Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Health and the Public Expectation

The infrastructure, trade and development system continues, but slowly.  Just now I'm contemplating the details of how health and the lack of it will fit into the structure, and finding that it is devilishly hard to find meaningful documentation on the negative factors that arise from an unhealthy culture.  Basically, I'd like to understand what metrics can be used to define an ailing, sick culture ... but no one wants to talk about that.

This is a "positivity" problem that I often encounter on the internet.  Look up "poor health effects on society" and we're met with articles on how economic and political structures sustain poverty, marginalize groups, cause poor conditions and overcrowding ... with a definite slant on "what problems need to be fixed to make this stop happening."  A practical definition of what the poor conditions are, or how they are created, or how specific degrees of overcrowding cause specific results, these things are not discussed.  The agenda is very definitely not to measure the causes ~ the only people who care about the problem are NGOs with the goal of raising money ... and that takes a positive perspective.  We will stop this horrible stuff from happening. Do not look too closely at the horrible stuff.

Now, images and anecdotal evidence can be found in abundance.  We're replete with film of poor people picking over garbage piles to find enough useful material to preserve their lives for one more day; but the metrics are lacking.  We have no numbers.  Numbers do not spawn guilt-inspired donations.

For most game purposes, a scale can be created without having to be expressly concerned with what the scale means.  Civilization simply slows a settlement's production when unhealthiness occurs, speeding it up again when general health is improved by cleaning up the land, collecting specific resources or building a market or hospital.  This makes sense.  A market brings in a wider variety of food, that improves nutrition and the people are more productive.

For my purposes, however, I need to sketch the difference it makes when this town is 1 point less healthy than that town ~ not in a way that affects overall production of the town, which would be useless for a role-playing game, but in a way that will address the players' adventuring.

Most will call out at once that health equals disease ... and that an unhealthy town will be more diseased than a healthy town, meaning that the players should hesitate before drinking the water or eating at the local inn. True enough.  But that thought does little more than imply a die roll to see if the water is bad, which is adjusted depending on the town's health.  Which, admittedly, is as far as most RPG designing goes.

But it is boring.  "Oh, we're not diseased?  Then who gives a fuck?"

We want more than the mere chance the players might get sick.  We want a feel for the environment, something that encourages dismay when it turns out the place is sour and that encourages relief and happiness when the town is described as cheerfully safe.  For that, we need to ask some questions:

Can the players actually tell if a town in unhealthy or not?  How so?  Would it be the presence of infrastructures that prove a town is healthy (granaries, barays, running water, a market) or would it be the appearance of those infrastructures (crumbling stone, fetid water in the well, filthy streets) that tips the player's hand?  How heavy handed should those appearances be?  What is the baseline for "filthy" in a dark age, medieval or early renaissance world?  On some level, wouldn't everything be, by our standards, unclean?

I'm trying to get the measure of this.  Public health is more than just a lack of disease ~ quality of life matters, from a people having to eat rice every day to the amount of solid waste piling up at the end of every alley way.  Indulgent behaviour, from drunkedness to sexual vice, has its own public cost ... as well as dangerous delusions shared by a population, such as fear of spirits and the need to burn teenage women as witches.

Mental health is an important factor ~ and a very difficult one to impose on player characters, who for one thing come from a present day where vice and mental illness are encountered daily, in both our ordinary lives and through the media.  How much harder is it to explain to a player that their character, having grown up in the woods of Norway, isn't really all that comfortable with the wantonness of 17th century dockside London. On the whole, we can't; we're not anxious to tell the players how to think, and it wouldn't work anyway.  They're just not able, with the present mindset, to "get it."

Creating a formula for health that impresses itself upon the player and not the world (which is the hardest lesson that worldbuilders must face, since it is not the world that we actually care about) needs, as ever, some focus that doesn't depend upon the players' ability to conceive or absorb the verbal/visual impression of the town's appearance.  Plans for such rules always end in failure, since they ignore the intensive subjectivity of humans ... gawd knows why that's never taken into account.  No, no, the world has to be specifically constructed, so that options are clearly dictated at a high or low level of health that are not available elsewhere.

And like with culture, where a high level of culture increases the control on the population, I'm faced with a similar distinction where it comes to health, in the form of "biopower."

I'm familiar with Michel Foucault ... rarely has a mid-20th century academician managed to get quite so far up his own ass, even for a French philosopher.  But I find I have to take the life preserver that he throws in this unpleasant sea.  From wikipedia:

"...biopower is a technology of power for managing humans in large groups; the distinctive quality of this political technology is that it allows for the control of entire populations. It refers to the control of human bodies through an anatomo-politics of the human body and biopolitics of the population through societal Disciplinary institutions. ... Modern power, according to Foucault's analysis, becomes encoded into social practices as well as human behavior as the human subject gradually acquiesces to subtle regulations and expectations of the social order. It is an integral feature and essential to the workings of—and makes possible—the emergence of the modern nation state, capitalism, etc.[5] Biopower is literally having power over bodies ..."

Effectively, the condition that is arrives with the health-saving grace of running water is the universal expection that everyone will wash their hands and their bodies.  The condition that arrives with the market is that the quality of goods will be regulated and controlled ... and it is this social policy, and not just the presence of the improvement or technology, that imposes the improved health of the community.  As culture demands a certain attitude from the player, health demands a certain level of grooming and social responsibility ... and where that social responsibility is evidently lacking in the population, at the point where the players can be as filthy as they like without anyone particularly caring, it is time to worry.

I shall, obviously, continue to think about this.  But I find it odd that each step forward seems to employ a consistent motif that when things get better, it is necessarily freedom that suffers.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

I'm Broken

The website reads,

"Thanks to the hard work of our 2015 D&D Extra Life team and the generous donations of fans, we’ve made available a detailed, high resolution of the northwest corner of Faerün."

There's a map on the website, but it's not a good resolution, so I found one:

Just in case, here's a link.

I came across this while looking up stuff on the previous post ... and I just have to say.  What the hell?

Oh, it's pretty and all, nice artwork, not the kind I can do.  Then again, I wouldn't have room for art having decided to put information on the map instead!

I wonder if there are more than a thousand words on the whole thing.

But then, the gentle readers are all familiar with the two hundred modules represented by this thing, so that's enough.  And it is basically a poster.

I love maps.  I've spent my whole life studying them, drawing them, researching them, living by them.  I can kill an hour travelling with a road map from a gas station.  But this ... this bores me.

I must be broken.

Wooden-Headed Design

The following is content from the 5th edition adventure, Rise of Tiamat:
"The Order of the Guantlet shares the Harpers' dedication to justice and equality, but their methods and attitude are quite different.  Bearers of the gauntlet are holy warriors on a righteous quest to crush evil and promote justice, and they never hide in the shadows.  Evil must be opposed openly and vanquished in the light of day, so that all can see and be emboldened by its destruction.
"Members of the order are driven by religious fervor and by devotion to the principle of justice for all.  Whether a member places more emphasis on one or the other of those ideals is an individual choice.  Camaraderie and esprit de corps run high within the order, and an individual member will risk anything to save a fellow member or to complete an important mission.
"The Order of the Guantlet is a young organization, and it is eager and restless for action.  It does not take orders from any government or temple, although the opinions of holy figures are greatly esteemed within the order.  When evil threatens, the gauntlet strikes."

 So ... many ... cliches.

Believe me, the whole adventure is written like this, at least as much of it as I could stomach.  I haven't read a splatbook in a long, long time ... but I can see from this example that they have gotten, oh gawd, so much worse.  This is the level of writing they once reserved for 5-cent pulp novels in the 1940s.

Yet let's put aside the rather hilarious over-the-top dramatics of the piece.  And let's put aside the four or five actual discontinuities in the text (they're righteous, but with fervor, that is based on principles, that are open to individual choice, while the opinions of holy figures are only "esteemed" and not necessarily obeyed - oh yeah, bring it on!).

I only want the reader to consider the actual usefulness of the text.  Apart from depicting some clearly confused fanatics who are certain to listen to nothing the party tells them, what flesh has the writer added to the bones of these wooden soldiers?

The actual purpose of the Order is made clear in the next paragraph, which explains to the DM how to use them.  It is written,
"Before the final battle, members of the order make interesting NPCs for roleplaying encounters because of their outgoing ways and strong opinions.  Sharing a roadside inn with twenty paladins from the Order of the Gauntlet, or joining their march for a few days when headed in the same direction, should be a memorable experience."

Oh, I'm sure.

Our purpose, then, is to describe the Order as an entity that cannot be reasoned with, that in turn permits the DM to be a profoundly unreasonable asshole while role-playing.  Fun for the whole family.

I'm sure a lot of content-starved players have enjoyed their happy experience with the Order.  I would find it contrived, flat and two-dimensional.  I would see within a second, perhaps two, that I was being jerked around by the DM and the adventure.  These are real people, with real thoughts and feelings.  They're not dynamic because there's no possibility of change.

