Saturday, March 31, 2018

The Beast Fight

The following sequence arose from events played out over several posts, between February 2 to 7, 2018. Links for the posts are included in the text below.

After the last post, Investigating the Stairs, we're in the position to deconstruct the combat that followed. This is a particularly example: the players made no particular errors, the dice fell against them for quite a lot of it, the situation was very tense for far too long and the party was able to pull themselves out of an extraordinary tailspin, barely avoiding a total-party-kill. All things that make this a combat worth examination.

The participants in the combat were Embla the assassin; Lothar the ranger; Engelhart the cleric; Pandred the fighter. These were supported by Bergthora and Fjall, two hirelings. A third hireling, Willa, was far away, watching a distant "front door." My plan was to have Willa appear in the 11th round (if the combat lasted that long, which I did not expect), to tell the party that the owners of the lair had returned, somewhat trapping the party in the lair (though a backdoor was available).

Half of this discussion will cover what is happening from round to round; the other half, I hope, will cover the antagonist's motives against the party, the setting for the combat and the dilemmas presented as the combat was resolved.

The enemy was a "dog-Beast": a huge, eight-and-a-half foot tall humanoid with a dog's head and great long claws. The Beast received two attacks per round: it could attack with its teeth and with one claw. I recognize that most monster descriptions tend to make most beasts ambidextrous, but I will often limit a less intelligent, agile monster to the use of only one or the other hand, not both. That was the case here. The bite caused 2-16; the claw, 1-8. There was a special ability. If the bite rolled a natural 20, it caused triple damage on the hit. That was a potential quick kill, however unlikely.

At the start of the fight, Embla had failed to kill the Beast outright; however, she had succeeded in reducing the Beast to a total of 24 hit points, a fact kept secret from the party. By my rules, if one quarter of a defender's present hit points are removed by a single hit, that defender is "stun-locked" ~ for one round. This is modified if the defender has two attacks. An attack causing a quarter of the Beast's hit points reduces the Beast to one attack (a claw); to remove both attacks, a third of the Beast's hit points would have to be lost in damage. From this, I can explain that a single hit of 6 damage would be sufficient to reduce the Beast's combat effectiveness to a claw attack only; a single hit of 8 damage would be enough to stop the Beast from attacking at all (for one round). In this way, several good rounds by a party against a relatively weak defender can quickly end a fight. And this was a weak defender (it has been severely injured in may fights, evidenced by the pool of blood).

Round 1: the party rushes in to engage the Beast
The fight begins with Embla immediately adjacent to the Beast. The rest of the party rushes in, but spend their round closing with the Beast. Lothar, Fjall and Bergthora are too far away to reach the room, but can be seen on the stairs. Pandred shouts that the party needs to spread out; she knows that if the party is tripping over each other, this will limit their potential attacks. As seen in the image, she can't get at the Beast between Embla and Engelhart. Lothar expresses his excitement: "Looking forward to putting this thing down!" These are the typical sounds that we've all come to associate with combat; even with playing by comments on a blog, the excitement in the air is palpable.

continued elsewhere...

This is the second of two such posts I will be writing in the month of March for the Tao's Master Class blog, where the rest of this post can be found. Examples on the Tao of D&D blog can be found here and here.

To see the rest of this post, you must pledge at least $3 to my Patreon account. This will enable you to see all material to date on the Master Class, or you can use the sidebar to dedicate $3 to me right now.  The latter will permit you to see the content as soon as I confirm the donation.  If you wait later than today to pledge, you will have to wait until the 1st of May, before seeing any content.  Do be kind.  It took me nearly 7 hours to write the 5,800 words of this post.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

The Service-Oriented Perspective

In an upcoming podcast, recorded some weeks ago and as yet not released, the guest and I discussed a problem that I deliberately did not try to answer: that being, what methodology can we employ that enables the DM to prep an adventure?

This post is going to seem like a strange approach, as I won't be using the typical nomenclature associated with RPGs.  Frankly, I don't think a sufficient nomenclature exists on that account.  So instead I will be talking about the problems of designing an adventure from a business perspective.  No doubt, this will lose me some interest among some of my readers ... but if you will bear with me, I will try to offer a different interpretation that will get you from a blank page to the structural necessities of adventure building.

Let's start by understanding what the adventure IS.  We have a tendency to think of "an adventure" as a static, stand-alone entity, the final result of the design process.  It would be much better for us if we thought of the adventure as an application.  The purpose of the adventure is to interface with the player, or client, who will then be serviced by the adventured application in a variety of ways.  These services exist to provide the client with a number of benefits, as defined by the needs of the client.

Now, this may seem like an unnecessary exchange of terms, but consider the implications.  As a DM, you're not creating a finished product: you're creating an ongoing service provider.  If we think of the player as a client, we can correctly see how the application works within the game format: the client receives the benefits of the application, which exists to provide those benefits.  On the whole, this is an accurate description of "player," as the player interacts with the interface of the adventure ... but we've grown complacent about the terms adventure and player that we've lost much of their meaning.

If we can embrace this perspective then, we can see that the task at hand is not to create a "story," or narrative, which is a hard-to-grasp abstract idea.  The task is to create services that the client will appreciate.  A service is an intangible process that may, or may not, cause a tangible product to be transmitted to a client.  For example, in role-playing terms, the tangible product could be anything that enables a definable upgrade to the character.  This might be increased power, wealth, experience, status and so on.

The service, then, is the process by which the client receives those things.  Just as a barista provides coffee as a service (the barista pours it for you), the DM provides further benefits to the client through processes like combat, role-playing, exposition or impediments.

As I say, this may sound at first glance that I am further complicating the issue, but I assure you I am not.

The goal is to create an adventure; the adventure is a collection of services that are coordinated to increase anything that the player wants.  So as we start the adventure in our minds, we can selectively choose a service which will get the ball rolling.

For example, a combat, which is a service.  The combat creates a trial, which the players (in some campaigns) will enjoy.  The resolution of the combat provides opportunities for the DM to impart whatever we need to entice the players into further action: reward, the promise of more reward, exposition, the acquisition of enemies, an opportunity to speak with the vanquished foe or any other entity who might be a witness, or learn about it after the fact, or otherwise obtaining anything the either helps or hinders the party's experience.

All of these things are services:

  • Rewards enhance the players' feeling of accomplishment and empower the player's potential for further acquisition.  This services the party's benefit.
  • Promise of reward whets the party's appetite for further acquisitions.  This services the party's interest and ambition. 
  • Exposition expands the party's conception of their involvement in the local affairs, or "story," which has been introduced by the initial service.  This services the party's involvement and immersion.
  • Acquisition of enemies services the party's sense of drama, problem-solving reflex and desire for tension.
  • Speaking with a vanquished foe creates emotional responses of compassion (if the foe did not deserve to die), sense of justice (if the foe is demonstrated to be truly evil), suspicions (if the foe's motivation is left in doubt) or a wide number of other emotional responses.  This services the party's need to reconsider/review their actions, inspiring introspection, which again provides for the problem-solving reflex.
  • Another entity acting as a witness gives a voice to condone or condemn the party's actions, offering praise, threats, indifference, a desire to use the party to its own ends, quiet revenge or whatever.  This, again, services the party's need to feel involved in the adventure.
  • Aid that Helps the party builds trust, confidence, security and a reason for bravery, servicing the party's willingness for further involvement.
  • Frustrations that hinder the party builds doubt, uncertainty, regret, despair ... servicing the party's need to feel that their actions, even those that stand against them, have consequence.  It is important that the party feels they will be held accountable for their errors; as this accountability encourages them not to err.
These are not static end results.  These are ongoing processes, within the application of the adventure, which can be added, switched around, shifted in tone, muted, intensified and flipped, depending on the party's actions from hour to hour or session to session.  If we think of "role-playing" as a service by which we contribute to the party's knowledge and decision-making process, rather than as a static support beam for an ending we already have planned, we can see how providing the party with information through conversation/conflict with a given entity is only part of the application being applied.

