Monday, April 30, 2018

I'll Ask Again: What Do We Want a Town Map For?

Now would be a good time to tie some threads together, bringing us back around to a city map.  The image on the right, as judgmental as it is, offers far more suggestion to the imagination than what me might see on an RPG product.  Without a single building ~ and the streets not being needed either, though they are there for people who know New York ~ we can visualize the landscape from our personal experience and our relationship to the description given.

So ... with the first post in this series, I ended with some discussion about how urban settlements are time sinks, and how many smaller places might not have the things you're looking for ... without quite making the point that you could spend time looking for something in a town or city that doesn't actually exist.

With the second post, I wrote about how settlements accumulate organically rather than by decision ~ and in certain geographical locations, dictated by access, happenstance of the terrain and necessity.  With the third post, I wrote that settlements accumulate inside the boundaries of the settlement as well, as labor and the need for survival causes poorer people to gravitate to parts of the city where they have the potential to earn money, while money that has been accumulated is collected into places that isolate themselves from the poor.  This can be plainly seen on the map above, in the way that Very Rich People and Super Rich People exist apart from Grime, Sludge, Irony and Old People.

Finally, with the fourth post, I wrote about how the substructure of the urban environment needs to be reconstructed so that adventures can happen without fear of dogpiling by half the population.  The question remains, how do we make an urban adventure fit into a structure that can behave in a proper functional manner, like the wilderness does with its open spaces, or the dungeon does with its dystopian claustrophobia?

Ah, that's where I'm heading.

Remember that I said a town has an open framework; as an entity within its boundaries, you can move through most of it without infringement.  Yes, there are private places, inside buildings, behind locked doors, built behind high walls with guards, nasty pets and magical glyphs.  But if we consider the map above, if you want to walk among the rich people, or if you want to see the dead people, or if you want to wander among the ducks, you're free to do so.  Some neighborhoods will be risky; others will judge your clothing and disdain your presence.  There are lots of places where you won't make friends.  But you can go there.

Suppose, however, that you did not have the map above to help you.  Imagine that you did not have a lifetime of hearing or reading stuff about New York, or seeing movies filmed there, or having it explained to you by urban designers or historians.  Suppose you did not know one damn thing about New York ... just as a 15th century resident of Yorkshire would not have known one damn thing about London.

Suppose you enter from the top center of the map, where it reads "Canada."  What does Jazz, Great Southern Food and the appearance of smart kids on the street tell you about what you might find in the rest of the city?  Could you guess?

Now imagine that there are no cars, no trains, no modern services of any kind ... and that only the very wealthy have access to horses.  This is the 15th century, so even a coach service doesn't exist.  Like people in the country who would live their whole lives within seven miles from where they were born, people in the city could live their whole lives within seven blocks.  Thus, none of these people you meet on the edge of the city would be able to tell you what the rest of the city contained.

Now remove the street signs.  And most of the business signs.  The bakers would tend to congregate on one street, the leather workers on another ... and in a given part of the city, that street would be known as Baker Street ~ but there would be no sign.  In a city as big as New York above or London (and nothing really was, but if we remove most of the high rises, it's arguable that Beijing, Lahore, London or Paris sprawled as much as the above example), there might be a dozen or more "Baker Streets" ... known locally as that by the nearby inhabitants.  Don't laugh.  How often does "High Street" appear in America?  Or "Garden Street", or "Lakeside" whatever?

Everyone knows where the butcher lives and where the cobbler lives.  There's no need for big, showy signs designed to attract attention.  Everyone has as much work as they can manage anyway, as everything is hand made.  More customers does not make more time in the day, nyet?  [sorry; using Russian is probably not desired just now, is it?]  So a particular kind of shop might have a little sign next to the door, something the size of a hand-span, reading something like, "J.M. Dodd, Esquire."  But what is that?  A solicitor?  A jeweler?  You'd need to poke your head in the door to find out.

An Inn or a Tavern might have a bigger sign, but signs cost money; and after a few years, the paint wears with the rain and is bleached by the sun, until it can barely be read from the street.  Most of the people there know it's "The Aged Keg," but you, dear stranger to this place, might walk past the building three or four times before realizing it's the place where you're supposed to meet your contact.