Unless, of course, half the details painstakingly given in the text are just ignored.  They're not suffering from religious fervor; they are willing to admit that "crushing evil" and "justice for all" are somewhat inconsistent policies.  Evil might possibly outlast the Order, despite all the Order's efforts.

Because, see, if it is possible the Order won't succeed, and an individual of that Order is kept awake at night thinking about it, that's very interesting.  It is much, much more interesting to have a conversation with a member of the Order who is having a crisis of faith, who doesn't know for certain what the right action is, who could conceivably reason and plan with the party in a meaningful sense, instead of a lot of shouting dull, absolutist fanatic phrasing that, let's admit, we can hear at any Klan rally.

I wouldn't expect the WOTC to get that ~ it is fairly clear that their "Sword Coast" agenda is systematically geared to destroy creativity and replace it with bland, mindless mediocrity.  I was somewhat repulsed to open the Store link on the website where it read, "Greetings Citizens of Eberron."  Not, for example, "Players of D&D."  Um, no.  Last week I called us a cult and, apparently, we are.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Swords & Axes

I occasionally question the relevancy of some of my posts, given that I continue to live in a world affected by Advanced D&D from the late 70s, in a world full of players who know nothing except 4th and 5th edition.  So when I think of something like today's topic, I have to pause and ask myself, does this problem even exist now?

Still, it doesn't hurt to write to the three or four people who live in the past, like me.  So here goes something irrelevant.

One detail that always bothered me about long swords and battle axes might immediately leap to the reader's mind.  Given that both weapons do the same damage (original game), and given that the long sword can be used with a shield, because it is a one handed weapon, while the battle axe cannot, needing two hands, why would anyone ever choose a battle axe as a weapon?

Oh, of course some people will think that it's "cool," that swinging a battle axe in a fight gives a certain joie de vive, something that can't be gained from an every day weapon like a sword (in the opinion of some). Still, it would be preferred if there was a practical reason that made one weapon a better choice than the other.  The long sword clearly favors armor class.  What does the battle axe favor?

I could increase the damage done by a battle axe, say to a d8+1; but though I've often thought of that, it feels like wrong thinking.  The sword was ultimately a better weapon, being developed later and being more widespread.  Arguably, the battle axe ought to do less than a sword ... with the caveat that it seems like a terror weapon in the hands of the Vikings because most of those on the move would have been more hearty than their average victim.  The comparable damage of the battle axe to the long sword could just be a user strength bonus.

Still, let's not change the damage done by either weapon.

For years, I've been using a system of breaks and fumbles, so that a weapon can break at an inopportune moment in a combat, much to a player's distress.  At first, I used a system that weapons would break on a 1 in 6 ... but a few years ago, with my wiki, I adjusted some weapons so that they had a superiority in how likely they were to break.  For example, I adjusted the club so that it would break 1 in 4, reflecting a cheaper weapon with little or no craftsmanship.

I had the long sword/battle axe quandary in my head then, as it has been in my head since I began playing this game ... and because of that, I adjusted the battle axe so that it would break only 1 in 8, compared to the long sword's 1 in 6.  The justification?  There isn't one.  I just wanted an advantage for the battle axe.

Oh, we could pretend that the handle of the battle axe is springier than the sword, or that using two weapons means that it can be controlled better, or that it will land head first, protecting the handle, but this is all nonsense.  I can't give a viable argument at all and I won't pretend.

Something had just occurred to me yesterday, however ... which shows how scattered my thinking is half the time.  I'm writing about coins and working on a development/infrastructure system, yet my head jumps into an annoying problem that has been bugging me for years.

Here's my thought.

The weak point on a battle axe is the point where the handle meets the head.  If the weapon breaks, it ought to be the handle; the heavy blade of the battle axe ought to endure the bounce it takes on stones, or from hitting the opponent's armor, or whatever causes it to break.  Then, because of the way the head attaches to the handle, this is an easy fix.  During a respite, the head can be lashed to another handle in less than fifteen minutes, making the weapon combat effective again.

A sword's weak point is, again, where the blade meets the handle.  However, a sword is made so that it includes a metal protrusion that extends into the handle, which is then bound in wood and leather, making the sword and handle a single piece.  When a sword breaks, the weak point is where the working blade narrows into the part that makes the handle.  It is the metal that breaks.  Then, without that protrusion that enables the blade to be fitted into the handle, there's no easy way to repair the sword, not without a forge and a good deal of time.

I ought to reverse the chance of breaking ... make the sword harder to break than the battle axe.  Remaining would be the logic that when providing weapons to a lot of fighters, it's the battle axe that ought to be considered over the sword.  In the long run, it's cheaper.

Let's say a skirmish between two companies runs about twenty rounds before they break off.  Each company is a hundred men.  Twenty rounds of a two hundred combatants swinging is 4,000 rolls ... but what with people dying off and falling unconscious, lets say the two sides manage to roll half that number (I don't want to calculate an exact average).

That's an average of 100 drops and fumbles.  If 1 in 6 breaks, that's 16 broken weapons (so favors the average).  Likewise, 1 in 8 would be 12 breaks.  Divided evenly between the two companies, of course.

If the combatants are all using swords, and swords cost 20 g.p. apiece, 6 breaks a skirmish will count heavily against the company.  If every skirmish costs 120 g.p. (and worse, from weapons left on the battlefield from the dead), that's going to mount up over a season.

But if the company can recover its battle axe heads, they lose considerable less in capital every time they fight.  Wooden handles are cheap.  Even if the battle axe does break more often, and does need two hands, it has a considerable fiscal advantage over the sword.

Of course, now that I've written something about weapons, I can expect to be vilified for having all my facts wrong, that in fact battle axes and swords break differently than I've just explained and that it actually takes months to fit a new handle onto a battle axe head, or some other happy horseshit, as that is always the case with people who fight flame wars over weapon posts.  It's the risk I take when I blog on this subject.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Tribal Solidarity

I tried an experiment earlier that I'd like to share.  Searching google, using a modifier to search pages posted in the previous hour, for "D&D", I got a total of 46 hits.  Two of those were chance uses of "D&D" that had nothing to do with the game.  The remainder was content mostly produced by individual creators.  Three were associated with the WOTC.

Taking those that were privately created, 41 total, we might extrapolate an average of 984 pages per day. Some of those posts may be repeats, but then none of them were posts in a foreign language, so we might suppose that non-English posts about Dungeons and Dragons could easily take up the slack.  Let's just assume an average of 1,000 postings per day, most likely by single individuals, giving us a reasonable figure for how many people playing the game decided to post content about it.

We used to say in journalism that for any letter written to the paper expressing a particular opinion, there were about 100 people out there who felt just as strongly who did not bother to write.  We might then argue that on any given day, there are up to 100,000 people thinking deeply enough about D&D to have a strong opinion, though most do not write about it.

These would be the Alphas in the game.  People working, striving, thinking and writing down ideas about Dungeons & Dragons.  It doesn't include people thinking about other RPGs, just D&D.  For any Alpha, it is reasonable to suppose there are between 2 and 10 Betas ... it is really up to the reader to decide what a believable figure might be.  From my experience, any time I have been around participants of D&D, I'd say about 1 in 5 is invested enough in the game to have a strong opinion about it.  The other four are ready to play, but that one participant is really into the game, is really ready to talk about it.

This is the first time I feel I can point to a rational measure of how many people out there are playing today. Half a million.  People can argue my statistical framework is weak and all conjecture ... and it is.  I don't deny it.  But it cannot be denied that 41 people sat down and wrote something on the internet about D&D in just the past hour.  And no one can think those were the only 41 people on earth this last hour who were invested in the game.

Incidentally, I used the same method and looked up kayaking.  50 results for the past hour.  Every result was a business trying to sell a location or a piece of equipment for people wanting to kayak.  There wasn't a single post about a kayaker writing about his or her experience.

Think about that.  The only reason we're invisible is because we don't exist as a market.

We do, however, exist as a tribe.

Size of Gold Coins

First, I'll say a word or two about the costs of things associated with my pricing table, particularly armor. Here, for example, is a list of armor I posted on my blog back in 2011:

For some people these prices are high.  Let me explain why they're not.

The first-edition D&D game (and other early games, for all I know), established the weight of a gold coin as 1/10th of a pound (presumed avoirdupois, about 453 grams).  This was convenient for calculating weight, but anyone with experience in numismatics knows that 45 grams would be a ridiculous weight for a coin in circulation.  The South African Krugerrand, comparatively, weighs 33.93 grams.  The gold Brittania weighs 31.103 grams (one troy ounce).  Neither are used in circulation.  They are bullion coins.

The British gold sovereign, on the other hand, weighs 7.98 grams, a little more than one quarter the Brittania. It would take nearly 57 of these to equal a D&D pound.  The sovereign is no longer used as circulating currency now, and probably wasn't much between 1604 and 1816, so we couldn't call it a premier coin in Europe during the Middle Ages or Renaissance.  A more common gold coin was the Venetian ducat - which in the 13th century averaged only 3.5 grams.  That's about 13 ducats per old D&D gold coin, in weight.