I could just as easily start the adventure with role-playing.  Information is offered at the outset that causes the party to feel interested, concerned, greedy, disconcerted, emotionally ill ... whatever we design the specific information being relayed to convey.  A fellow near the party begins an account of little children being ripped apart by wolves, without ever directly conversing with the party.  However, the manner in which the information is relayed provides the response.  The teller is angry; the teller is graphically descriptive; the teller is indifferent, as if it doesn't matter that children have died; the teller is pleased that these particular children have died.  Or any mix of the above, plus any other idea that jumps into our imagination.

I can start the adventure with a frustration.  The party is denied access; or an opportunity; or outright treated with vehemence.  I can also start the adventure with a gratuity.  The party is chosen from a crowd for a legitimate opportunity; or as likely beneficiaries of lands the local lord wishes to be settled; or as competitors in a light-hearted game, without direct consequences ... but which may lead to role-playing, or a misunderstanding, or a mishap that the players might appear to have caused.

Adventures may escalate from the least situations.

The possibilities are really endless.  The key here is to remember that the service, be it combat, role-playing and so on, is to provide something tangible in the short run, while promising/suggesting something bigger and even more tangible in the long run.  Each service then suggests the next service of which the client, er, player, might wish to take advantage.

The DM can, therefore, does not need to create a whole adventure.  The first effort is to create a single service that enables a decision: do we go or not; do we like this or not; are we scared or not; does this upset us or not; and so on.  Then, depending on which choice the players make, we can reintroduce the original service in a bigger, less subtle manner, suggesting it dare not be ignored; or we can introduce an entirely different decision that might produce a more fertile possibility for the DM to build upon thereafter.

Without a whole adventure to create, the blank piece of paper seems much less daunting.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Fuck Apple

I have been asked repeatedly the last two days if I intend to steam the podcast through iTunes.  I'm not a fan of Apple for many reasons, not the least of which includes having to work on a Mackintosh once upon a time (for a five year period).  I've long believed that the best use of a Mackintosh tower, with its handle, would be as a boat anchor.

Podcast platforms are a scam.  It is a means by which a 3rd party gains access to my content, so they can place it on their platform, providing that content to the user.  If the number of minutes I require of the 3rd party's bandwidth reaches a certain point (and a podcast will reach that quickly), I will be asked to PAY the 3rd party for a service that youtube gives me for free.  Meanwhile, for my content, I get nothing from the user.  Nor does the 3rd party provide me with guaranteed views; I may get none.  That, the 3rd party will tell me, is MY fault.

So, why should I pay a 3rd party to do nothing for me, while profiting from me?  Because Apple, or some platform like it, is "prestigious."  They're a brand.  I'm supposed buy into that shit, that someone else's brand will automatically bring me views and attention.  That's how Apple and companies like them work.  They give nothing, they take, then they brand themselves as saints for giving the user "free" podcasts.

I understand the user's motivation, now that I've stumbled into this.  "I can't listen to youtube at work; but I can listen to my iPhone!  Yay.  I can listen to podcasts at work."

So the response to me becomes, "If you are a podcast-maker, you are responsible for making your podcasts available to me, when I need them.  That's just good business."

Yeah.  Apple's business.

The user should realize that it is perfectly easy to rip an mp3 off youtube.  And I don't care if you do. I'm concerned with the material being free. I don't care if you own a copy.  Hell, I'll create a copy and you can download it straight from my drive, if that's what you need.  And it won't cost you ANY bandwidth on your phone, period.

 I'm not concerned with the proliferation of copies; I'm concerned with two things:

1) That you enjoy the podcast and learn something about role-playing from it, that changes your way of thinking;
2) And that you remember who IS the content maker.  Not iTunes.  Not Soundcloud.  Me.

If that inconveniences you a little, because it breaks your hipster need to listen to everything through your precious iTunes, that's just tough.  There are other ways to have this content on your phone at work without my having to suck up to Apple.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Authentic RPG Podcast, with Sterling Blake

The first episode of the first series of podcasts ... communications with everyday role-playing DMs and GMs, as it pleases the reader.

After listening to the podcast, here's what you can do to support further episodes and ideas.

First and foremost, please thank Sterling Blake for taking part.  I haven't any links for him, but he's around a lot lately and he could do with both praise and good spirits.  I have tremendous respect for the fellow, he did a good job carrying the weight of the podcast and I think he deserves recognition.

Secondly, share.  I've asked readers to do that before, and gotten very little in return, but damn it, send the podcast in an email to at least one person ~ and then tell that one person to share the podcast with at least one person.  It's free, costs nothing but perhaps a little effort, no one will slight you for it and it will mean the world to me.  If you want the game community to be full of smug-faced assholes that tell you to fudge dice, sit on your ass and do nothing; but if you want people like Sterling to feel that there are others out there, just like them, then share the podcast.

Thirdly, a donation doesn't hurt.  I know most of you already give me plenty, so if you do, ignore this; but I went hard to the wall to make this podcast friendly and accessible to everyone, without my usual self having a role, and it wouldn't hurt to bend a penny or two in my direction for it, if you've never given me a sous before.  I would certainly appreciate that also.

I will have another podcast ready in one week's time, plus or minus the hours between ten o'clock Sunday and sometime Monday morning, Mountain Time.


The Superhero Flame War

I like films.  Enormously.  I don't really care what the subject of the film is, so long as it is done in a way that causes me to think, engages me emotionally and presents situations and characters that remain believable and rational.  I don't need to like the characters, such as a film like Nightcrawler, where I actively despised the character.  I don't need to identify with the characters, such as Temple Grandin, to whom I cannot relate at all.  The characters do not have to be recognizable; I don't have to have a previous association with them; I'm perfectly capable of meeting and falling in love with the characters upon my very first encounter, such as I felt in the film Hanna.  I can also find a movie brilliant even when I absolutely detest the actors, such as I felt when watching The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, with Ben Stiller.  Animated films can be brilliant and deserving of high praise, like The Croods or Wreck-It Ralph.  At the same time, I can also enjoy disturbing films, such as Suburbicon.  I don't care if a film is foreign, like the Swedish Girl with the Dragon Tattoo [more properly,  "Men Who Hate Women"] or the Quebecois Decline of the American Empire.  I rarely like a horror film, but I can usually respect something obscure, like the Japanese Audition.  I know of no genre that I can't name a film from that deserves to be seen several times.

Which is why I don't understand the knee-jerk hatred that has gathered around superhero films.

Superhero films are a genre.  Just as musicals were in the 1940s, horror films were in the 1950s, westerns in the 1960s, cop movies in the 1970s, slasher films in the 1980s and crippled-person films in the 1990s.  If the reader thinks there are "a lot" of superhero films around now, believe me, this is nothing compared to how much time was given to making films about gunslingers.  As a kid, there were at least ten hour-long dramas on television based on some western theme, and any given week featured one to three new western films.  This kind of innundation would be incomprehensible to a present audience.

Because I like film, I try to watch mostly everything that looks like it might be directed well or present those things I started with: intelligent dialogue, a meaningful conundrum, purposeful storytelling.  If I could leave it up to my personal opinion about these things, I would probably be happier.  Unfortunately, I can't.  I'm far, far too concerned with what others think ... and this leads me down the path of what other people think about films.  It's part of the meta-experience that pulls at me.

If you are like me, you have spent too much time watching opinionated people discussing what is right or wrong with either Marvel or DC films.  In this time, with the particular genre ruling the film-making experience at this time, the debate is never-ending.  Well, fear not.  I'm not going to write a post about what is what with this versus that.  Though believe me, I've tried.  I trashed those efforts.  There is an answer ... but I'm convinced that any attempt to isolate the answer would be a wasted effort.  I am coming to believe that the subjectivity of the audience has reached such a fever-pitch that all deconstruction of film culture is presently moot.

