pissed off a few people" and "why isn't anyone pissed off?", then compare that meaningfully to their own actions.  If the players can count on everyone in the setting trying to kill them, this demands much less exposition and explanation from the DM!  "They're trying to kill you because they are a different clan"; "Everyone in this world is trying to kill everyone"; these are easy.  "They haven't decided if you're worth killing, and in any case they're busy killing someone else" has a nuance that takes a greater degree of effective, purposeful setting descriptive to evoke in a player's comprehension.

What I'm saying is that while an extraordinarily rigid campaign threatens the player like having to fly a helicopter, it runs the most easily for the DM.  And while the low-rigidity campaign is less threatening for the player, like a bicycle, the DM is forced to keep a tight hand on the stick at all times.  The degree of difficulty for DM versus the player is wholly inverted, in terms of the amount of problem solving that must be done.

Think of this question, this degree of rigidity, as the usability of the campaign, both for player and DM. Both parties must be considered in choosing the degree of the campaign ~ will the players enjoy or like a campaign that is either extraordinarily or highly rigid?  Will the DM manage a medium or low rigidity campaign?  Compare the capacity for play, the willingness to play while in constant or semi-constant danger and, overall, the sheer desire to play situations that are either wholly proactive or wholly defensive.  There's a lot to consider in the above.  Do not go lightly into the question.

While the reader is deciding (presuming you're prepared to reconsider your campaign in the light that it can be completely altered from what you're running now), look back into your own past and seek out the setting that will satisfy the needs of useability that you've assigned to your campaign.  It should be a setting you know very well; it should be one you're prepared to reshape and redesign in your imagination, as it needs to be flexible to service the needs of you and your players; and finally, it should be a setting that others will find appealing.  It is no good if the setting is something you're in love with but which is so obverse to user interest that you'll find yourself resenting their lack of requited love for your project.

I do not recommend searching your memory for a movie or a tale of someone else's design.  That design may be universal to all your players, but if it is to be flexible, it will undoubtedly upset others when you change it in a way that seems wrong in their opinion.  If you can create your own vision, one that is easily understood and accessible, that owes no baggage to any other source, that you can present clean and clear to the players, encouraging them to then make it their own (once you birth the baby, you have to let it grow up), you have a greater potential for a group experience than trying to shove an idea down their throats or massively hacking away at a jointly perceived shrine in ways that will infuriate others who have different things about that shrine that they like and you don't.

All right.  That's enough for now.  We can talk more about setting later, if necessary.  As I said already, a good setting comes with experience.  I'll add to it that it comes with a willingness to hack limbs off the setting that aren't working, when they need to be hacked off.  Forestall the surgery if you can, but sometimes surgery is a necessity.  Don't be afraid to get out the saw when the time comes.

Next we will want to talk about player confidence.  I don't know when I will write that, but it's the next logical step.


Let me ask something: does the reader feel overwhelmed?  I've talked about a wide range of subjects regarding gamer experience: the importance of difficulty, the responsibility inherent in taking up the mantle of DM, rule-making, game structure and function, narratology, modelling, despair at venturing into new game design, reverse engineering as we play games, operational logic and the concept of game flow.

Are you lost?  This is all interesting stuff but how in hell does it set an agenda for what you're going with your world or your game?  Have you already forgotten most of it?  Has it fallen right out of your head?

Don't be surprised.  I'm finding it hard to keep it straight.  My only saving grace is that most of it has been floating around in my head for decades, without my knowing that the academic work I've been posting and deconstructing existed.  Clearly, it's hard to find; and I think that most of this content falls on deaf ears, given that it sets out to correct misunderstandings about concepts such as "fun," "reward," "rules" and "worldbuilding."  These are not concepts that common game makers or users want corrected: they have already fixed in their minds what these words mean and any effort to create a measurement thereto will be bound to encounter resistance.

Yesterday, prior to writing my post about setting, I spent a couple of hours looking for a definitive university-level book on developing a dramatic setting or a game setting, to compare with the examples that I had found online and among juvenile how-to articles.  There wasn't one, at least not that I could find.  I found plenty of books with a high complexity describing setting in Greek tragedy or in Shakespeare, or related to the Bible or other general categories of literature and drama.  Yet I could not find an authoritative, meaningful book on "choosing a setting" as more crude sources would approach the subject.  From my own academic experience with creative writing, I have to admit the matter was never approached in that manner.  I don't approach setting myself in that way.  I would never think before starting a book, "I want to create a story that takes place in such and such a setting; I will make the setting first and then decide what sort of story I want to tell there."