I've settled on the gold content of my gold coins at 3.57 grams of gold.  They're mixed with 3.43 grams of silver (the value of the silver being discounted by state law), making a coin in my world 7 grams in weight ~ the purity of which can be checked by magic, so there's no danger of the alloy being modified to cheapen the hard value of the coins.  One benefit of a D&D world.

Comparing the gold in one of my gold coins ( with that of the old D&D system (, means that 1 = 12.69

The splinted mail above, listed at 473 g.p., is actually reasonable, the equivalent of 37.3 on the old Player's Handbook equipment table.  Looking at the Player's Handbook, I see splinted mail listed at 80 g.p. That would be more than a thousand in my system.

Moreover, it means that I technically give more than 12 x.p. per gold D&D coin ... except that I give considerable less gold than the old game did, as I like to keep my players poor.

Anyway, just food for thought.  This post was inspired by a post I read on The Gaming Den, where the first poster noted, "We know that D&D prices for stuff in chunks of gold is nuts ..."

No, not really.  Just the result of poor designers not doing their homework.

Friday, November 24, 2017

The Face Underneath a Monarchy

The hardest struggle surrounding the tech/development structure I'm designing is with my imagination; it literally feels like I am squeezing my brain to separate the juice from the pulp, to produce as much detail and content as I'm able.

It's a good thing that I'm well-read, otherwise this task would be insurmountable.  I'll propose a question, one for which the answer was posted on the blog about two years ago.  How is it that the presence of animal husbandry changed the shape and status of house building?

If you're a long-time reader, you'll hit on that immediately.  But three years ago I'd have had no idea myself; I'd have needed someone to explain it to me.  But I read and continue to watch documentaries, which steadily expand my perceptions about things past the usual associations we make.

If you want the answer, and some kind soul doesn't rush to put it in the comments, write me an email at

Let's take another example.  What associations do you make with the development of Monarchy?  Right off, the reader should connect the presence of a monarch with a more united kingdom, the rise of an aristocracy, the presence of a court, the inevitability of joint foreign policy and quite probably the creation of some kind of elite military, "the king's guard."

To put it another way, an organized government, which a less developed region would not possess.  We should be able to think of lots of examples of inward-looking social organizations, without a system of government, where the rules of law came down to what your neighbors believed or what people accepted as tradition.  Homesteaders in 19th century America, well ahead of the government, or large parts of Africa or the steppes of Eurasia, where tribes and clans vied with each other for resources but had little relationship with the outside world.  The whole history of Australia, before the arrival of Europeans. 

The arrival of a monarchy on the scene sets up a conflict with tradition; a government is there to arrest, manage or instigate change, depending on what is needed ~ whereas a traditional framework opposes change categorically.  Once a "state" has begun thinking for itself, those beliefs previously held by the population are now under siege.  The monarch has ideas of his or her own; and those ideas are not "traditional" much of the time.  Largely because the problems a monarch faces are not traditional, but the necessity of event: disaster, increases in population, decreases in food supply, the incursion of foreign powers and so on.

These things, however, are very general ~ and they don't affect a party of player characters much.  The point of the structure is to give effect to the actual campaign, not propose a history lesson on how the development of monarchies changed social structure.

It is easy to become enamored with the big picture and lose sight of that point.  If the players don't feel a difference, there isn't one; it doesn't matter if the region has a monarch or not if there are no visible signs that compel the players to view the environment differently.  So let's back up and ask, how does the monarchy affect ordinary people, here on the streets, who would probably never meet the local king or queen, nor attend court a single time in all their lives?

Well, the presence of the monarch does tend to bind together people: when the king is crowned, everyone parties; when the king dies, everyone mourns.  When the king is unwell, everyone worries; and when the king is married or has a child, again, there is a huge celebration. The various aspects of the monarch take on the aspect that we sometimes identify with celebrity culture; it seems to matter that an acting couple has split up or a famous comedian dies ... this is a small taste of the sort of intensity people once had for the reigning family when there was little else outside of their worlds to seize their imaginations.

A second element to consider is the law.  There are a series of effects now to consider associated with the way the local constabulary deal with crime.  When the law is managed by locals, according to tradition, there is room for patience and mercy that are obliterated when the people in charge owe fealty to a power that is distant and removed.  Now, the constable can't just "let you go," because there would be questions to be answered and responsibility to higher authorities.  This makes the overall visitation of the law upon individuals a colder prospect.  You're not dealing with a "man," you're dealing with the power of the state ~ and that power doesn't care that you're stealing bread to feed your family.  You're stealing.

In many different ways, matters of culture are now cut that fine.  Whereas the elders of the village or the town council might make room for you to pay your taxes when business improves, now there's an official, and outsider, who is there to ensure that everyone is paid up and in full.  Taxes are no longer a matter of give what you can; it's been decided that all persons of a certain rank and capacity will give such-and-such, no matter who they are.  The law has become faceless ... and frightening.

But players are far more familiar with a faceless law than the reverse, so that's not much of an adjustment for them.  It is harder to make a group of players understand a law system that isn't faceless than one that is. That is a part of why films like The Wicker Man hold a fascination ~ because we find it difficult to relate to sweet, kind people apparently being able to live together and peace and harmony, yet able to burn outsiders to death because it's a necessity. We, living in the world we do, automatically identify cruelty with institutions, not individuals.

We need more, then.  How else does the monarchy affect daily life apart from a drunken bash now and then and a tax collector that needs side-stepping?

It only came to me a couple days ago:  the answer is fashion.  The monarchy creates fashion the same way it creates the law.  Whereas in a previous time, people wore what they would, the presence of that celebrity cult, the same way it does for us, induces people to grow interested in new clothes, new ideas, new habits ... and the most evident of those habits, the one that the players would most likely notice, is the presence of etiquette.

We normally associate etiquette with the 19th century (we do if we're westerners), but it goes back much further than that.  Confucius, 2,500 years ago, is all about etiquette: right speaking, right acting, correctness of social relationships, correctness of justice and sincerity and so on.

I've often found myself in a position as a DM where an NPC is conversing with the player and the player is acting like a complete boor.  In my mind, it's clear from the first sentence out of the player's mouth that they have just insulted everything that the NPC ought to hold dear ... and I've let it pass because I don't want to hold the player responsible for a clumsy attempt at role-playing.  After all, the player isn't there; the player can't see the NPC as clearly as I can, and for that matter doesn't identify clearly the whole scene.  If that same player were to find themselves transported to the Palace of Versailles in the 16th century, the player would rightly shut their mouth in terror of saying something wrong, particularly if they understood the consequence might be the experience of being whipped like a dog down a long hall full of mirrors, until falling into the hands of four or five guards, who would then drag the beaten victim into a cold stone cell for a few years of unreasonable punishment.

Players don't understand consequences like that.  Why should they?  They have no experience with the sort of non-egalitarian thinking that would condemn an individual to death for speaking rudely.  Players retain their modern sensibilities with these things ... they just don't get that the local townspeople would demand a polite speaking voice and a careful choice of words because that's what the king does, and we all like the king very much and want to be like him.

As D&Dites, we're still dealing with players who answer resistance on the NPC's part with sword blows in broad daylight, followed by the sort of swaggering pride in their action like we would expect from Mad Dog Biff Tanner:  "Look at me, I'm a bad ass."  A moment like that in D&D needs someone stepping up behind the character and hitting them blind with a shovel.

We might try explaining to the players that living in a monarchy means there are now consequences for failing to speak politely, even to goodwives, even to beggars ... and everyone in the town is ready to step up and quietly see that those consequences are delivered.  Save the rudeness for a democracy.  We do not put up with that shit around here.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Proof We're a Cult

Those readers who recently heard my guest appearance on a podcast will recall that I went on a diatribe about the way D&D is treated by the media.  No doubt, some of you strongly disagree with me.  I can only say that my experience with the media's missing the point has a long history.

Still, I try to have an open mind.  Which brings me to the recent article about D&D in last month's The New Yorker magazine.

Let me start by saying that it's nice to see that The New Yorker has become aware that people are still playing Dungeons and Dragons.  I don't mean that sarcastically: the writer makes it fairly clear in the article that there was every reason to believe the game had drifted into an enthusiasm-free obscurity by the time of Gygax's death in 2008.  The context suggests, with a sort of wonder, that people are still playing that game and that it seems to have retained an unexpected popularity ~ though the article makes clear that "the culture was receptive again" only after the amazing release of fifth edition completely revived the game from the brink of death.

Now, that may have exaggerated the writer's presentation.  From this point, I'm going to assume you've stopped reading me and that you've acquainted yourself with the article, so you can make up your own minds.  While the article is fresh in your mind, and you're mulling over the research the writer did into D&D, I'd like to explain that a typical fee for getting an article published with The New Yorker is $5 a word.  As the article is 2,614 words, one might impress on one's mind that the price tag here was about $12,500.  I offer this tidbit for the sake of perspective.  Measure the article however you will, but measure it with the article's value in mind.