I can be convinced by argument to try a movie; and I can find that my convictions about a film can be changed, once I see the film.  I have a long list of films that I've liked, that I absolutely believed that I would never watch, or that I would absolutely hate.  The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is an excellent example.  As I said, I hate Ben Stiller.  Worse, I adored the original short story by James Thurber as a child, and I have long been a fan of the original movie from 1947, with Danny Kaye.  The idea that something by Ben-fucking-Stiller could be made, pissing on those memories, virtually guaranteed that I would never, ever, watch that goddamned film.

Then something sparked my interest.  I can't even remember what it was.  Some reference to the film on something I caught on a youtube video, suggesting it wasn't a remake.  Then a copy of the film came across my radar when I was still a provider-employee for video-on-demand; I was provided a free opportunity to watch it through the system and ... alone ... I watched it.

I can identify when my mind was changed about the film.  It was this shot right here:

This is less than a minute into the visual film.

As I've tried to explain, I have watched a lot of movies.  I know perfectly well that millions of people saw this shot at the beginning and got nothing whatsoever from it ... but there are several things in this shot that convinced me, viscerally, that I was not watching another fucking Zoolander.  And, as usually happens, it wasn't until the third or fourth time watching the film (been about eight times now) that I could identify why this shot jerked me out of my expectation and brought me around to watching the film with an open mind.

To begin with, the colors are muted.  I realize many people feel that muted colors are now some horrible evil in cinema; for me, the shadows across the building, the starkness of the details, the deliberate attempt to show an environment that isn't soothing or simple (there's a lot of jumble in this picture) is a refreshing sign that the film is going to be about something real.  This is helped by the very small touch of the film credit: New Line Cinema felt that it was appropriate for their efforts to be displayed in a moderate, nuanced manner.  When a film company does that, it says to me, "We care more about this film than we do about ourselves."  That is a rare sentiment and always welcome.

If there is an issue with the discussion and critique of superhero films just now, it is that plainly the reviewers care far, far more about themselves, their pretensions, they're sense of personal nostalgia and their need for pandering than they do about the films.  I am not "tired" of superhero films ... but I am tired of critics who seem to think that the media footprint of the character prior to the film matters.

Take the DC vs. Marvel conundrum ~ without, thank you, falling into that swamp.  Clearly, the Marvel films have been more successful.  That cannot be debated.  Individual films are commonly compared against one another, cherry-picked according to the pundit's personal agenda, but the overall success of Marvel's efforts in the last 10 years exists in an entirely different ballpark from DC's over the same period.  The internet is not wrong when they note that something has clearly happened here, and that it deserves study and interpretation.

However, that study needs to divorce itself from arguments like, "Are DC characters the equivalent of Marvel characters" or "Are the characters depicted by the movie studio accurate to what the characters were in the comics"?  These are meaningless, subjective, useless discussions that in no way move the needle towards understanding why what Marvel is doing works very well and why what DC/Warner is doing works ... not as well.

Warner is making movies that make both a cultural imprint and, mostly, money.  Warner is not failing.  It is not doing as well as Marvel, obviously; but in and of itself, if Marvel didn't exist, Warner's record would not be all that different from any company making movies about a particular genre over a ten-year period.  Movies succeed.  Movies fail.  What has to be remembered is that most movies find an audience; it takes a truly bad film not to do that.

I want here to go into a digression where I talk about the true obscurity of films that simply drift off everyone's radar, though the film might have, at one time, been considered a critical success.  I can pick any number of films from the 1970s, made in my lifetime, that have utterly disappeared from any discourse about film that I've seen in the last twenty years.  Julia, for example; or McCabe and Mrs. Miller.  Films that once people went to again and again when discussing something about film-making or storytelling.  Films that are never mentioned now; that make even a filmophile look archaic and out of touch with the world when mentioned [for the record, I categorically dislike both films, in every regard as films, chosen for that reason].  Films disappear because, despite the efforts of critics to make them popular, simply fail to be popular.  For a reason.

It generally isn't possible to say which films will drift out of social consciousness and which won't, with the passage of time.  I am increasingly of the opinion that the Oscars ought to be awarded to a collected group of nominees from twenty years ago, celebrating the films of 1997, not 2017; because at least there's a chance we might agree on something that has survived the test of time for at least twenty years.  How many of us, for example, really believe that The Shape of Water will be relevant in 2037?  How relevant is The Artist, from six years ago, now?  Heard anyone mention it lately?

DC/Warner films are finding an audience.  They're not finding as large of an audience as Marvel, however ... and there are reasons for that.  It is clear that the executives of Warner lack vision.  The Marvel films were started by a group that were expressly assembled to create one kind of movie.  Warner makes all kinds of movies, and so their motivations in movie making, as a studio, are different.  The particular elements of a celebrated character such as Batman are not substantially different to their bottom line as the celebrated characters of Paddington the Bear [Paddington 2], Rick Deckard [Bladerunner 2049], the events at Dunkirk, King Kong [Kong: Skull Island] or any of the other characters behind films that were made in 2017 (all of these were).  Warner Bros. cares that Justice League does well at the box office, but as a studio it does not care more about the film than it does about itself.

And that is the critical element.  Marvel's reputation mattered when Iron Man was made.  It's reputation continues to matter.  But "DC" was never a studio.  It was a group of products owned by a studio, whose reputation will survive as many profitable critical disasters as Warner is prepared to make.

It became clear, very early on in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, that this was a vanity project made by Ben Stiller (of all people), that was never expected to make serious money.  The movie was being made because the maker had a message, believed in it, and was prepared to see the message through, at great expense, whatever the consequences.  The film is quirky in parts; occasionally turns a joke that drops with a heavy thud; and is absolutely not trying to pander.  It breaks a lot of rules, about character, pacing, presentation and theme.  And it doesn't care.

It is easy to see, in numerous instances, that Marvel is doing something similar.  The questionable morality underlying the incredibly popular Black Widow character; the maladroit rudeness of Dr. Strange; the hokey un-American indifference of Captain America to by-the-book legalities; the callous selfishness of Tony Stark; these are all issues pounded upon by self-informed critics who fail to recognize the substantial basis for these characters: their likeability is irrelevant.  They don't exist to be liked.  They're not written for the sake of being popular.  They're being created according to the personal whims of a set of writers who have been encouraged to go their own way.

No cosplayer strutting around in a Black Widow catsuit (and at a game-con, that describes literally hundreds of women) fully embraces the character from identifying with the character.  That's supposed to be the Holy Grail of character creation, we are told: that an every-man or every-woman will be liked, because the audience will identify with that person.  It turns out, the audience really doesn't give a shit.  No one in the audience really imagines that they are like the character of Andy Dufresne from Shawshank Redemption; dour, bookish, in love with opera ... but they like the idea of him.  They like the idea that escape from prison is possible.  The audience likes ideas.  Characters exist to perform the idea.  On their own, most characters are awful.

Millions of man-boys love the idea of Batman; they love the idea of having so much money they can act however they wish; they like the idea of being able to beat up people, but being so righteous that they never kill anyone; they like the idea of being super-strong and never needing anyone, fulfilling their ultimate loner fantasies.  But none of those man-boys want to spend ten years reading books and taking courses to become the person of considerable intellect that Batman has to be; they don't actually want to live everyday in pain from the repeated fractured bones that Batman has sustained; they're not really comfortable with the alone part, which they don't actually have to experience in the film, because after a few minutes, something happens to Batman.  But they like the idea.  The idea of it is cool.

Unfortunately, the characters of Batman and Superman have become exhaustively explored and remade into marble monoliths ... the idea has stultified into a fetish.  The problem with a fetish is that, like the perfect girl in the perfect lingerie on the perfect bed in the perfect house, if it is done just a little bit wrong, it ruins the moment.  All she has do to is snort when she laughs and the boner goes away.

Warner understands that; and because it understands that, it can't afford to create too much product for too much money for an audience that no longer cares what story Batman or Superman are doing, as long as their boner isn't ruined.  There's no wiggle room.  There's no opportunity to give the product to a bunch of writers and say, "Do whatever feels right."  The chance to do that was already given twice.  It's too late now.