Of course, you're thinking you'd recognize it by the bright lights, and the shouting and laughter, and probably the music.  Perhaps on a warm night in the summer time, but likely not if the weather is foul.  And candles cost money too, except when Hollywood can use electric light to fake them.  Nor are the locals likely to sing much, as they're working fourteen hour days. They only want to drink to deaden the feeling in their muscles, just as people now choose to do.

So you shouldn't count on the fellow passing by on the street to give you much information about the city beyond his small piece of it. He's busy, anyway, hauling something for his master, or collecting rents, or heading off to meet his mistress, or whatever he's doing that's keeping him from his rooms, his duties or his master's service.

When I think of strangers coming into a town, I think of this:

[feel free to ignore the music]

Given time, the locals will come around (which is played up in order to make the musical work), but for the most part they don't like strangers.  This, too, is a barrier to knowing how a city or town is put together.

If it hasn't occurred to the reader yet, what I'm saying is this: like a dungeon, cities require exploring.  Really big cities are filled with open areas, gutted neighborhoods (from fires or disasters, see "oil spill"), strange isolated cultures, forces for good or evil, etcetera ... but isolated by distance and the obscurity that comes from really a lot of buildings and roadways, not from stuck doors or difficult descents.

Players should have it explained that walking straight through the middle of a city along the busiest avenue won't yield much information.  Without signs, without the features we recognize in our day and age, which wouldn't be recognized by a stranger of its own time, cities are huge baffling maelstroms of people.  The busier the avenue, the more people have to do, the less time people have to talk.  The loafers with time to chat are out of sight, in back lanes, seated around small flophouses, bitterly resenting strangers who have the money to walk around in armor while they carry weapons.  Cities and towns aren't friendly, in either the congenial or the interfacing sense.  They're complicated, cluttered, deceptive, hard to know ... and must be explored one block at a time, diligently, if they're to give up their secrets.

If we want a map, we want one that will emphasize THAT.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Who is Responsible

The following sequence rose from events played between February 24 and 25, 2009.

This was, in fact, the first day of the first game that I ran online.  It was quite an education for me ~ the players and their approach took me completely by surprise, so much that eventually I was to lose patience with them.

I had run with a wide number of groups between 1979 and 1985 ... but after that, most of my experience was with a very steady group with which I played for another ten years.  Following the break-up of that group in mid '94, which occurred because of job opportunities, marriage and other issues, my gaming became sporadic.  I would get in a running now and then, but probably less than six times a year ... and by 1998, even that stopped.  I would not find a group until 2004 ... which happened because my daughter wanted me to run her and her friends.  I still run that game, even though they are now almost all in their 30s.

During this long separation from the mainstream of the D&D Community, in which I had retained a lot of my original beliefs about the game, the WOTC shifted the rule system in a very different direction.  This created a different kind of player.  What, I am sorry to say, was a very lazy character.  I hope to explain how.

An actual tavern at Rothenburg, only 198 km north by
northwest of Dachau.  So, fairly accurate.
Having rolled up the characters online through the previous week, I decided to start the characters off on the porch of a tavern in the 1650 town of Dachau, some centuries before that town became famous for something else.  As I remember, the players wanted to start in Germany, and I was looking for somewhere wit access to large cities, the mountains, the Black Forest and easy transport by river.

At the time, I had no idea how cliched this idea was; I had not spent twenty years reading hundreds of game modules that included the motif ... and at any rate, I had no plans whatsoever to follow any parts of the cliche except the presence of the tavern itself.

The inn I had in mind was not far from the one pictured, but I did not possess this picture in 2009.  Primarily, I wanted to give the players a home base; a place to sleep, rest, be recognized by the proprietor, who might save them a room while they adventured in the area.  I called the tavern & inn simply "The Pig" and the bartender Helmunt.  I started them sitting in the open air, looking at the square, explaining,
DM: You’re bored. This has been the routine for nearly two months now. You four, Tiberius, Josef, Delfig and Anshelm, met on a cold morning in mid-spring (for the region), finding yourselves all strangers, fairly compatible with one another and equally of the opinion that many of the vicissitudes of life are unappreciated by most. At the moment, however, you could stand a few more changes than there have been.