On the whole, I think it is a positive article.  This alone makes it unique among those I've read.  Yes, the writer Neima Jahromi is off base on a few points, but as a media outsider writing about an unusual activity enjoyed fervently by a non-media driven agenda, the mistakes made are reasonable.  Thus the title of this post; when you're a cult, you can't expect non-believers to understand the basic dogma.

When I talk about the media's treatment of the activity, Jahromi gives an excellent example, with this description of ~ apparently ~ what I used to be in 1979:
"This turn of events might shock a time traveller from the twentieth century. In the seventies and eighties, Dungeons & Dragons, with its supernatural themes, became the fixation of an overheated news media in the midst of a culture war. Role players were seen as closet cases, the least productive kind of geek, retreating to basements to open maps, spill out bags of dice, and light candles by which to see their medieval figurines. They squared with no one. Unlike their hippie peers, they had dropped out without bothering to tune in."

She contextualizes it correctly, where she says, "Roleplayers were SEEN ..."  Yes.  That is how we were seen.  Unfortunately, Jahromi then does nothing to investigate this characterization, or suggest it may not have been the case.  Instead, she let's the media's description stand as is, as I would expect from a reporter who cannot be bothered to dig up a source to ask the question, "Were D&D players actually what the media depicted?"

But then, this would have ended in another 500 words of content, meaning another $2,500 out of The New Yorker's pocket, so perhaps the magazine just couldn't afford it.

So, the depiction stands.  And after some further discussion of how D&D is "everywhere now" ~ with the concurrent argument that it wasn't everywhere ten years ago ~ and that the Big Bang Theory highlighted the existence of the game to millions (or at least to The New Yorker, along with a few game stores in massively player-thick New York city), the article begins to expose its actual agenda.

D&D will save children from video games.

See, it's a wonderful thing that these boardgame clubs are including D&D in their line-up, since the games popularity proves that it's capable of drawing children away from their dark holes and out into the bright sunshine, where they can enjoy the ages-lost feeling of talking to people, before it is too late for them.

This brings me to a paragraph late in the article ... perhaps the most insulting, abusive, blatantly ignorant statement I have ever heard anyone write or utter in connection with RPGs.
"... the terms of hiding have changed. When mainstream American culture was largely about standing in a factory line, or crowding into smoke-stained boardrooms for meetings, or even dropping acid and collapsing in a field for your hundred-person “be-in,” the idea of retiring to a dimly lit table to make up stories with three or four friends seemed fruitless and antisocial. Now that being American often means being alone or interacting distantly—fidgeting with Instagram in a crosswalk, or lying prone beneath the heat of a laptop with Netflix streaming over you—three or four people gathering in the flesh to look each other in the eye and sketch out a world without pixels can feel slightly rebellious, or at least pleasantly out of place."

That is simply incredible.  As a feat of writing, I must pause and say, yes, well done.  The sentence construction here is excellent.  The theoretical balance between the depiction of the age past and the depiction of the present age is damn near perfect.  The nuance of the verbs and imagery is remarkable.  I am not, repeat not, being sarcastic.  I am a writer.  I recognize good writing when I see it.  Jahromi is a good writer and this paragraph proves it.  She is earning her money.  The New Yorker hires good people.

Unpacking it, I'll also pause to argue that, from the writer's point of view, this undoubtedly sounds logical.  I would guess, however, that she doesn't have the least idea of what the 1970s were like, having somehow connected D&D with factories and board rooms, as if to suggest that no other cultural circles featured in the world of 1970s science fiction, in film and literature, or the explosion of sexual role-play and film porn, or the technological explosion of video games and accessible computer programming.  I have to believe that Jahromi was not a conscious adult experimenting with sex and culture in 1979.

But yes, it's true, the media depiction of friends "retiring to a dimly lit table" does seem fruitless and antisocial. Of course, those of us who were playing in brightly lit rooms with up to 40 people at a time, as every table in a study hall was packed with gamers playing just as socially as they could, have to stare agog at the words of a writer as, however well she writes, goes right up her own ass, a dimly lit place all of its own.

Following that, the balance of the paragraph feeds the "save the children" argument: we must rescue children from instagram and Netflix by letting them see each other in this pixel-less world that is so much more real and nice and decent for everyone.


Given the perspective of the article, that it began with a gamestore in New York, which is getting along a little better because they added an unexpected game to their roster, it only follows that the writer of the article will view the world from the inside of that bottle.  It is painfully clear that the internet was not consulted as part of this article's research.  The word, "internet" only appears twice in the whole article: once in a quote from the television creator of "Community" and then immediately after in the next sentence referring to that quote. Here's the quote:
"The internet really allowed everyone to realize that everyone was a nerd."

That is probably true in the mind of a television producer, but in actual fact the internet really allowed everyone to realize that everyone is a troll.  Followed immediately by the immediate awareness that salespeople on the internet are the first to try to express a tautology, thinking that's what being brilliant sounds like.

As a nerd, still able to make everyone in a room feel uncomfortable just by looking at them, I have some contention with the argument that D&D is popular "now" because everyone is, in fact, a nerd.  If so, why is it that I'm still spoken of as "strange" and "fucked up," not to mention "autistic," by people who still reach for a label to explain something they don't understand.

Frankly, I think D&D is popular with those people who are likely to turn up at a board game place because those are the same people that were likely to turn up at a board game place 40 years ago.  And yes, we had stores where they played board games back in the days of factory workers and sweaty board rooms.  More to the point, D&D didn't "save" kids from video games in 1979, either, when the games were not nearly as enticing as they are now.  I wouldn't expect a huge bust up of the video game market because the media is willing to admit that, lo and behold, a lot of people play D&D.

Go figure.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

A Development System

Since conceiving of a technology-based system in 2015, making that idea manifest has been a considerable trial.  At the beginning, I managed to get through the bare bones of the structure, up to tech 18, very lightly touching on many ideas and concepts with the inconsistency of an idea newly formed.  Since, I've tried twice to create a structure that would enable me to explain the system in greater depth ~ once on the wiki, and once on the blog.  On both occasions, I did not get very far.  It turns out that the idea is so damn complicated I can hardly keep it all in my head at the same time, meaning that it quickly spins out of control. I end up being uncertain of what I'm trying to describe and from there the frame collapses.

I can see what it is supposed to do, but not precisely how to design it.  That is not unusual; very often we get ideas before we have a design ideal in place.  The only thing to do it bang our heads against it until the problem is solved.  As such, I'm trying a 3rd time ~ only this time, unlike before, I'm working on the problem privately.  I'm not posting the work in process, as I prefer to do.  I want to try to get some of it in shape before I expose the work.

Not all, no.  If I tried all, I would still be at this a year from now and no feedback.  But I will try to get at least twice as far as I have in the past.  I'm shooting to complete tech-9.

In the meantime, I'm going to tackle the other bugbear.  It kept coming up with the original idea and it came up again when I wrote the "world from scratch" post.  Readers just don't understand what I mean by "tech level" ~ and this is something I'd like to work out before presenting more hard material on these lines.

Perhaps "tech" has been the wrong word from the beginning.  I used the word because of ideas I took from the game Civilization IV, but that was probably a mistake.  As I think of it, my first experience with "technology" as part of an RPG was Traveller.  Technologies were rated from primitive to super-tech ... based, I think, on television science fiction of the '60s and '70s.  When Captain Kirk ended up on the Roman planet, the people there hadn't moved past technology of the 1960s because they hadn't invented it.  So, in traveller, if a tech level described a 20th century world, that intended a world frozen at that point in time.

So people wonder, when I say "tech level," how two regions with vastly different tech levels can possibly co-exist side-by-side, having nothing more than a river or perhaps a high mountain range dividing them.  How can it be possible that Paris is tech-15 but central France, just three days carriage ride away, is tech-11?

I think the word "tech" might be the problem here.  Let me try a different word: development.  Paris is more developed than provinces in central France that are three days away.  Just as a town of 8,000 people doesn't have a philharmonic, doesn't boast a major league baseball team and doesn't have a decent restaurant serving Thai food.  It isn't that that the people of Pleasantville don't know what these things are, or that they don't know how to build a huge football stadium ... it's just that there isn't much point, because there aren't enough people in Pleasantville and the surrounding counties to make that worth while.

Now, Pleasantville might only be twenty-five miles from Omaha; and Omaha might only be 7 hours drive from Chicago, but these are very different kinds of places.  Fifty years ago, before advancements in media and information technology, those differences were even more pronounced.  A hundred and fifty years ago, before cars and good roads, twenty-five miles was a much longer distance than now.  And 350 years ago, when my world takes place, there are many people who would never travel more than 25 miles in their whole life.  And they might never, ever, speak to someone from as far away as Chicago.

Which didn't exist in 1650, but you get my point.

Imagine that you come from a part of the world that is so backward it has no arrangements for making metal axes.  This isn't out of the question.  We could point to places like this as late as 1980, and quite easily. There are some still like this ... and there were certainly a lot more like this in 1850, 1750 and 1650. Forging metal is not a guaranteed community presence any more than a movie theatre ~ which many towns in Canada and America cannot boast.  We should be able to imagine a part of the world where the making of a metal axe is just not a thing.