Marvel has the terrific benefit of blue skies.  Black Panther?  The Winter Soldier?  Thor?  Blue skies.  Whether they work or not, as characters, as movies, there's no marble plinth on their backs.  We can hate what Tony Stark stands for, we can scoff at Hawkeye's relevance, we can question the fundamental morality of Nick Fury ... but we can do so without a half-century of makes and re-makes.  Even the fanboys who love the comics, who hammer the anvil for the sake of the comics, can't manifest in large enough numbers to subvert the unrestrained willingness of a community of writers and filmmakers who are prepared to create characters who are free to exist as whatever they happen to be, pandering be damned.

More superhero films?  Sure.  Bring them on.  As long as they're good.  I enjoyed the 2017 Marvel films.  I have no doubt I'll enjoy the 2018 Marvel films.  It takes less than ten hours out of the year to watch them; I don't find that particularly irksome.  Not nearly as irksome as I would find watching anything that was nominated for an Oscar this year.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Club Me

I have thought of a different podcast that I might like to try.  I thought it might be a meaningful, constructive experience to have a guest who dislikes me, or at the very least dislikes everything I stand for, and have stood for, since starting this blog.

Now, I really love D&D.  I enjoy the game, I enjoy the set-up for the game, I enjoy the meta-game behind the actual game play.  Of late, I have been enjoying letting other people talk about their games, letting them speak freely, and without criticism, about things I would normally reproach.  I don't say this has changed me, but ... I do think that this particular angle on the activity of role-playing games is intensely authentic.

So we disagree.  So what.  I'm prepared to put myself in front of the gun, in public, so long as my acccuser is able to be polite, erudite, reasonable, exacting in their criticism and potentially willing to stand for a friendly, impersonal debate.  And to be honest, I doubt at this point that the last would be anything more than the product of banter, as people are likely to disagree with one another once a subject reaches a certain death.

I'll be fair in my editing; I will cut out personal comments about me but not about my opinions: and before the podcast goes up, I will allow you to sign off on it.

So, what say?  Good for a clubbing on the grouchiest bastard in RPGs?

Friday, March 23, 2018

Welcome Mat

My head is in a lot of places just now.

I haven't been working for five weeks, because the restaurant where I was cooking was closed for renovations.  [I'm back at work this Tuesday].  So each day, I wake up, I watch the news, I fix or edit video ... then I spend about four to six hours converting the wiki, taking a few minutes here or there to maintain the online campaign (which is moving slow, but steadily ~ I don't think I'm the only one that's distracted].

In the evening, I spend some time with other people or take a walk; then I work on whatever seems right.  I might do a blog post, like this one.  Or watch something [Black Mirror Season 4!]; but on the whole, almost all my fervor is directed to what problems might come up with editing and such.  I've learned a lot about sound I didn't know in the last two weeks.

Recently, I was pressed by a friend on the subject of a "landing page" ~a home base for my content that wouldn't rely on my main blog, this one.  After all, I'm accumulating a lot of differently located content.  There's this blog, the wiki blog and the master class blog.  And the online campaign.  There's my patreon page ... and on that page are the 38 comics I did last year, which deserves its own home.  There are four books that could also stand a link.  Now I'm adding the Authentic podcast; and there's the old short-lived podcast with my daughter.  There are a few videos connected to my youtube page.  Then there's the stuff everyone has: twitter and facebook; and maybe google+, which I ignore.  I suppose I could add to that stuff that's on my google drive, plus the content that's available for a $10 or $20 donation on Patreon.  That's a lot of links there, scattered through different platforms and easily misplaced or forgotten.  Plus I have more links in mind for things I haven't launched yet.

So a landing page would bring them all together in one place.  As it happens, I possess a website url of my own:  At the moment, it links to my Lulu page, but of course I can change that.  So I'm in a position to create a landing page when I want one.

With the exception that I don't program.  A minor inconvenience.

A landing page needs a layout ... and I really am not interested in something wix is designed to create for me:

But it does put me in mind for something that might be appropriate to D&D.  I like the idea of clicking on icons, like the sidebar of this blog, where a click will take you to my book, How to Run.  Having a frame that surrounds the various links, presented as images, seems like something that would work ... and the most obvious frame that occurs to me would be a dungeon.  Not as cluttered and hokey as this:

... but certainly something that I could draw myself, upon which the links could float, inside rooms connected by hallways and other imagery.  Even better, the actual image could be larger than the canvas of the webscreen, so that as the mouse was panned to the left, right, up and down, following halls, it would lead to additional links, that could be "discovered" ... that notion supported by signs and clues that I could draw in the halls and behind "secret doors."

I don't want to gamification it, but it would be nice to play a little.  A bigger frame, too, could make the overall presentation less cluttered and more interesting.  I've been assured this is "easy."  The way xkcd did it with this comic.  No where near as big as that.

So, just some thoughts for the future.  Making it happen is another thing apart from conjecture, but it is obviously an inevitable stage.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Hard Date, 26th of March

Okay, I can say with near-certainty that I will be posting the first podcast, an interview with a fellow from Maine, on the 26th of March.  Podcasts will follow once a week after that, for as long as they last.  There may be an opportunity to record others, as I don't have 13 episodes to round out the season ... or I may set up some other agenda (depending on the feedback I get) and record it.  It took just three days to make a solid edit of one podcast, which sounds perfectly natural, with enough professionalism to make it comfortable but not so much that it detracts from the pure, authentic quality of the material.

Which is just what I wanted.

For guests of the podcasts, I'll let you know the air dates for your interviews the moment I know for sure what order the episodes will be aired.  I'll get my best impression from the edit; I have a good idea who I want to follow whom, but until I'm actually listening and cutting, I won't be absolutely certain.

Not much else I can say.  I wish I could post the podcast right now, like I would a blog post ... but I'll listen to advice and hold off.  I do hope it proves beneficial for listeners.  I ask you to share it around, get others listening, post links to the podcasts on your blogs, on game sites ~ what the hell, even on reddit.  Lot of people in gaming are reddit fans, and I often get page views on the blog from something someone posted there.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Pushing a Rock

In the process of moving my wiki, I have completely moved all the pages that are associated with sage studies ... that is, general subject headings that serve as categories for specific abilities that the players would possess.

For example, one sage study might be "Scouting," something that rangers possess.  And under that heading would be a number of orientation and survival abilities, such as hunting, pathfinding, sheltering, making fire and so on.  Ideally, each of these abilities will have rules that explain how they can be used by the characters: how much food hunting provides, or what sheltering is, or how to make a fire from raw materials, and so on.

Now, I notice that many readers quite like these studies and abilities; several people have told me in the past that they use them in their campaigns, and I often hear someone write that they would like me to "finish" the sage abilities list.  Which is a lovely, lovely thought.

But I'd like to take this moment to point out that, having added sage abilities to all the classes, I now have a total of 80 subject headings.  Please chew on that for a while.  And then please realize that most subject headings are expected to have between 10 and 15 sage abilities attached to them, minimum.  That's somewhere in the neighborhood of 800 to 1,200 separate abilities that I need to write.

Nor is that necessarily the end number.  Any ability of any kind can be created out of thin air, if it makes sense that a player of a certain knowledge level ought to have it.  So I am basically creating a list of every skill known to humans, and then making rules for those skills.

This is a lot of time, and effort, and imagination, and thorough research, supported by a willingness to keep coming up with more and more content as it presents itself, and not quitting out of having a simple rational perspective.

Therefore, I think it needs to be explained that ALL this content on the wiki about sage abilities is FREE, and that I am under no obligation to finish any of it, ever.  Not that I'll quit.  But I do think it is damned inconsiderate for some readers to specifically ask for MORE of this content, when they are not ready to give me a simple donation for what I've done so far and to help pay for the time I would have to spend in the future in order to satisfy their expectation.

This sage abilities stuff is pretty damn freaky.  It is an incomprehensible concept, really, that only exists now through sheer stubbornness on my part.  I never want to charge for it, I encourage people to use it, steal it, incorporate it into their campaigns, freely and openly, because I think it makes all the principles underlying what a player can do with knowledge more rational and user-friendly, for everyone's benefit.