[I know, this seems like I'm going to go back into setting again, but I'm just going around the barn; I'll come back, I promise]

Any story I've wanted to tell has always been about something I believe or something I want to believe; substantially, the most certain sorts of thoughts that it is possible for me to have.  For example, Pete's Garage is about how a fellow approaches not being able to work and live as a musician, but only knows a life lived among musicians.  Pete still knows what he knows about music; he's wise in his manner and he's forgiving of the musician's lifestyle and the musician's quest.

I didn't want to write a story about a music agent or a music promoter, and I had minimal experience with those things.  But I knew a place, Connections, when I was 19 and 20 that rented rooms by the hour to musicians who wanted to practice, where they didn't have to worry about how loud they were.  It was a shit little building downtown that has since been ripped down and made into a parking lot (coincidentally, connected to a place where I worked on the 5th floor for five years in video-on-demand, but that's not important).  To reduce the noise between rooms, the management hung nets on the walls full of ripped up foam rubber, like one of those nets you probably fell into when doing the high jump in high school.  The carpet was old and rotten, with the wooden floors showing through, the place stank, the floors weren't level, the management were assholes and the vibe was equivalent to a meth lab.  Yet I spent hundreds of hours there, moving from room to room, talking to musicians, writing stories in the corner while they played, blasting my ears since I was about four feet from the bass and drums, and loving it.

In writing Pete's Garage, I wanted to recreate that: so in a way, it could be argued that I "invented" the setting first and then came up with a story.  But no.  In fact, I invented the story and then remembered a setting that would work with that story.  If I'd never known a place called Connections, I'd have used something else from my memory.  That's how writing works.  We begin with the idea, then we cast around for concepts that will fit that idea and make it believable and interesting.

If the idea is bad to start with, nothing we do in the way of story, characters or setting will save it.  That's important.  Most ideas are bad.  In fact, statistically speaking, all ideas are bad.  Good ideas are a non-statistical anomaly.  That is why most of the time, creators just steal good ideas.  The chances that you, as a creator, will have an honest to gawd original good idea is a statistical impossibility.

Thankfully, I'm wise enough to know that only means it's highly improbable.  People get confused about that, however.

All this comes back around to the problem of how do to set an agenda.  See, no one taught me to do this thing of reaching back into my memory for things that would fit with a recently acquired idea. It came with time.  And with the understanding that the method will serve bad ideas as well as good ones.  That's important too.  There's no real way of knowing if you have a good idea or not; this is largely what has me paralyzed with regards to The Fifth Man right now.  I go through periods where my complete lack of confidence makes me question the logic of spending any time on the book, like Marty McFly asking, "What they say, Get out of here kid. You've got no future. I mean, I just don't think I can take that kind of rejection."

When my struggle is difficult, I'm weak that way.

But you're fine, right, gentle reader?  You don't experience misgivings like that.  You don't have doubts about your campaign or your players, or about what you're doing with your game or your life.  Everything about your world's design is going exactly as you want it to and you're one hundred percent certain that when you bring in a new idea or a new adventure for your players, they will love it.  One hundred percent.

We want good ideas . . . but at best, we're working with what we have.  No one can teach you how to do that; you've got to experiment and play.  On top of that, you've got to be open to the possibility that the idea you have is bad, even if that possibility is uncomfortable and keeps you awake at night.  Even if that possibility paralyzes you for a time.  It is better that you be aware of your potential failures, of your moving down the wrong path, than blindly stumbling along, happy go lucky, until you've destroyed any and every opportunity you may have had to find your way back.

All this game stuff ~ if you're not self-aware and mindful of your game in this manner, none of this will do you any good at all.  If you're not mindful, chances are you'll never be.  Chances are you're not mindful because you're terrified of what you'll find if you look at yourself, your choices and your game too closely.  Looking at it too closely could result in your discovering that it is all shit.

Chances are, you're not ready for that.  And that you'll never be ready for it.