This doesn't mean the locals don't know about metal axes!  Sure they know about them.  But it's hard to have them, at least for very long, because metal axes don't last.  Oh, sure, we might have one for awhile, but sooner or later the blade will dull, or the 17th century metal will corrode or even fracture after hitting one too many solid trees.  And then what are we going to do?  We can't just go get another one.  We're hundreds of miles from the nearest axe shop.

Yes, we might get together a few hundred nuggets of copper out of yon river, over time, and trade for an axe ... but what are the chances that a trader, with axes, is going to turn up here just as our axe breaks?  Oh, sure, the trader was here a month ago, but the axe was fine then.  Isn't it always the way?  No trader, no axe.  Shit.

The reliable solution is to get along without metal axes.  No worries about how sharp the blade is, no wading in cold river water hoping to find a flake of copper, no problems at all except flaking a good old-fashioned, reliable flint axe when its needed.  It's not like we're working hard on an industrial lifestyle out here: we raise a few pigs, we raise a few crops ... what are we really going to use that metal axe for, anyway?

Okay, a fence or two ... and it helps us cut wands for mud-and-daub structure building, and it's not a bad thing to split open the skull of an orc raider, when that comes up.  But it's not like a good stone axe isn't also practical in such things.

Truth is, where it comes to development, if you don't actually have the means to make the technology, actually having the technology isn't that useful.  Ask yourself: if all the computer stores ceased to make parts, for whatever reason, even if you still had power, how long would your computer or your phone last? Technology is a trap.  It makes the product, sure ~ but it also demands that the product keep being made, or else it ceases to sustain itself ... or the lifestyle everyone at this tech level enjoys.

There's a certain ease that less technology produces, where that heightened technology isn't actually needed. The people in central France in the 17th century are rustic in attitude because, unlike the elite hoi polloi of Paris, they haven't got time to read papers at the coffee shops, arguing about the latest play by Moliere. There are cows to be milked come five a.m. and there's no money for candles to stay up half the night writing plays.  If we're less developed out here in the fields of Bourbon or Berry, its only because that's the practical way to live.  Anyone actually burning a candle after nightfall is probably a local baron ~ who is probably writing a letter to someone in Paris about how glad they are that they're on their way back there in a few days.

So think of it as a development system ... describing how different parts of the world move at a different pace, because it makes sense in those parts to live differently.  My goal is to describe the difference, to measure it, so that while the Duchy of Burgundy is fairly backward at dev-11, at least it isn't the awful backwardness of Stavanger, Norway, at dev-9.

Friday, November 17, 2017

The Size of Antwerp's Economy

This post may disagree or discount previous posts written about game infrastructure.  Where disagreement occurs, this post (the latest in my thinking and therefore design on the subject) is right and former content is wrong.

A few weeks ago, Ian Pinder asked me a question about the meaning of "market" as a reference, and how more market references would affect the trade system.  This was a fair question that I mostly ignored, because I did not have a good answer.  To some degree, a larger market provides a more direct route to far flung trade cities, and more market references increases the total number of references in a region, but aside from that, not much effect.


I can answer the question now because of a connection relating the trade system to the infrastructure system. Before I can get into that, however, a bit of a primer on how the infrastructure system helped describe the world.  You might, for instance, remember me posting maps similar to this:

Basically, looking something like a Civ IV map.  Stavanger is a type-1 hex, Randeberg is in a type-4 hex, as is Hole.  The two hexes south of Stavanger are type-7 (the Lake Camp hex) and type-5 (call it the "SE hex").  These five hexes will serve to make a point, then we can move on.

I wanted to emphasize that each individual hex is interpreted as a stand-alone economy (food, hammers/labor and coins/wealth).  The system I've adopted does NOT use the Civilization strategy where one town counts the surrounding squares or hexes).  For calculation purposes, Stavanger only counts what's in the hex that contains Stavanger: 7 food (loaf and two slices), 5 hammers and 6 coins.  Randeberg is therefore 4 food, 2 hammers and 2 coins.  The Lake Camp hex is 1 food and 2 hammers.  It would be an error, then, to lump these together and say that Stavanger included all these food, hammer and coin references.  I just want to make that clear.

Some readers might also remember that while one food symbol in a hex indicates 1 food, while two food symbols in a hex equals 3 food and not two.  To translate the symbols to numbers, consider the symbols to indicate the exponent in the following formula:

2f -1

Three food symbols would equal 7 food, four symbols 15 food and so on.  Stavanger's food supply, therefore, would be 127 food.  Likewise, it's labor supply as shown above is 31 labor and its wealth is 63.

In the new system I'm building now, Stavanger would be a "guild" town (type-1 settlement hex, different from a type-1 rural hex, which has no indicated town in it).  As a guild town, it gathers local goods for transshipment (+1 wealth symbol), it mills local resources into higher-scale products (fish into dried fish, milk into cheese, cattle into leather) (+1 wealth symbol) and the economy is run by guilds who produce high end materials (+2 wealth).  Stavanger also gets +1 wealth symbol from being on the sea.  That's five total, or 31 wealth as I've described.

Stavanger also has 1 market reference in the trade system: so in this new system, that market reference adds another +1 wealth symbol.  This makes it the same as the map above, though as it happens for a different reason.  In any case, this gives us 63 wealth for Stavanger as before.

But what does that mean?  Well ...

If we add up the total number of references (markets and otherwise) in the world (as mapped so far), we get 25,624.  Each of those references is worth as much as 1 reference of gold, on average about 3,894 oz. of gold, or 33,937 g.p.  That's a total of 869,606,567 ... or, divided into a population of 245,385,032, a total of 3.54 g.p. per person.

A "food" represents the amount of food necessary to feed 100 persons.  "Labor" equals the amount of work 100 persons can do.  And "wealth" is based on the per capita income of 100 people, or 354 g.p.  63 wealth, then, is an economy of 22,326 g.p.  Not counting churn, that being money that passes through the hands of many people on a regular basis, enabling one coin to have the purchasing power of multiple coins, depending on the churn.  But let's not worry about that and concentrate on hard numbers.

Individually, Stavanger is one hex in a region of 14 producing hexes called Rogaland, which then counts as a larger economy. Rogaland is part of Denmark, which is obviously a much larger economy, within all of Europe.

Using the system described, if Stavanger had two market references, it's economy would double.  If it had three market references, it's economy would quadruple.  Four and five market references makes for a BIG economy.

The largest market cities I've included in my design so far, based on references, include Constantinople (9), Lubeck (11), London (12), Bremen (14), Hamburg (15) and Antwerp (18).  Some cities, like Paris, haven't many market references, but have many other productions that will help boost the economy, but we'll keep with just market references, because that's easy to calculate without having to actually map out the area.

Consider Antwerp.  It, too, is a guild town, so we give it 4 wealth symbols.  It then is on a river, so that's another symbol.  Then we add 18 more for market references, for a total of 23.  That's a wealth of 8,388,607.  Multiply this by 354 and the total is ... 2,972,775,783.

Yep.  The trade in Antwerp alone is worth more than three times all the wealth produced by all goods in all the world.  And that sounds crazy impossible ... except, I will remind the reader again of the churn, which is the only possible explanation for Antwerp's economy.  The money changes hands so fast there than it creates a 3 billion gold coin economy in a 17th century world.  And that is not out of proportion.  There was a reason that Spain did not want to let the Southern Netherlands go.

Hamburg isn't nearly as big: only a billion.  Bremen is half a billion, London is 125 million and Lubeck is 70 million.  But it is as I said: there are other things that will affect economy other than market references. Remember the rule from Civ IV that banks increase the economy by 50%?

So far, we're just playing with the simplest of numbers in a system I haven't designed fully.  There's a long way to go.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Defining Culture and Other Things

Five years ago, I wrote a series of posts using the game Civilization IV to describe a methodology for creating micro-infrastructure for the game world.  I wrote posts about food, production, workers and various elements hit upon by the Civ IV makers ... and admitted that other elements, like culture and health, were "problems" that I hadn't solved.

Some problems take time.

I have occasionally struggled with connecting my trade system to other systems that I've proposed, such as the infrastructure system or the more recent tech system.  I have made three attempts on this blog since 2015 to express the tech system as clearly as I can, but it turns out I can't even clearly explain it to myself.  It is a headache of the first order, no doubt about it.  In any case, those "never-too-much-economics" posts are part and parcel of the same problem.

In a sense, with far, far less relevance to the universe than anything Einstein did, I'm struggling right now to come up with a "unified world theory" that would pull these disparate parts of my rules together into a cohesive whole.  I'd like to write a little about that, then write a little about what "culture" might mean in a D&D context.

Here is my thinking, regarding the pulling of these systems together.  The trade system designates the existence of produced goods, tied to regions.  The infrastructure system breaks down a region into smaller and smaller bites, so that we can know the amount of buildings, roads, supplies or production a specific hex has, as small as we wish to go (though I limit my production measure to 6-mile hexes, it could go deeper). The infrastructure, then, could be used as a means to determine the exact points of origin for trade goods, from fish to iron mining to the making of clothing.