But please, please, don't press me to do more, or push to make me feel guilty because it isn't done yet, or use words like "your only major complaint" to describe how you rate my unwillingness to finish this Sisyphean task.  Unless you want to help me find the time by giving me financial support.

Otherwise, it is simply rude.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Podcast Dates (soft)

Barring a connection with a DM that we couldn't reconcile, that we might yet solve, I've now completed my interviews for the podcast.  After the first few, it seemed rational for me to leave off actual publication of any of the dialogues I've had until all the interviews were recorded in the blind; with no one knowing what anyone else had said about their games, their ideas or their methods.

I think it is an excellent sample of DMs.  These people are, I would stress, authentic.  They're not running their own channels and they're not dependent on what the internet thinks ... so they're not trying to impress anyone or make themselves look cool, like virtually every pundit with a vlog.  I'm very glad of the choices I made in questions, framing the interviews and setting up the content to be cut and ultimately presented.

Just now, I'm treating the 26th of March as a soft date for the first podcast.  I haven't got a single episode fully cleaned up yet, but I feel confident that I can have the first ready in 5 to 10 days, for certain.  I had time off from work in order to set up for the interviews, but I'll be going back to work so I won't have all day to work on editing (or on the wiki, as I've been enjoying).  Still, I feel confident that, once I'm organized and a little practiced on the editing, I can turn out one podcast a week for as long as the recordings last.  They won't be published online in the same order as recorded.  I want to move them around to get a good mix from week to week.

If I miss the March 26th date, I will certainly be good to go the first Monday in April, which is the 2nd.

I haven't said how many podcasts I will be putting up with this "season" ~ most likely, less than ten.  I'm not giving any definite numbers until I cut them.  Any that don't get published will be on account of the production quality, and not the content ... on the whole, I've been happy with every single podcast, in terms of what was said and what was presented.  But there are mic issues there and I'm not sure how much power I have to make a recording clean enough to be understood.  I have very limited resources where sound is concerned; I'm not a miracle worker.

I do know an editor who might be interested in saving something that I can't manage myself.  I plan to get in touch with him.

My plan now, once the podcasts begin to run, is to set up for a second season, which I hope will start the last week of September/first week of October.  The agenda is fairly set, though I still want to think on it.  I will have four months to ready myself before I start recording in August.  It will be a completely different form of game discussion ... but just now, I'll hold back on making those plans public, as I think someone might possibly steal the idea.

Not much more to say.  The podcasts will have to speak for themselves.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Out of Water

Part of me says that I ought to write a post.  I used to write a post a day ... and lately I've been making my readers wait two, four, even six days, before coming out with something to say.  Truth is, I'm still dry, as I said some weeks ago.  Between the podcast and the wiki (569 pages moved), there's no time to dredge up something interesting enough to write about.

But ... I was put in mind of a metaphor just now, by an email, that has me thinking about work.  I have a strange, frustrating association with work.  Sometimes, I just love it; I can't wait to pick up and get into it.  Ordinarily, I should hate something as tedious and unproductive as moving hundreds of internet pages from one url to another. After all, it isn't as though I'm making anything new.  All this information has been in the public eye for years now ... so why am I utterly driven to work on the wiki in exclusion of all else?

It isn't the time barrier of having to get it moved by July.  I'm a procrastinator.  I have always firmly believed that we should never do something today that can be put off until tomorrow.  Tomorrow, the house might burn down, and then we'll be grateful we didn't waste time today vacuuming the carpet.  If the house doesn't burn down, well ... there will come a time when we're annoyed enough by the carpet, or we're just not doing anything for twenty minutes, and it can get done then.

[the secret to being both clean and a procrastinator is having a very low threshold for when the carpet annoys; mine is reasonably low enough, I'll vacuum about once a week.  But that's still six days a week I can put it off]

Nope.  I'm enjoying shifting the wiki.  Because I like what I'm reading.  I like being reminded that this is all work of mine, that I love it, and that I want it seen to with love and care.

But oh, how I hate work sometimes.  In particular, I hate scheduled work.  Scheduled work is the worst.  It says, I can't do this work right now that I'm motivated to do, because I have to go do work that I'm not motivated to do.  Human society should not work this way.  We should only ever have to do work we're motivated to do ... and if no one is motivated, we need to think about having a robot do that work.

Or do without it entirely.

So, from this perspective, if there's nothing wrong with someone else doing the work we don't want to do, then what's wrong with buying something pre-made, pre-fab, pre-ready for our use, purchased with money we earned doing work we were either motivated or not motivated to do?


Every once in a while I go look at Patreon, to see what others are doing, to see if I can steal some idea from them and do it myself.  But all I ever seem to find is stuff like this: Jason Bulmahn.

I don't want to fault the fellow.  He's doing well enough with his readers and he is clearly offering something.  He's taken the time to create a patreon video, which I've never done.  I would like someone to tell me if when Bulmahn says that he's the creator of the Pathfinder roleplaying game, that he is.  I have no idea.

I look at this, see the work involved, and think, "Hey, Alexis ... can't you do some of this work?  Can't you come up with a dramatic campaign, and build it according to some official rules, and weave a story into the DM's role, creating adventure, loss, regret and salvation?"

If you felt a corkscrew of loathing course right up your back as you read that, then imagine how it feels when I write it out.  If you didn't feel anything special except, maybe, "Yeah, do that Alexis!" ... then I don't know how you got here, but I think you should know the road back to town is buried and there are terrible wolves.  And no, there's no room in my carriage.

I swear, I wouldn't even know how not to procrastinate about creating three act campaigns that are each divided into three acts.  I wouldn't know how to limit a "campaign" to between 60 and 80 hours.  I'm just out of my element here.  How am I supposed to create a friendship, a rivalry, motivation and attitudes with people I'm not actually running.  Won't that just sound ... forced?

I think it would.  It always sounds forced when other people say it.  The whole rhetoric being written here by Bulmahn sounds forced as hell to me, and I am absolutely not able to figure out a way not to make it sound ... well, desperate.

And hey, I like this game.  And I like to work.  And I can work like a demon, when I'm motivated.  569 pages and something like 2500 links in just four weeks?  And then still feeling like, after writing a post, you'd like to do some more before going to bed tonight.  Go ahead.  Try that.

But I just haven't a gun in my holster when I read a promise like, for $10, "For the GM that has to have it all.  You get everything, the adventure PDFs and all 6 of the character files!  You also get access to the player and GM development blogs and will be listed as a EM in the credits."

Wow.  "All," huh.  I gotta tell the truth.  I can't provide it "all" for $10.  I can't even get it "all" written down on the free wiki.

I wish I was being sarcastic here.  The reader probably thinks I'm being sarcastic.  Or at least facetious.  I swear, I'm not.  I mean every word here.  I am not capable of making an offer like this, and not because I'm against the principle.  Nor because it would feel like I was paying the town drunk to go upstairs to rape my mother's corpse (though it does make me feel like that).  No, I am quite literally not capable of producing this sort of content.

I've had no practice at it.  To do this, you've got to practice.  This is a skill.  One that I do not have.

I would like to provide something concrete and work-related to readers, for the sake of gaining a few more patrons.  That's the long-term goal, after all.  To provide content upon the notion of exchange.  But seeing this as the business model just breaks my heart.  I am so divorced from the official game as it is played now, I couldn't say what the official character sheet includes; or what the hell a "relationship guide" means to describe.

A personality profile, that I can make ... but I'd be inclined to come up with things like a young, somewhat uncertain young fellow, from a kind and supportive background, albeit a remote one, who is now among a mess of strangers in strange circumstances, making the best he can of the education he has.  He's got a good heart, loves animals and small children, and isn't afraid to learn new ways of doing things; but often he misunderstands something or heads off too bravely in a direction when he should have stopped and gotten better advice.  He's inclined to doubt what his friends tell him, when it disagrees with his self-image ~ yes when they criticize him, but much more so when they praise him.  He hopes for big things for himself, but has no certainty of how to get there; and whatever skills he has, there always seems to be someone with greater skills, who outshines him wherever he goes.