I envy you, a little.  But then I remember, if I were making my world or writing my book with the sort of cheerful confidence that disallowed me any misgivings that either might be shit, they would almost certainly be shit.  With statistical certainty.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

The Secondary Importance of Setting

Of late, in my process of examining games, I have been seeing a lot of "worldbuilding" content directed at video gamers or story writing.  Here is a fairly typical article; here is a fairly typical video.  The goals of this content are direct: to explain that "worldbuilding" is important, that the way the "world" is conveyed matters, then to give a series of personally adored examples in which the details of said content is fondly discussed.

What this content does not do is explain how any of this is done.

"Worldbuilding" is a big, exciting word that sounds like it is something crucial to the narrative process, so important that videos describing worldbuilding spend a lot of time explaining how good exposition is made or how good characterization is accomplished or choreographical techniques as an attempt to hammer down a term that did not exist in the creator's standard lexicon ten years ago.  This is a recent amateur word that has lately developed as a cultural fad but is extraordinarily lacking in two regards.

First of all, in telling a story, I do not have to create an entire world.  This was demonstrated definitively in the mid-20th century by a series of minimalist masters such as Edward Albee, Eugene Ionesco and Harold Pinter, who used universally understood paradigms to discuss human behaviour at its core.  There was no need to build a "world" ~ the world already existed.  The attempt was to express it and explain it.

Secondly, a perfectly good word for the concept already exists, and has for thousands of years.  The word is "setting."

For fan boys, who are astounded at the immensity of setting for various science fiction, fantasy, meta-fiction or anime, this does not seem to be a word with enough scope, enough verve, enough dimension to satisfy the awe and stunned inadequacy they feel when experiencing settings of such creativity: and as such, they have invented their own word, a word that can bear the weight of their empathy and fetish.

Sadly, their own writing falls flat when attempting to explain how this building of worlds occurs.  Take this address:
"To begin your world, simply think of a blank canvas, ready for you to paint your picture upon. I find it useful to first think of one location which interests me. What does the terrain look like? Is it a mountain, riverbank, beach, valley, forest, desert or open plains? What type of people live there? In the mountain perhaps they are a mining town filled with many burly men. Or perhaps in a forest paradise with beautiful, slender people. Now we think of the culture and building style. What type of houses do they have? Wooden? Stone? Are they made with fine craftsmanship or do they look like they have been thrown together by novices?"

 This is it.  Having started, you're on your way to a lot of other questions that do not, in any way, suggest what the answers should be if you've chosen a mountainous forest paradise with slender people living in wooden houses they've only recently constructed.  But then, that isn't much to start on.  The problem with asking a would-be storyteller to answer a lot of random questions about who rules the place, how they communicate or what do they farm, is that we either get a hodgepodge of disconnected, unbelievable traits and cultural points of interest, or we get something very much like what the creator has experienced all their life: a typical farm, a typical city, a typical military structure or a typical dystopian fantasy.  None of which has any real insight, since this is a story that is going to be driven by its setting and not by its plot or its characters.

Consider this similar quote from another source:

"The first step to writing a setting is to brainstorm and make lists of various aspects of a setting.  Take about fifteen minutes and make a list similar to the following (time, place, environment):

  • late at night ... in a haunted house ... dark, damp, creepy and old.
  • in the future ... at Cape Canaveral ... heading for Mars.
  • in 1620, the Colonies ... stepping off the Mayflower ... cold, forested, rocky beach.
  • present day ... waking up high in a tree ... flat plains covered with snow.
  • evening ... deserted street in New York ... foggy, rainy and cool.
  • early morning ... at home, in your bed ... the house is empty.
"After brainstorming your list, choose the ideas you want to develop and write four settings (each one must be set in a different place and time).  After you have written your first four drafts, choose the one that is your favorite, then edit and revise the draft completely. If time remains, have a friend edit the draft and have him or her make suggestions."

Awful.  But more or less the same advice that can be found in a typical youtube video.  And the language of this later example is almost forgiveable, as it comes from a book called, Adventures in Writing, Grades 6-12.  It doesn't pretend that its not giving the most simplistic advice imaginable for impressionable young minds who, for the most part, are too simple to have read real books by the time they're in Junior High School.

(This book would have sickened me in Grade 8, about the time I was reading Wampeters, Foma and Granfalloons by Kurt Vonnegut and If the War Goes On... by Hermann Hesse ~ books in which the choice of writing by writers figures prominently).