The infrastructure also includes a measuring system for available food, labor ("hammers") and wealth ("coins"), stolen from Civ IV.  This measuring system might be directly affected by the trade system, so that if a town produced, according to the trade system, "cheese," then the food supply in that specific town, in a given type of infrastructure hex (remember all those "groups" posts, from 2011?), could be increased because we have a trade reference from that town.

Okay, stay with me here.  This gets complicated.

If we add in the proposed tech system, then we know that a specific level of tech produces an availability of building types: granaries, harbors, theatres, forges, etcetera.  These buildings, then, could also be fit into the infrastructure framework, so that a Type-I hex, with a settlement in it, would mean that the specific building was present, IF the tech were sufficient and IF the circumstances (near the water, say) were right. Furthermore, if we want to steal further from Civ IV, then the improvements that arise from that game could be detemined, in part, by the trade system (which indicates that wheat fields or coffee plantations, whatever) are definitely present in the region's hexes, and in part by the tech system itself, which indicates roads, monuments, city walls, waterwheels and so on.

Those improvements and buildings, indicated by the tech and the trade system, then augment the infrastructure still further, telling us how much additional labor a waterwheel adds, or how much additional food a windmill adds, or how much additional wealth a market adds ~ adjusted according to a long-standing system that has already proven itself.

Places with higher tech will have universities, customs houses and banks, while places with lower tech will not.  These things, in their own way, will affect not only the description of the region and city, but actual details regarding how the city is structured and how that affects what the players want to do.

Part of that means coming up with a meaning for culture.  It's too important to skip over, as the creation of culture by a civilization, particularly as it advances, should be there to define everything about the player's experience as they walk down a street in Paris as opposed to a street in Stavanger.  That has to be measured: and the presence of a measure for culture taken from Civ IV is too damn enticing to ignore.  We have all these marvelous figures to tell us how much culture a specific place creates, due to the presence of its buildings, products, tech and so on ... all that is needed is a meaningful description for what this "culture" actually means concretely.

Not an easy fix.  I've been climbing over Wikipedia for several days, following one link to the next, from culture to social norms to meta-ethics, looking for something that defines the difference between how people with high culture think vs. what people with low culture think.

Fundamentally, humans are ruled by a reward system, which itself is buried in the physical mesolimbic pathways in our brains, something we can't do anything about.  As a species, we are driven towards pleasure and away from fear ... so that culturally, as we've advanced, we've done our best to build systems that contain fear while providing as much pleasure as possible.

Where pleasure is provided only to a few, the system eventually collapses under violence perpetrated by the many, whereupon it is either replaced by a similar system that temporarily provides pleasure for the powerful, or a better system that provides pleasure for a larger proportion of the population.  See, the key to the balance isn't to eliminate misery, it is to reduce the number of miserable persons to a level that they can't meaningfully threaten the number of persons who are living with a tolerable level of pleasure plus those that are living with a lot of pleasure.

This is the "bread and circuses" equation, that says that if we provide nominal pleasure to the miserable, in the form of something that distracts them a little while, they will concentrate on their small amount of pleasure long enough that they won't feel the need to rise up and kill all of us who are enjoying massive amounts of pleasure all the time.

Therefore, I think I've hit upon the fundamental definition of "culture" in the measurable sense is that it establishes the amount of social control in the region.  More coliseums, more theatres, more religion, more of anything that is properly defined by the Civ IV structure, less random misery and street-chaos by the population.  We don't need to make the population happy, just complacent, rewarding them with small amounts of pleasure for obeying the law, paying their taxes, fulfilling their duty by fighting for the monarch, turning in anyone conspiring against the state and resisting any desire to change their lot in life.

Thus, the higher the amount of culture, the more viciously and coldly will come down the deadly hand of social control on the hapless player character who stupidly flaunts the law, supposing that everyone here will find it "cool" or "edgy" to speak ill of Queen Juliana the VII.  That may play out in the sticks, where people are miserable, but not here in this Type-I, Tech-13 city where we all LOVE her.  In fact, I don't think we will even give you a chance to apologize.

That doesn't give me an incremental scale, not yet ... but it does provide a framework from which I might evolve an incremental scale, given time.

Anyway, this is what I'm working on right now.  It is bound to spawn all kinds of interesting posts.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

How to Write a Rule: Framing the Solution

My reader kimbo is right when he says that a principal decision in climbing a mountain is time and risk ~ with the logical association that rush makes danger, whereas patience should reduce the probability of an accident.  When looking at a mountain, its natural for the players to consider the lay-out and decide whether or not they want to risk the more dangerous routes, or head around "the long way" in order to find safer, albeit more time consuming alternatives.  This is what I meant when I wrote "time and space."

We have a few considerations to apply to this, however: the first being that the whole mountain is not evident to the players, when the decision must be made.  For a full measure of the mountain, the whole mountain would have to be viewed, and from good, clear vantage points, trusting the weather holds.  It can take a couple of days to march around a good-sized mountain ~ assuming it can be marched around, as it might be part of a range, which might make the far side of the mountain very difficult to assess.  Secondly, the mountain needs to be assessed by someone who knows how; an experienced mountain climber can "see" more in the falls and curves of the landscape that most of us can.  It wouldn't do any good to send the flying mage on a tour around the mountain, unless the mountaineer (more likely a ranger) can go along.

Now add to this that parts of the mountain can't be seen at all from the ground, making themselves evident only once the players are actually in the act of climbing.  A good looking route can have a surprise along the way, where a cleft only 12 feet wide ~ virtually invisible from most places on the ground ~ suddenly makes the route impassable.  The same can be said for overhangs and surfaces that turn out to be less than solid.  Ice and snow are additional variables that are largely impossible to predict.

The only real surety about choosing a route comes from having climbed the mountain before ~ either personally or in the form of a guide.  Nearly all the difficult mountains that were climbed in a rush of ardor with the rise of 18th & 19th century Romanticism were attempted before a climb was successful, often many times.  Like a ship exploring a coastline in the new world, mountain climbers would attempt different routes and make copious notes or drawings, seeking the measure of the task before surrendering, returning to the valley.

It became evident that there were summer routes and winter routes; routes that risked fog; routes that were dangerous due to crosswinds that would create sheets of ice or made balance difficult (changeable winds that could be deadly for a flying mage trying to land on a rocky and uncertain ledge); routes of all kinds.

Still, we want a rule set that encapsulates at least some of this.  I don't think any of it can be limited to a set formula of time vs. space.  Rather, I see a series of "wagers" that the players face.  They can, initially, choose the slower path, which might get them closer to the goal before having to take serious risks, but nothing with a dangerous mountain can be certain.

So the first task is to determine how dangerous is this particular mountain?  Right off, I find myself seeking an established system of some kind.  Growing up near the mountains, I'm familiar with a rating system that's used for ski trails: a green circle for easy slopes, a blue square for intermediate slopes, a black diamond for advanced slopes and a double black diamond for expert only slopes.  In Europe, the system is different, with pistes described as green, blue, red and black, with double or triple black diamonds, orange (extremely difficult) or yellow (ungroomed and unpatrolled).

Obviously, much of a mountain can't be skied at all, but I see no reason not to employ the spirit of the system.  Rather than trying to specify a whole mountain as "difficult" or "easy", individual routes along the same mountain can be described as a string: green, green, blue, green, black, blue, green, black, black. We can then produce simplified versions of "piste maps," such as the one shown below:

Click HERE for full size

We don't have to get anywhere near this complicated.  With a little imagination, we can apply a string of "dangers" to, say, Wildstrubel in the upper left hand corner, with those evident cliffs, uncertain snow fields and glaciers.  We can then see how forks in the string would allow a choice to go left or right, because this way looks "blue" rather than "black" ... even though it might end in a triple-black diamond climb another hundred meters above, where we can't see.

This leaves us with a meaningful resolution for the wagers the players would try: I would suggest that, in terms of success, we see the scale as a series of descriptions, that could be employed by the DM to the player, without actually describing the actual roll that would be needed for success (we do want the wager to have an uncertain quality, though the rule must be rigorously adhered to by the DM ~ no fudging!).  Slopes can be "safe," "easy," "chancy," "tense," "tricky," "risky," "hazardous," "improbable" and "impossible."  This gives us two wagers for each of four types (North American system) or eight wagers among eight types (European system).

In each case, we inform the players ahead of time that the way ahead "looks tricky" suggesting that there is a very reasonable probability that they won't succeed ~ perhaps guaranteeing failure unless someone with experience attempts it.  I should think "tricky" would be the most dangerous an amateur should probably attempt - anything above that is bound to mean a serious fall or accident.

Now, this is the sort of thinking that I'm encouraging where it comes to making rules for anything.  Start by describing how the players might solve the problem (assessing the mountain before climbing); then, defining the structure of the problem (dangers mountains possess, nature of mountain routes).  If possible, use established ideas from professionals dealing with those problems in the real world.  Then, figure out a way to map it (pattern string based on danger code) and then to communicate that map to the players in a way that enables them to make multiple decisions over the course of the adventure.