Who the hell is going to pay for a character personality profile like that?

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Investigating the Stairs

The following sequence arose from events associated with the Campaign Juvenis, played in succession from January 26 to February 2, 2018.

To set the scene.  The players are moving through an underground lair in the control of what, by the old Monster Manual, would be called killer frogs.  The players know them as "froglings."  They're a little stronger than the original, with 2 hit dice, and have proved troublesome in the past.  Stumbling across a small kitchen, the players find it full of slaughtered froglings, apparently torn limb from limb.  There's no explanation for what killed them.  The only way out of the kitchen, apart from the way in, is a flight of stairs down, behind a large lattice-iron door, the metal of which has degraded over many centuries.  However, recently, the door has been broken, so that it is clear it was forced open.

After digging out some of the booty from the kitchen, the party begins to get interested in the stairway.  It is a 55-degree slope of crumbled steps; this sounds very steep but it isn't for the time period.  After Engelhart, the cleric, makes an observation, I describe the stairs.
Engelhart: I have no special agility sage ability, I'm really just a clod with a crucifix. How hard would it be for me to descend, safely and silently?
DM: It is as difficult as a normal staircase, but the stones are out of place or ground away. There are signs of water damage. You can make your way down, but it would be a hell of a place to fight a combat (multiple rolls for slipping).

Why should I take the time to describe what the stairs would be in combat?  There isn't a combat, right?  Am I not deliberately jerking the players' chain, making them think twice about descending?

Yes, of course I am.  I don't have the benefit of making them feel the stairs, or seeing them, in near darkness, with the broken stones.  I have to put it into a context that players will appreciate.  The stairs are fine as long as nothing bad happens.  That's all I'm saying.

Now, note the final word from the cleric: "silently."  Players are obsessed with silence.  After years of dealing with different incarnations of rules surrounding the idea of creeping up on an enemy, I finally hit upon the idea behind my present stealth rules.  They work pretty well, I have found ... and will usually favor a thief or an assassin eager to surprise an enemy.  However, they are devilishly hard for players to grasp, for some reason ~ I think because they are also hard to bend to a player's will.

Basically, the principle is this: you want to approach an enemy.  If you're a long, long way from that enemy, you're certain not to be noticed.  On the line graph between a long, long way, and close enough to the enemy to put a sword between your enemy's ribs, you're going to be noticed.  You don't know where that threshold will be.  You're not meant to know.  So you move up to a certain distance ... and you find you're not noticed.  After that, every step forward that you take is a risk.  There's nothing else for it.  You have to either move that step forward, or retreat.

Since creating this system, where once I found players willing to bet their success on a surprise roll or an initiative roll, I now find players somewhat lacking in fortitude.  If they can't be absolutely sure they'll be close enough to the enemy before they're discovered, they're very hesitant.  Observe:
Pandred (the fighter)Alright, stairs it is.  I'm willing to go on, but I've got no stealth, and I am not personally prepared to risk a lighter armored run.  I know you mentioned using Sanctuary earlier Engelhart, and unless Embla or Lothar want to join your fearless foray I think it'd be a worthwhile idea.
Engelhart: I ask for a lantern and shed away all weight other than hammer & shield. This still leaves me at 4 AP as the armour is just too damn heavy and not taking it doesn't look like a good tradeoff. Here’s the thing, I obviously don't want us to get into trouble, just to get a finer sense of where we're heading and some intel of how safe it might be to overnight in the storeroom, seeing as it is still rather near to the potential focus of danger.
For all we may know, the beast may have been put down already, rather than left to rampage across the frogling compound. If all I find is closed doors, we can feel somewhat safer. Beside faith in the Lord, I'm gathering that such a brute must make more noise than I ever would. (If the party will give me missile cover from up above, I might be able to duck on their command?)

Initially, the cleric meant to remove his extra weight and not his armor; and that's fine.  He knows what the stealth rules give as a penalty, so he's making his choices.  Afterward, he reads the stealth rules I linked for him (as I have linked for the reader) and changes his mind:
Engelhart: It seems that should I lose the armour and shed all weapons there's virtually no chance of being discovered as long as I take measured steps and keep it cool down there. Since the plan wasn't to triumph through arms anyway, I'll go ahead and strip down to hauberk and chausses. Once AC ceases being a concern, might as well leave both shield and hammer behind, as well.

That's what I want from a game system.  The risks can be managed IF the player is prepared to sacrifice some of his benefits in order to receive other benefits.  That is how game play should function.  Everything is a strategy.

At the moment, the cleric can't see how far the stairs go; no light source had been produced ... so this becomes the subject of discussion for a bit.  I had not added "candlelight" to my stealth rules, so I did so, inserting it between dim moonlight and starshine, as far as giving away an individual.  If that seems kind, remember that a candle can be hidden by one hand, or gutted so that it reveals very little flame.  Anyway, I explain the rule change to the player and we move forward.

continued elsewhere...

This is the first of two such posts I will be writing in the month of March for the Tao's Master Class blog, where the rest of this post can be found.  Examples on the Tao of D&D blog can be found here and here.

To see the rest of this post, you must pledge at least $3 to my Patreon account.  This will enable you to see all material to date on the Master Class, or you can use the sidebar to dedicate $3 to me right now. The latter will permit you to see the content as soon as I confirm the donation, rather than having to wait until the 1st of April, when Patreon will process your donation.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018


As I write this, the number of pages that have been transferred on the wiki has now reached 437.  This is not bad for work that began on February 20th.  That's 22 days.

More than 200 of those pages have been straight up spell descriptions.  Much of the balance has been sage fields and studies.  But I have a considerable number of pages remaining ... and as I proceed, I am stunned at the amount of material I've been able to accumulate ~ just as I'm surprised that I launched the wikispaces wiki as long ago as 2011.  Somehow, it doesn't seem like six years.

I try to relate this experience of building a wiki to the first six years of my playing D&D, between 1979 and 1985.  Back then, I could never have imagined a project on this kind of scale.  I was still scrambling then, learning how to play, full of doubts about everything I started ... and constantly throwing out material and starting again, because nothing seemed to work, nothing satisfied.  Not that I cared.  I was so happy to be working at the process, blissfully ignorant that all the work I would do in those days would be nothing more than practice for the work I do now.

Practice is a funny thing.  Look back at the 2,500+ posts on this blog and think about how each post represents an hour of my life; and then think how this is only the start of the time I've spent writing since this blog began in 2008, adding in books, some of which are meant to be finished, some which will never be finished.

Add to that the 300 paid-for freelance articles I wrote for real estate magazines between 2001 and 2009, along with the article-a-week I wrote for five years for the business magazine I worked for between 2004 and 2009.  There's 600 hours of writing, plus 1,200 hours of research ... and that takes no account of the freelance writing that was never bought and paid for, or the work I did for myself in those years, that no one ever read, because it was never put up on a blog for examination.

So what does that come to ... about 6,000 hour of writing that I can account for between 2001 and the present.  I'll let the reader roll that around for a moment.

Think on this.  I began to write for my own pleasure in 1976.

I have no idea how much time I've spent writing.  I was published first in a school magazine in '82 ... and then here and there as a runner-up for insignificant writing contests throughout the 80s.  I didn't get any real notice until I started writing for the university newspaper in 1988 ... and then I wrote two or three articles, op ed pieces or reviews for four years.  I got some freelance work after university, started a couple of Zines, small-circulation self-published magazines that we distributed around coffee houses in the city.  I wrote virtually all the content for those, between 12 and 15 pages worth, whatever I could think of fill pages.

Okay, I'm sorry.  I've been going on for too long and I'm just hammering the anvil at this point.  I'm trying to explain that most of that time, right up to time spent on this blog, has all been practicing.  Most of all that writing isn't worth showing to anyone, ever.  I threw out about two hundred pounds of writing just a couple years ago.  It had only one value: that doing all that then makes it possible for me to do what I do now.