Okay, let's have a look at something more relevant to the actual problem.  This is from Interactive Storytelling for Video Games, by Josiah Lebowitz and Chris Klug.  Lebowitz is a professor at the University of Hawaii and Klug might be Gerry Christopher Klug, a game designer and theatrical designer; I'm not certain about that.

"Defining features of open-ended storytelling include expansive worlds that the player is free to explore for most of the game and an extremely large number of optional quests and activities he or she can take part in.  Because of how much time and attention are spent developing the setting and optional content, the main plot is often deemphasized, with most open-ended stories having relatively short and simple main plots featuring generic player-created heroes.  Some games, such as Grand Theft Auto IV, go against this trend, offering deeper plots and well-defined heroes, though doing so sacrifices a considerable amount of the player control and freedom found in other less plot-focused games like Fable II and The Elder Scrolls 3: Morrowind. Which of these approaches is best is a matter that's frequently debated . . . but as a general rule, the more freedom that is given to the player, the less emphasis can be placed on creating a deep, structured, and emotional main plot, and vice versa."

I want to unpack that specifically in terms of the setting, which is clearly not as important as videos and articles would have us believe.  The real concern is player engagement and player agency; and the reader will find a similar point of view if searching for discussions of setting with relation to theater or film.  "Setting" is the backdrop in which the action takes place.  The backdrop must be believable; it must be serviceable; it must not detract from the experience and it should be addressed with care and alacrity.  But it is NOT the most important element of the story telling experience and it is not what makes a work great.

We have drifted into a mindset where, having been fed great graphics through a heightened sense of film mechanics and technology, we're prone to deluding ourselves with giving these things more substance than they actually possess.  We're also prone to convincing ourselves, with special words to describe the setting, into believing that "everything" falls under the purview of the "world" we've created for our characters ... when in fact that world isn't actually very important to the plot or the characters.

Rather than preaching examples of how an immense and awesome setting has made some movies remarkable and worthy (which they are because plot and character were given the attention they deserved), we ought to consider how an immense and awesome setting has absolutely failed to support an appallingly bad plot or character arc.  Jupiter Ascending comes to mind, as does John Carter, the 2011 Conan the Barbarian abortion, Warcraft, Tomorrowland, 47 Ronin and the greatly disappointing and forgettable 9, which created a multi-layered setting of magnificent proportions, only to face-plant spectacularly as the characterization turned out to be wholly uninspiring.

The world you make for your RPG game, your video game or your novel/play should be good, yes; but the time you spend on it will greatly undermine the time you ought to be spending on your characters, their motivation and the goals they are seeking.  A setting won't save you if those things aren't in place . . . which is part of the reason why so many DMs can sustain themselves in long-running campaigns that are built on setting design that is absolutely shit of the first order.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Guge Again


Territories to the south and west were previously made as
part of India. Territories to the east, in pink, have yet to be
designed. Some details showing will be adjusted later.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Cover Updated Officially

Here's a chore that I finally have behind me.

This is the official cover of the book, now.  I could not cut the paperback to a lower price; the publishing service would not let me.

It is available on e-book for $11.95, however.  That I could do.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Adjusting Map Colors

How would a new map-color scheme look?

First, my feeling is that everything for regions that are well documented are fine: the main problem is for hexes for which I have no elevation information. Take the Svalbard map I posted just recently; there are only four hexes there with known elevations; the rest of the hexes are a mix between "glaciers" and "rocky tundra."  This creates a mix of two map forms, between "elevation" and "terrain" that makes for a mess.

So, to begin, I think I need to incorporate an elevation guess that will serve the map's use, even if that elevation is basically inaccurate.  Not that it really matters anyway, I've just said in the last post that I've removed an entire sacred river from the India map, so what the hell?

The elevation of an unknown hex can be guessed according to what we know of the general terrain.  Are the known hexes the valleys?  Or are they the high places, which applies to a lot of desert regions, where the flat bottom land is hot and higher elevations are cooler.  It helps if we know the country, both geographically and geologically.  Svalbard is much like Greenland; mountainous and glaciated.  So we can set the surrounding hexes as all generally higher than the highest elevation hex we know about, 1804 feet.  So let's say the rest of Svalbard is above 2000 feet.  I have an elevation hex color for this: it is a tan brown, but not the same as shown in the map above.  So let's make every hex that isn't known that color.