Then, having established this framework, we can go ahead and add other details, events, monsters, problems and obstacles, in keeping with the motivation-adventure path I described last month.

What's missing from the above are the multiple results that might arise out of failure - and success too, which might increase the character's ability to climb and assess other mountains, as well as perhaps an experience adjustment for characters making mistakes and taking damage.  I'm going to forego this, as I'm starting to get involved in another project.  I don't know if I'll come back to this making a rule series ~ right now, I don't see much else to say about it.  I am open to questions, however, and as readers know, questions tend to inspire me to go deeper into subjects (the adventure path link was the result of a reader's question, nyet?).

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Time Out: the Story Generator

While the Gentle Reader considers the mountain problem, I'll take a post to explain why truth is stranger than fiction.  In the process, I shall also explain why a sports event is vastly more popular than a theatre showing.

When creating a story, a writer will have some idea of the narrative's direction and sense.  However, the creation process itself is informative, and occurs over time ... and therefore, while pursuing the original idea, the writer will have moments of inspiration, will recognize problems in the narrative as conceived and will therefore cull and rewrite portions of the story into something else.  The final product is uncertain.

This uncertainty is an encouragement to the creators.  Artists will often speak of wanting to know how a project will come out, recognizing that they can't actually know.  In a sense, writing is like reading very, very slowly, and deeply, with the story taking much longer than a few sittings to resolve itself.

Once the story is presented to the audience, in whatever form, they, too, have no definite certainty of how the narrative will end.  They may guess, based on experience with reading and clues left by the creator, but there remains a pleasant uncertainty that compels the reader to complete the work.

Obviously, some readers won't finish.  The story does not appeal to them, or they are not sufficiently experienced to read the context of the work, so they quit and move onto another activity.  For the purpose of this post, acknowledging this, the fact of it is unnecessary to the point being made.

Once we have read a book, the uncertainty is much reduced.  Some books retain enough uncertainty, after they've been read, to encourage us to read them again, and thus learn things from the narrative that we had missed, or which are now informed by having read the whole story.  We do know, however, that the end result is a finite uncertainty.  No matter how much we might wish for it, further readings will never equal our first experience.

The strongest benefit of a written story is that it is a shared experience.  Not only with others who hear the story with us, but even with the dead, who described the story as they enjoyed it ... and with those yet unborn, who will one day learn of the story and become part of the club.  As I liked stories as a child, I shared them with my child, and will one day share them with my grandchildren ~ and they, in turn, may do the same.

But the story itself doesn't change.  It can't change.  It can be written into a new story, like a zombie version, or it can be added upon, but these are really just desperate attempts to revivify the original.  The original is what it is; it will never be different.  And because of that, at some point, it can no longer change what we are; it can't make us different.

Real life is nothing like a story, because no matter how many times we may view the experience, it is never the same.  We draw samenesses between events because we're human and we need to protect ourselves; if we break a bone that we broke once before, in the same way, we tell ourselves that it's the same; but it isn't.  The bone we've broken isn't fictional; no one wrote that experience; it just happened, in a completely uncertain way that is, the more we think about it, more and more frightening.  By pretending that the world is the same every day, we comfort our fear.

When we leave our house, we can never be certain we will return.  Today, we may not.  Or we may return changed forever, perhaps in ways that we would rather not consider.  Ever.  Today may be very, very, very different.  That is uncertainty.

This is the uncertainty the story-maker experiences when writing the story; through no fault of the writer, the story may change, because events around the writer changes the writer's perception.  Story-making is a game, not a narrative.  It is a game because it hasn't happened yet.  Because it is uncertain.

When we watch a sports event, there are many things about the event that will be similar ~ but no one, not the players, not the referees, not the audience, no one ~ knows what may happen.  Because this is real.  The experience is not limited to what happens on the field, or the scope of the stadium.  This may be the day the game ends with everyone dying in an earthquake.  We can't know.

We are more compelled by what we don't know than what we do.  Uncertainty, however frightening, makes the best experience.  A story may give this to us, to some degree, the first time; but it will never give it to us in the sense that real life can.

This is why a rule set, the kind that enables endless uncertainty, is better than a "story."  Because a rule set is a story generator.

Write a man a story and he will enjoy himself for a day.  Teach a man how to write stories and he will enjoy himself for a lifetime.

Friday, November 10, 2017

How to Write a Rule: Theoretical Frameworks

I went looking for a video that would explain theoretical frameworks with wonderful images and conceptual relationships, like this video explaining changing education paradigms ... unfortunately, theoretical frameworks are not sexy.  In fact, they're mostly explained by very, very dull sociology PhDs trying to encourage graduate students to use them.  I watched three of these torture-scapes.  I would not recommend sitting through the whole of that last link, nor any link associated with it.

Basically, a theoretical framework is what our grade 4 teacher tried to make us understand about writing essays: that the point is not to just give information, but to research in order to determine what part of the content is yet uncertain.  Why, for instance, did the Roman Empire collapse?  The essay is an attempt to answer that question.  Part of the essay should explain why the answer is feasible, or possible, and how precisely that it makes a contribution to existing arguments that have already been made.

No one expects a 4th grader to produce a contribution: but we do expect graduate students to do so, even if it is a very, very small contribution to a very, very negligible part of the discipline.  At least it's a contribution. If we're not making a contribution, there's no point.  It would only prove that we know what others know; and that's what your undergraduate degree was for.  We expect more if you're going to keep studying.

Okay, putting this in the context of games.  You're settling down to make a new rule, or set of rules, for a game or a new game you're designing.  The principles are the same.  We want to know, what problem is this rule meant to solve?  How will it fit into an existing framework, so that it works with other rules?  Why is your approach to the rule feasible, or practical?  And, finally, how does your rule make a contribution to the game itself?

If your rule seems to solve a problem that other rules have already solved, and you can't explain to others why that's not the case, then you've failed.  If your rule wrecks other rules that work to solve their problems, then you've failed.  If the implementation of your rule is difficult and hard to understand, or so time consuming that players won't use it, you've failed.  Your rule has to contribute, not obscure, undermine or confuse.  If you're not clear on how your rule contributes, your thinking process is muddled.

Let's look at the creation of a rule as an example.  For this, I'll choose a rule that I haven't written; and is, in fact, a problem I haven't solved.

The problem:  As part of an adventure, the players are faced with climbing a mountain that will enable them to reach the lair or a creature, or the entrance of a dungeon.  The mountain, perhaps within a range of mountains, is steep and dangerous.  The characters have no specific mountain climbing abilities.

The proposed contribution:  The mountain-climbing experience will be interesting, immersive and ultimately a game in itself, providing the players with the some of the tension we would expect them to have if they had to actually climb the mountain.

The problem has not, to the best of my knowledge, been solved.  I have run into other mountain-climbing rules, but these are generally flat and lifeless and feature details focused on measuring distance, not providing a legitimate immersive experience.  Remember, what we're looking for is Bogost's procedural rhetoric. Furthermore, the rule has to fit into existing rules: so we can't change the character-design by adding extra pieces and logic that doesn't then fit into the rest of the system, nor can we change rules about falling, nor adjust varying rules applying to dexterity benefits and the thief's ability to climb walls (which, it must be noted, are very different from sheer rock surfaces).  To be immersive, the rule also has to fit the player's actual personal experience with rock climbing in the real world, at that experience is also a "rule" that has to be reflected in the rules we write.  Finally, the rules can't be excessively complicated or incompatible with the ideal of "tense, thrilling danger."  Too many rolls, too many calculations, too much problem solving will ruin the proposed contribution.

Ideally, I think it should be possible to resolve the mountain-climbing experience in about 30-45 minutes; if the rule-system is elaborate enough to allow creativity, and the procedure direct and easy-to-understand, something that would take as long to play a hard game of chess would fit our goal.

That's a high bar.  But if you're not willing to compete at this level, take your ball, go home, stop game designing.  You're not suited for this.