Now, think on this.  I have spent more time working on my D&D world than I have spent writing.  Granted, they are often the same thing ~ one feeds the other.  But with map-making, table-making, drawing dungeons, running the game, whatever ... it has been uncounted thousands of hours since I discovered this game in 1979.

Those first six years, working on the game was like a fever.

I drew scores of maps just like this, once.

If sometimes I sound recalcitrant, or doubtful, or resistant to a "new" idea, I can only explain that it's not a new idea and I've tried it ... or at least, something very like it.  Once upon a time, before many of a reader was born, I tried alignment.  I tried hit location.  I tried weapon-defense mechanics.  I tried mega-dungeon making.  I tried most everything that I've ever condemned on this blog (with the exception of stat arrays; jeez, who would need to?); or I've slimmed it down so tight that it doesn't need further examination.

Take this new fad, "session zero."  This is nothing more than introducing a player to the campaign and rules of a campaign.  On a need-to-know plan ~ what does a player really need to know in order play in my game ~ I can do this in about five minutes.  Or less.  If you're the kind of player that can't adapt to "not knowing" stuff that doesn't need to be known, or shouldn't be known, I don't need to cater to you; I need to move you along.  You're in the wrong place.

I don't couch this compulsion to make the game inclusive; I can't afford the time to run everybody.  I just need enough people to make up my game ... and after thousands and thousands of hours spent in practicing my craft, I can either entice those people into my game right up front, or convert them from the thinking they've acquired from DMs who have practiced only a few hundred hours.

I mean to disparage no one.  Nor to make anyone despair.  I was lucky when I started.  There was no one around who could claim to have played for thirty or forty years.  Starting just five years after the invention of the game, in a climate where so few people played, it was easy to feel as entitled as anyone to "knowing how to play."  It is a lot harder now ... with old horses like me around, carping on our time spent ... it's almost necessary to say to oneself, "Fuck him, what does he know."

I get that.  But if you are starting, and you have only a few years behind you, with one or two thousand hours to your credit, realize that this is all just practice for you.  You're a long, long way from really understanding what you can add to the game, or what the game means.

There's a lot more here than you can begin to fathom.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

The Scientific Method

Very well, if you've read the last post ... how can we advance our games along the lines of hypothesis, research, testing and proof?

To begin with, we're the scientists; and like those early investigators of the 17th and 18th century, our resources are limited and our collection of guinea pigs is limited.  You might get yourself into a position where you can study the response of ten or twenty people, but chances are that right now you only have your party to work with.  Rest assured, this doesn't matter.  You're not curing cancer, you're only improving your game ~ and you're never going to run it for the mass majority, anyway.  What matters here is that you get your methodology under control, and that you stop wasting time.

I have some suggestions; these are not mine.  They are based on the principles of the scientific method, which has stood the test of time for nearly four centuries, so it dwarfs all of us.

1.  Stop Assuming that every new effort, system, plan or design is going to work.  A hypothesis is a proposal, not a solution.  It is a working guess at the questions or problems that have arisen, associated with your particular game.  Once you get it into your head that "new" does not automatically equate to "better," you have a much better chance of systematically doing the research on what's "old" before kicking it to the ditch.

An hypothesis is a response to a pattern that we have noticed during play.  The way the players respond, or act, when encountering particular things, the level of resistance or resentment about certain rules and so on.  The pattern need not be negative: we might want to know why players responded so well to something we did, so that we can reproduce the effect.

As I said, the hypothesis does not look for a solution!  It is, rather, looking for the cause behind something.  We're trying to explain, not eliminate.  Therefore, the proposal we make is not about what might happen if we do something; it is, rather, an explanation.  "I think the players were resistant to running away because ..."; and then going from there.

We should not begin from a place like, "If we do this, the players will run away next time."  That is poor methodology on many levels: first, it assumes already that we know why the players ran away; it assumes we already have the solution; and we're already biased towards the solution we've created, because we haven't based that solution on any research, but rather on our gut.  Our personal observations, then, are bound to remove any practical benefit we might get from the experiment.

2.  Test the hypothesis.  Fair enough ... but how?  The guideline here is to build an experiment that changes nothing about the previous situation, while enabling us to take notes.  Let's say, for example, that recently the party refused to run away from a fight they were losing, and as a result they nearly died or a total-party-kill resulted.  And now, to understand better what happened, we want to build an experiment that we can test.

Let's pick a hypothesis.  I'll propose three:

  • The Players don't seem to care very much about their characters; they're ready to roll the die and hope for good results because they're not really losing anything.
  • The Players won't give up a fight from a sense of shame; they'd rather lose straight up than feel like cowards who ran from a fight.
  • The Players can't see it coming.  Everything seems fine, they think they have it under control, but they don't realize the circumstance until it is too late.

I'm going to suggest the second hypothesis: that the players feel shame.

Now, standard practice for DMs who have just caused a TPK is to rush at a solution: "I'm never going to let that happen again."  This is no way to build an experiment.  During the TPK, as it presented itself, the DM was likely in as much distress as the players ... and was, therefore, not paying attention.

To test our hypothesis, what we want is to engineer another possible TPK, watch what happens and make notes.

[As an aside, I suggested this scheme to my daughter, who immediately went to this place with it:

... sorry I haven't got a better copy]

Now, relax.  I'm not suggesting that parties are guinea pigs and that we should deliberately kill them just so we can watch.  I'm not Dr. Mengele.

I am saying, however, that if we create the potential for another TPK, knowing that the player's behaviour will once again be tested in the same manner, we can prepare ourselves in advance and take notes (mentally) about what happens.  Were this a legitimate experiment, we could have an outside observer, preferably a sociology or psychology student, come along and sit in ... but that is probably out of the question.

Whatever the reader's personal take on this proposal (and obviously, it would not be questionable if I had chosen a less sensitive subject than TPKs), our goal here is to gather data.  What do the players say?  Do they equate the present situation with one that occurred earlier.  Are some people suggesting that maybe everyone should be pulled back, only to be shut down by other, more reckless players?  Do the players seem to draw upon irrational bravado?  Are there signs of comprehending that they're going to lose?  What happens?

We can't draw a general theory about the potential and implementation of situations resulting in total-party-kills without examining the data, refining our hypothesis, observing relevant, isolated situations (single player deaths), rejecting bad guesses that isn't supported by the data and, on the whole, finding out if we know what the hell we're talking about.

3.  Stop Guessing.  Virtually all the content surrounding the betterment of campaigns is nothing more than guesswork.  If we try A, B might result.  This could improve your running.  "I'm not saying this is right, this is just the way I do it."  And so on.

If you don't know something, stop presenting the proposal as though it is, "known."  I could just as easily make a hypothesis that all online DMs who talk about their game worlds or systems are influenced by knowing that they are being observed by their own players.  As a result ~ still hypothesizing ~ they puff up their feathers in order to look more sure of themselves than they really are.

To find out how much they really know, it is necessary to a) test them personally, by asking questions, to see what sort of clear, factual responses you get, as opposed to nonsense hedging and misdirection; and b) test their players, asking what they think of the DMs position and advice.

For myself, my players are right there to be asked.  Some will definitely not agree that I am a good DM; there have been hard feelings all over the online campaigns.  My data says that I am a good DM for some players, but I am not for many, many others.  I don't imagine that anyone can be "good" for all the players ~ realistically, I just have to be good for enough players.  That is a general theory I've developed.

I expect people reading this blog to disagree with me, and often; I am just surprised how often they seem to disagree on matters where no evidence is being presented on their part, but plenty of evidence exists on mine.  I believe, from my observations, based on the grammar being used to express themselves, that "guessing" is more commonly relied upon than knowing.

If a DM has been running games for 30 years, it is probable that they are a good DM for a sufficient number of players ... and it is also probable that their experience at recognizing patterns in their games results in doing the right thing when the moment comes along.  It does not follow, however, that this means they "know" what that right thing is.  More likely, given the advice, given the patterns of speech and given the lack of hard data presented, they are responding instinctively to a problem, not cognitively.