Okay, but what about glaciers?  We'd like to keep that information, as it adds to our general knowledge of the terrain.  For that, I'm adding another layer to the map, a glacial overlay, so that it makes Svalbard now look like this:

On the whole, a grittier, more detailed experience.  Because we don't have to make the whole hex the color of the glacier, now the glacier covers the inland or bleeds right to the coast, depicting in places a line of coast where the tundra color shows.  The glacier on Nordaustlandet can be a little larger than the hexes, since we can bleed it outwards however we want.

Because I have made these maps myself, and on a publisher program, I can adjust it as I need.  People ask me all the time if I shouldn't just use google earth as my map; but I can't change the features and images on google earth, like I can on my own maps.  The map above only took me about 45 minutes work, most of that taken up with experimenting, as I'd never made any of my maps like this before.

Consider this earlier version of the Jotunheim map, the large sea area of land east of Svalbard, consisting of Franz Josef Land (the Dandemoth Islands) and northern Novaya Zemyla:

Again, I have almost no information for this, so most of the hexes are depicted as white and therefore uninteresting.  Arguably, they're utterly empty and I know they're mostly glaciated and barren tundra, but still it would be nicer if the map looked more like this:

Definitely an improvement, yes?  We get a much better sense of the landscape of the top of Biyetia on the right of the map (depicted as 500 ft.-1000 ft. in elevation) though of course I have no real numbers for that part of the world.  Jotunheim (Novaya Zemlya) really jumps out.  I've taken a little time to give the Dandemoth islands names, though I did this a couple of years ago without telling anyone.  The islands have a "political" name as well, Humutya.  But I'm not explaining that, at least not until there's no chance of running it.

I'm also emboldening the labels, so they're easier to read and making subtle color changes elsewhere, with the borders of the hexes for example and the color of the sea and topographic names.

But what about a part of the world with more land than sea?  Going east along the same latitude, the next map I've made and posted in the past is the lands surrounding the Kara Sea, which I've posted on the blog before.  Here's what it looked like:

Because we're swinging around the arctic pole, the previous map of Jotunheim is turned 60 degrees, so that it swings to the left and up.  The reader can see the top of Biyetia in the middle left.

This map certainly has its appeal, though again it lacks a lot of information.  It has more, however, than the previous two, so I was able to give it more feeling.  I changed the color of the white hexes to darker hexes to create the Byranga Mountains, so that gives the land some shape.

Not much, though.  It is still mostly white, and we don't have any sense at all of the swamp lands that are encompassed by all that empty white hex-space.  As such, I've chosen to tackle the problem of what the elevation of those unknown hexes is based on the existing mountains, the presence of many rivers, what hexes we do have information for and the coast, too.  To this, I've added the same icy overlay that I created for Svalbard, and one thing more: an overlay for muskeg swamp, for areas of undrained flatland, as this is what most of the North Siberian Lowland is (see the bottom right of the map).  All this work (a couple hours) produces this effect:

I was astounded at how well this came out.  The terrain pops right out and grabs the imagination; the overlay truly enhances the effect and giving guessed elevations to hexes certainly increases the potential for what passage through this country would be like.  That's always what I'm going for.

I will have to explore this more to get a better sense for what the color scheme for Tibet will have to be; I can see that lightening the color scheme for the high country is necessary . . . but I'll need to consider what I want to do with that before diving in.

Oh, let me add that the google drive has been updated with the maps above, for those who have paid their $20 on my Patreon account.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017


Obscure places you've never heard of.  And while some readers may have, I am impressed that I never have, since I been reading geographical content all my life ~ a long life, at that.  But I've never seen this before a day ago:

This is Tsaparang, the ruined capital of the ancient kingdom of Guge (10-17th century AD), 278 km south-southwest of Senggezangbo, or rather Shiquanhe, er, Ger, that is, Gar Dzong, Gar Town or just Gar.  Sigh. Here's a video about the place; seems like a pretty crappy documentary that prattles a lot and looks at stuff, without really knowing anything.  These bore me, so I didn't watch it.

Here is my map of Guge.  Prepare to be underwhelmed:

Confusing, ain't it?  I agree.  A large part is due to the color scheme I planned for 12,000 foot elevations and over.  It was fine when I did India, when only the edge of the Himalayas rose to that level (looked good, in fact); but with all of the map being dark umber and purple, it is hard to read if you're not actually looking at in on Publisher.  Plus the grey regional borders disappear when applied to this map's color scheme.  Not that orange borders wouldn't look horribly garish and unappealing.