What structure is needed?  That's what I spoke about in the last Rule post:

  • How do we incorporate time and space into the system, in order to let the players control the experience without relying upon random rolls that serve as a pass/fail result?  What sort of preparation can the players make regarding the mountain that will change the parameters of their experience? How will their control of time and space eventually lead to the wager they'll have to make on surviving the challenge?
  • How many paths up the mountain can we provide?  Can we do this without having to map the entire mountain, which would only mean having to map the next mountain and the mountain after that.  What designs can we incorporate into the rules that will make the mountain's structure fit into the rule set as a random collection of possible surfaces/routes, so that: a) before the players climb, they can pick a route; and b) during the climb, they can learn about the environment well enough to strategize upon risking a different route?  How many times can this decision be incorporated into the rule system?
  • Can we get along without a single death-save die roll?  Can we minimize the number of rolls, hinging them on the player's decisions, or increase the number of rolls with really ridiculously low chances of failure?  If the players are moving along a ledge, and are forced to make ten rolls to succeed, and each has only a 1 in 500 chance of failure, does that increase or decrease the immersive quality of each roll?  We can either start with a minimal number of rolls, increasing their frequency as the players make bad decisions, or we can start with an excessive number, decreasing rolls as the players make good decisions.
  • How many effects can we include in the results?  There's more to lose than lives; there's equipment, loss of hit points, loss of body parts (if it is very cold, frostbite), the inability to act (forcing someone else to save the victim), a chance of being separated from others, unconsciousness, delusion, hunger, thirst, a loss of spirit to go on and whatever else we can include.
  • What rewards can we provide apart from the success of reaching the obvious goal?  What else can be found or learned on the mountain?  What skills can be acquired from the ordeal?  What status can be gained, if there are others coming along or others who know of the party's intent?
  • And for those who will perceive the problem can be solved with magic, what updrafts, steady winds and dangers might be present for those who believe they can simply fly or levitate their way to the top?  If a teleportation spell is used, are the players then trapped on the mountain top until the spell can be reused, unable to get down, because they don't know the best route?  Being D&D, we want to consider issues like this as well.

Always, the manner in which these questions can be answered best rests in solid, detailed research into actual mountain climbing.  Considerable research.  And a great deal of brainstorming.

Let's leave it here for the time being.  Give it some thought.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

I Won't Be Here Forever

You can see from the monitor that I'm all right.  I am not now in the hospital, though I was this morning ~ I was there to find out what was going on ... and the doctor decided to find out if I'd had a heart attack or a stroke, because I had experienced a steady pain in my high left side starting the evening before.

There seemed no reason for panic.  The doctor was just being sure; but I took advantage of the situation and took a selfie.  What the hell.  Sorry if the nipple offends; I have a secret desire to be as infamous as Janet Jackson.

Judging by the various displays and the doctor's feelings about it, I'm good to last for some time yet.

The problem, as it turned out, is interstitial bruising of the inside of my rib cage wall, probably from the heartburn and sustained stomach acid attack I experienced yesterday, which went on for five very unpleasant hours.

I'd just like to finish that the 2.25 hour hospital visit I had this morning, with an EEG, bloodwork, and the use of an emergency bed, was free.  Paid for by my fellow Canadians and myself.  Thank you all.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

How to Write a Rule: Deconstruction

Deconstruction is the thing.  It makes sense to start with a rule that works, deconstruct that rule and see what we can learn from that.

Demonstrably, the most successful rule set in D&D has been the combat system, though many people argue that from the view that it is boring or that it fails to meet an imposed simulationist "standard."  Here I'm going to resist getting into the details of the various systems that have now resulted from multiple rule changes, concentrating on the rule system's fundamental precepts.  And let me just take a moment to add that these precepts do not just apply to D&D, but to most table-top role-playing games that seek to resolve a physical confrontation between combatants, regardless of the tech of weapon.  That is because the principles are universal: to hit something, there has to be a determination of hitting; once a hit has occurred, there has to be a determination of effect; because things are attempting to hit, or attempting to avoid being hit, there is movement, so there must be a determination of location and a comparison between these locations that awards opportunity; and because the world is cluttered, there must be a determination of obstacles, surfaces and physical restraints on movement, and therefore on the opportunity to hit, the chance of hitting and the effect of hitting.

I expect most of my readers already know this, but for those who are younger, who are perhaps less inclined to read, who just have not taken the time to explore the issue, I'll make the point that the combat system came before the role-playing idea.  Gygax, Perrin and others developed a set of rules they called Chainmail, enabling them to play a strategy game involving armor and medieval weapons.  Long before they published, they had hundreds of hours of experience with their own combats, with representing cardboard chits as game units.  Despite this low-level immersive quality, they could not help noticing themselves that when certain chits managed to survive battles with unusual frequency, they began to do something very human: they anthropomophized those chits.  The "survival" was nothing more than the argument I made a couple of weeks ago: that an audience full of standing people flipping coins, sitting down when they roll a tails, will eventually produce a phenomenon where one random audience member will remain standing, flipping head after head with astounding consistency.  This is called a statistical anomaly and happens with terrific frequency when a really large number of variables collects.

The combat system of Chainmail produced enough variables that it seemed unlikely to the participants that one particular combatant could survive so many battles, when random numbers seemed to indicate a more likely death.  The participants began giving these chits names and of course personalities ... and this in turn led to the creation of rules that would enhance the legitimacy of those personalities, a process that culminated in the crude, simple rule systems that produced the first role-playing games.

This is why I say that the rules surrounding the combat rules are demonstrably the best rule concept in the game, as no other rules that have come since then have succeeded in producing a similarly independent, wide-spread game culture out of the RPG phenomenon.  Some might argue "role-playing" itself, except that this is a result of the combat system and remains dependent on the combat system to support the consequences of in-game conflicts.

Why, then does the combat idea work?  It is sometimes argued that combat is based on a negative/positive result: one either wins or loses, based on the die roll, and that is a weak rule idea.  I have argued as much myself, on many occasions.  However, this is a gross simplification of the combat system as it stands.  Success does not rely on "a" negative/positive result, but upon scores of said results, as many as 20 to 50 results per round, depending on the size of the combat and the complexity of the given system.  This multiplicity of negative/positive results produces a statistical normality, in which anomalies occur that themselves produce unlikely and therefore exciting effects.

Let's look at the four points about all combat systems that I touched briefly:

  • Combatants are located in time and space; this location offers opportunities for strategy in the way they are free to shift, approach, collect into groups in order to improve their tactical superiority, back away, and play with how much time they have to prepare before actual combat occurs.  Since preparation of equipment and powers is an important feature in how combat is resolved, more time, won through careful movement strategy, greatly increases survivability.
  • Combatants must obtain an opportunity to attack defenders, whether through closing quickly and enabling the cut off of preparation by opponents, or using weapons that can be employed at a distance, so that defenders or would-be attackers can be eliminated at a safe distance.  Opportunity is mitigated by the ease of movement over the battlescape, or obfuscated by solid features or movable debris, so that the actual problem of obtaining opportunity when it is wanted is a strategic goal.
  • Once opportunity is obtained, combatants are forced to resolve the "wager" of attempting combat by actually rolling dice, a matter that can be modified by preparation and opportunity, but which is ultimately subject to the statistical probability and anomaly of random numbers.  Wagers are paid off by successful hits, while losses are applied to the reduction of further opportunity and the fact of giving the opponent a chance to determine if their wager to hit might pay off.
  • The effects of winning wagers, where a hit occurs, are then widespread and extraordinarily varied, challenging the struck combatant to survive the hit, have the opportunity to return the hit again and make the decision if "breaking off" from the combat isn't the better strategy.  Scattered along a line of a dozen combatants, each particular combatant's response to the effect of being hit has great potential for creating emotional immersion [as does the winning of successful wagers to hit].
To these we can add a fifth effect, those who will take this collection of combat results and choose to react immersively to these results, shouting that "I'm going to kill him!" or "Fuck, one more like that and I'm dead!"

This is the combination of rule-creation that we're vying to achieve ~ but not to worry, no one expects this sort of success, not even the original makers, who more or less stumbled into this because they had access to a number of technological improvements in the late '60s that enabled this breakthrough.  The combat game mechanic from D&D worked because a) it was logical in its use; b) it returned an emotional/visceral effect; and c) it was easy to adjust and expand, as desired.  It still is.

If we want to learn from it, what are the takeaway lessons?
  • Incorporate time and space into the rule structure, in a manner than enables the player to control these factors to some effect, without this being a random roll.  Ensure that the players have an opportunity to prepare in some meaningful way, that will promise an adjustment to the wager they will eventually have to roll in order to see if they succeed in what they're doing.
  • Where possible, produce more than one possible path towards success.  Just as combat includes elements such as missile weapons, spells, the use of animals, the structure in which groups interact together and so on, in addition to stepping forward and swinging, ensure that the rule system you're creating enables the player to create a strategy that doesn't rely on one single obvious course of action.
  • Minimize the effects of die rolls while maximizing the number of rolls, so that life/death or success/failure depends upon a statistical collection of results, rather than a single flat roll.  Obviously, in many cases, there should be a natural limitation to how many rolls are practical (or how many details can be meaningfully be rolled for); the goal is to find just enough rolls, with mitigating wagers, that make the activity interesting.
  • Make the effects of winning and losing wagers interesting.  Just as varying forms of combat has the chance of reducing hit points, ability scores, potential for movement, consciousness and location, seek to remove points from various stockpiles in the player's possession, including wealth, status, health and associates.
  • Produce a reward that encourages the players to return for the promise of that reward again and again.  The rewards of combat are varied and drive the entire game.  Even if your rewards are that phenomenal, try to make them as meaningful as possible for the player's experience.
  • Always direct your rule systems towards immersion.  If the player does not feel like they are actually experiencing the effects of the system as if they were real, to at least some degree, then your rule system needs more work.
To do this, you will need to construct a theoretical framework.  This is where we will begin with the next post.