And that's fine.  For most of us, instinct is more than enough to get us through.  It will make a great firefighter, a great cop, a great doctor, a great artist and a great lover.  What it will not make is a great educator.  An educator has to be able to explain how and why something works for someone who doesn't understand it; and that's not possible with only gut instinct to guess from.

So before trying to educate yourself, start from learning, not guessing.


Obviously, the TPK experiment can't be performed just once.  We'll never duplicate results that way.


Regarding the document from my last post; we can start with the structure and content section, requirements:
The projecting of the structure and content of training ... [for] the presence of significant problem from the view point of its research and creative nature that require integrated knowledge, research for its solution.

In English:  we want to identify what we need to know, for the purpose of relaying that information, about the research behind and the creative nature of role-playing.  We want an identifiable, single body of knowledge, so that we will be able to improve that knowledge, as a solution for further study and the creation of competence in dungeon mastering, or if you prefer, game mastering.

And ... wow.  Impossible, right?  No one agrees with anyone else, there's a concerted propaganda to argue that there is "no right way" and anyone who dares propose that there might be is condemned for inflexibility and being entitled.  The problem is further complicated by the "research" being 80 different significant game rule designs, all of which are integrated to some degree, as they share concepts, but not philosophies.  The first identifier everyone in role-playing uses is to reach for a tribal definition: I play 3rd edition, or I play Pathfinder, or I play [insert game title/genre here].  And that tribalism further subdivides into what rules group A plays versus group B.

Worse, the "research" itself produces uncertain, inconsistent results.  If we were talking about some other study, an evidentiary body of consistent results tends to emerge, which steadily drives the knowledge of that study in a particular, agreed-upon direction.  As more and more data piles up, one scientist after another begins to agree that something is clearly going on with the climate ... even as the issue itself is debated and/or ridiculed.  Role-playing games, which lack evidentiary support for anything about the game, as they suffer from a lack of meaningful studies, seems to point in no direction, a proposition which is embraced by a great many practitioners who don't want too close an investigation to be made into their practices.

So we're fucked.  The most anyone can offer for "knowledge" is to say, "I do it this way," or "Try this and it will work," which no effort of any kind is being made to say, "This worked" or "This didn't."  The ordinary RPG pundit on youtube is safe in proposing anything that sounds like it has potential, without the least concern that a great many people will respond with one voice, if the proposal is a farce.

But for all the proof or verification that exists for such advice, we might just as well tell DMs that they should kill a cat at midnight in an unkempt cemetery near an abandoned church at five minutes after midnight of the Spring Equinox ~ just 11 days left to obtain a cat and locate your site.  Maybe you can go to your local games store and get a group to go do it as an event.  Don't forget to Youtube it.

The alternative to the nihilism that pervades the role-playing community is, however, as the quote above says.  Research.  Investigation.  Not just supposition, but hypothesis, with a clear agenda that the hypothesis will then be tested in a lab, to determine what results, and what results can be repeated over and over with further experimentation.  That is, the same process that has united the rest of human knowledge into a forward, non-faith-based direction.

Rather than another scattered opinion-fest surrounding the importance of use and importance of armor or weapons, or how game design might be implemented to possibly bring about a change, which can then only ever be tried on one group of people by any one particular DM, how about we just stop until the data comes in?

This is what my online campaign blog was supposed to offer: evidence that my particular approach to D&D was not just a collection of words, but that it could be seen to work in the speech and actions of players who were actually responding to my philosophy.  Yet each time, in the recent debate, that I proclaimed that my combat system, as it stood, was working spectacularly well, with evidence to prove it, this evidence was flat out ignored.  When I said that the error in the campaign was my own, and not the combat system, because I should have gone ahead and killed the party, because they insisted on putting on their armor, that was also ignored.  Instead, the discussion devolved into pure, unsubstantiated opinion, that some rule change might have caused the party to feel less desiring to put on their armor first, thus [I conjecture] saving me the need to kill the party.

We, as a community, fall into this trap again and again. We don't acknowledge the evidence.  Instead, we turn to our prejudices about a particular element of the game [and combat is the worst!], and then argue again and again, in a circle, around those prejudices, without evidence, without rigorous investigation, without experimentation.  We jump right to a conclusion as though, in some way, because we feel a particular way because of our supposed experience, all that falderol with hypothesis, research, testing and proof just isn't necessary.

But the thing is, all that is necessary!  Because we are getting nowhere.  We're just wasting our time with this.

For people who claim they haven't time to waste building a campaign or to find the time to play more than once a fortnight, that's absurd.  The game deserves better.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Methodical, Academic

These are two words used by JB in the previous post.  I'll repeat them with a minimum of context: "... ...but most of us are pretty ignorant about how to go about doing so in a methodical, academic matter."

Well, that is certainly fair.  Seeing it, I decided to adventure into Google with a search for methodical, academic, education.

And turned up this interesting document.  Well, interesting for me, at least.  Perhaps a little high hat for many folks.  Fundamentally, it is a breakdown of techniques used to enable the professional training of graduate students, with the intent that they acquire "intellectual competence."  Following the paper's definition of terms, purpose and general relevance, which must be done with every thesis, the content turns to several lists for projects, features, content and decisions taken in order to promote the described purpose: to give exactly what JB is asking for: a methodical, academic approach to any subject in which one might like to acquire intellectual competence.

Such as, say, role-playing games.

Now, obviously, there isn't word one in the paper specifically directed towards comprehension of RPGs ... but we do have a solid formulation for how the comprehension might be acquired.  Take this short, but highly relevant list, regarding "collective nature of decisions taken, the nature of communication and mutual assistance, complementarity of the project's participants;"
1.  establishing of the necessary and sufficient depth of penetration into a problem, bringing of knowledge from other areas;
2.  conclusiveness of decisions taken, ability to substantiate the findings, conclusions;
3.  the aesthetics of the results’ presentation;
4.  the ability to answer the questions of opponents, conciseness and validity of the responses of each group member;
5.  project sustainability: the transition to a new project, integration with other projects, the dissemination of the project to other levels.

Before I take this another step, however, the reader needs to ask a question of thyself:  is the importance of understanding what we're doing as role-playing DMs and GMs deserving of real, legitimate academic investigation, or will we dismiss the above recommendation for "what matters" based on the content's use of exact, dry, even to some degree incomprehensible phrasing, because it happens to be written by a hand not limited by grade 10 vocabulary and grammar?  Because where it comes to pushing the boundaries of "working in our field of study," there comes a time to dig in, drag out a dictionary and get serious about the content.

The reader ought to know by now that I can easily "dumb down" the content above, and of the whole paper, point by point, in an effort to make it accessible ... but the deeper point I want to make here is that some of us need to "smart up" to the content as written.  The reader ought to be able to look at point 3 and see exactly what that means.  And then the reader ought to be able to sit down and sketch out a list of what are the aesthetics of the presentation that the reader has decided upon, how far the reader has taken in terms of communicating those aesthetics and how much mutual assistance the reader has marshalled among the various project's participants.  I shouldn't have to walk the reader through that thinking process, now that it is written out in point form, nor in what decisions the reader has made regarding their project's sustainability, ability to answer pointed questions, the conclusiveness and substantiality of findings produced about the project or establishing how much penetration was needed into the project in the first place, based on what knowledge was gained from what sources.

Some of you, I know, have university degrees.  Which meant that, once upon a time, you read papers like this and wrote answers to questions based on such papers, in order to have a degree that now hangs on your wall.  What was that degree for?  To make a pretty hanging for your office or den?  Or was it to teach you to be ready for a project that really mattered to you, beyond just dabbling?

Want to improve your methodology, your academic prowess where dealing with the fundamentals of role-playing?  Take some time, translate a few random paragraphs from the paper and then explain, for yourself, how you're increasing or improving your competence in managing this particular effort of making a world or running a game.  Because it's all right here.  In black and white.

It's just not written in crayon.