Frankly, I've been having different problems with map coloring recently, as I'm working on odd places that don't fall into the usual climate/elevation ranges.  More and more, I've begun to realize I need to spend a lot of time redoing old maps in order to bring them into a level of consistency that is beginning to fall apart as the overall map increases in size.  This is a monumental task; there's little wonder I'm not anxious to apply myself, since it will only end in my having the same maps I already possess, just a little cleaner and somewhat better labeled.

I am right now thinking the very manner I remake the map has to incorporate a few new coloring techniques, that I'm not using at all right now ~ but which I think I learned from making those comics.

I'll make another confession.  My India/Tibetan rivers are, well, wrong.  Have been since the beginning; I based them on the elevation numbers I had and did not try to draw them from real maps.  That's been true from the beginning of my map-making; for India, things went really sideways.  Good luck finding the Sutlej River, where the city above is located.  The valley of the Sutlej wound up being largely redirected east into the Ganges or north into the top of the Indus Valley, before it enters Ladakh.

At least I will know if someone tries to steal my maps, hm?

Structural Bias

In a conversation I've just had with Maxwell, I equated the DM's game designer problem of creating rules ~ concrete, objective and publicly visible ~ to the rules and structure of video game code.  This, I think, is apt.  A great part of the difficulty in RPGs moving forward these past forty years has come from an inability to agree on the code, which in turn disallows for our moving forward on things that really matter, like the process of the game itself.

Recently in an email, I made a point about initiating an adventure and the structure of that initiation which I think is worth repeating in a blog post.  I began by explaining that when I first began to play D&D, I saw that the biggest problem I was having as both a player and as a DM was the notion that the DM was always right.  This idea gained strength pretty quickly.  I did not hear the term 'fiat' until many years later, though that is certainly correct in its description: a 'fiat' is generally considered a very bad thing in the real world.

As such, I saw that my chief axiom as a DM would be to take myself, as much as was possible, "out of the loop," letting the dice decide as many conflicts as possible while pushing myself to create situations that were logically based on what had gone before and not upon a personal, arbitrary desire to see something happen.  However, though I argued the importance of this with many DMs in the early 1980s, I always felt I was the only one who applied this thinking to my world; and today, I still find myself in contention with those who think there are times when it is "okay" to DM fiat a problem.  This is clearly evidence of broken philosophical thinking at the ground level of the participant and user of the game's structure.

Imagine someone asking on a football web forum, "When is it okay for the New England Patriots to cheat?"

[makes me want to go try it, actually]

When I say "take myself out of the loop," I don't mean that every part of the game I'm running has to be structured in advance.  That would be impossible, particularly for the size and complexity of campaign I'm running.  To prepare and script every option a player might pursue would take far too much time for even a single adventure.  While this might mean that I am compelled to run a given room exactly as it was written, thereby removing my immediate judgement from the equation, it also means I have to create very simple, very limited systems for my players to move through.  It means the scripts for anything that anyone says have to be simple as well, or else I'll be writing scripts ten years from now.  Everything that the players might do has to be accounted for, and the players would be barred from doing anything that wasn't already created.

Basically, a video game.

My concept of the loop came in 1980; at that time, narrative video games were astoundingly primitive.  Consider, this was the level of video game when I started playing D&D:

I could see at the time that the "control every variable" option was going to produce a spectacularly bad game.  Even now, with the progression of video games, I'm still bored with games that seek to produce a narrative experience, right up to and including a game like the Witcher, Mass Effect or Assassin's Creed.  I don't want to be someone else dealing with their problems, I want to be me, dealing with my problem ~ and I want total freedom of choice to decide what my problem is.

A better methodology for running an adventure, I believed, could be found in the narrative rules that novel-writing compels, something I was also tinkering with in 1980, as those were my formative years as a writer.  At the time, I could not have described it, but I've studied deconstruction a great deal now and I believe I have a good handle on the basic principles.  In a novel, everything that exists must apply somehow to the development of characters and setting, which in turn serves to drive the plot and create the conflict, which then must be resolved with the instruments, ideas and motivations that have already been instilled in the characters.  When Frodo is imagined to be dead in Lord of the Rings, we cannot simply have aliens land in a ship and then destroy the ring with an extraterrestrial blaster.  In the same vein, what Samwise does next has to make sense.  He cannot behave in a manner that would make the reader think the author had suddenly decided Sam should no longer act like Sam.  We know that is not how humans behave in a situation (or, at least, we think we know that).  Humans behave according to how they have behaved in the past.  We stubbornly cling to that notion.

Doing this in an RPG, this setting up of the adventure, should follow the same principles.  Each object found, each discourse, each motivation of the non-player participants, should match up with the final goal.  However ~ and this is incredibly important ~ RPGs are not novels.  Nothing can be fixed.  There's no certainty that the players will pick up the object or pursue the motivation.  If they don't, the DM must, this being the axiom, resist the desire to push into the loop and compel the players to pursue the unwanted set-up.  The set-up must be abandoned and a new set-up created, one that hopefully the players will pursue.  If they do, then the movement in the set-up's direction will produce a conflict and an end result, so long as the players remain interested.

This means that my world is a series of narrative set-ups, sometimes without result.  If the players don't like an idea, I kill it in my mind, or figure out another potential clue that might make the previous set-up more enticing (which sometimes works but more often does not, discouraging this tactic).  This requires that I place no sympathetic (or sentimental) attachment to a given set-up . . . but why should that be difficult.  Artists abandon ideas all the time!  If the necktie scene works better without the necktie, the playwright dumps the necktie and writes the scene.  Those who fail to recognize that any part of a work can be abandoned for the sake of the whole work will in turn fail to achieve a higher degree of skill and self-awareness.

Okay, but what is a "set-up"?  How does it work?  I'd like to give an example, but I can only hope the gentle reader has read the book [hell, if you haven't, you're damaged in some way and should not be DMing adventures].  I'll try Around the World in 80 Days.

The set-up is simple.  The story is told primarily from the point of view of Passepartout, who has just acquired employment with an extraordinarily precise master, Phileas Fogg.  The set-up is that a bet is made, one that requires Fogg to act in a manner that seems very unlike Fogg; Passepartout is taken along on a journey which, at the beginning, he does not really conceive in scope.  Passepartout does not believe his master's simple statement that they are going around the world; he doesn't know Fogg well; he thinks his master must be joking.  By the time it is clear it is not a joke, Passepartout is already far away from home and well in the midst of the adventure.

Consider: Passepartout could have refused to get on the train out of England.  He could have refused to cross the Channel.  He could have refused to leave France, where he was from.  He could have stopped anywhere along the way ~ but this would have meant unemployment for the manservant and at every step, the prospect of keeping pace with Fogg seems more enticing that being unemployed anywhere along the way.  That is a set-up that works.  The players have free will; but the choice right in front of them has to seem much more interesting than any choice they can make on their own.

That is how I lead players "by the nose."  Not by railroading them, not by controlling them, not by denying them agency, but by creating a set-up that is more interesting, more enticing, than the set-up they imagine themselves creating.  Once they are in the adventure, everything else follows logically.  Like in Verne's book, once Fogg, a wealthy Britisher, appears to be moving quickly through Egypt, the detective Fix assumes Fogg must be a bankrobber that he has been told to be on the look-out for.  Fix follows Fogg and is in turn embroiled in the adventure.  Events in India then create the opportunity to rescue Aouda, Fix's machinations lead to Fogg's being stranded in Hong Kong, the trip through the United States leads to the encounter on the train and so on ~ all of which are perfectly predictable to me as a DM, as I know the players, once on the adventure, will move through India and Hong Kong and Nebraska.  I can set the events of the adventure well up in advance without the party feeling railroaded, as they know they chose to take each step as it was given.  That is precisely why, although they have agency, they can be predicted in their behaviour.

I believe that this connection between setting up a narrative in a book and setting up the premise for an adventure has been utterly and entirely missed by the game-making community.  I feel that calls for necessary solutions to narrative, such as that called for Noah Wardrip-Friun, have already been created and structured for centuries by writers and artists, but that these things are being ignored because most game systems and formats do not have the flexibility to ditch set-ups that are not wanted or desired by gamers.  Not like an RPG can do.

If we don't like a book, we can stop reading it.  If we don't like a video game, we can stop playing it.  But if you don't like an RPG, that RPG can be changed and changed until you do like it ~ unless the person in charge steadfastly and stubbornly refuses to change.  And that there is the problem.  That is the structural bias we have to overcome.