To my mind, this was to suggest they get off their feet and do something.  If they had sat there for two months and no adventure had presented itself to them, then it should be clear that it was time to make an adventure happen.

This is not how the players read it.  In fact, they made nothing of what I had said about the routine dragging on.  I did not know at the time, see, that D&D players were very used to having everything handed to them on a silver platter.  I had been blogging only nine months.  I had not played in a group with strangers in more than ten years ~ and then only briefly.  So I was unprepared for the response, as I'm sure thousands of DMs are, who think to themselves, "I'm going to run a sandbox adventure."

continued elsewhere ...

This is the second of two such posts I have written in the month of April 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. You have just 20 hours to do so, as it will be the 1st of May almost at once and you will then have to wait until the 1st of June.  Because it is difficult to keep track of who is donating $3 to me each month, I am no longer accepting small direct donations for the Master Class blog.


Continuing upon the theme of the last post, the Steady Urban State, let's talk about players interacting with the town culture as described.

Within the coded storybook framework, where the DM creates the narrative in advance and then moves the players through that narrative, the town serves as a supply depot, for both equipment and easy exposition, or elaboration of the party's goals.  The party is organized to speak to specific persons in the town, who have specific information to give, before being shuttled out of town into an environment where the players are able to act upon their knowledge.

For this, the town needs to be nothing more than a series of stalls where the players stop temporarily to get their assignments.  They don't have to interact with a living, breathing town ... and this works for most games.  With the introduction of a sandbox game, however, we have problems: suddenly the occupants of the town have their own agendas.  They don't exist to assign anything to the players.  They exist because they exist ... and the players are forced into a minefield where anything they might do has the potential to conflict with that existence, which is bound to end very badly.

I've watched this play out many times.  Players don't know what to SAY to ordinary townspeople.  They don't know what to talk about, or even how to start conversations.  They don't understand what townspeople want, or how to make townspeople interested in the player's wishes or interests.

Just like in real life.

Put a typical D&D player into a town setting, where the town is not an engineered-knowledge dispenser for adventure giving, and the players will find themselves in a situation very like their own personal experience as a social leper.  For most D&D players, if they had a sense of how to interact with real people, who have real goals, they wouldn't be D&D players.  Making them play in a world where they need to produce full sentences that sound like they have a purpose is like rubbing a player's nose in their own inadequacy.

This is part of the reason why so many players deal with town and/or social situations by drawing a weapon and killing the nearest person.  It's a tactic that works great in a dungeon, but not very well in a town.  A dungeon is a compartmentalized environment.  If we kill these orcs in this room, there's a very good chance that the orcs in another room, fifty feet and a stairwell away, won't know what we've done, unless one of these about-to-be-dead orcs gets out yon door and manages to set off an alarm.

It is impossible, however, to start a fight in a town without someone knowing about it.  The walls are too thin, the lines of sight on even a back alley are too numerous, there's far too much motivation for even a common individual to rush down and inform the guards (it might be worth a coin or two) and, on the whole, no one in a town likes it when fighting happens.

Too, in a dungeon, there might be ten or twenty orcs in this room.  Or maybe a few hundred, if it is a big lair ... but the shape of the dungeon allows a certain queuing in a line, before the hall can clear enough for the back ranks to get at the party.  But a town has thousands of people ... any of whom might be willing to throw a roof tile down on a running party, even if they don't have the nerve to fight face to face.  The Greek general Pyrrhus died that way.  Stunned by a roof tile, he fell in the street and two common people dragged him into a doorway and cut his throat. Even for great generals, towns are dangerous.

So, if the party wins a round or two against the arriving guard, it just happens that more guards arrive and the dogpile begins.  I know that many DMs will engineer the situation so that a fleeing party will miraculously flee a town, or find an ally standing in a doorway calling out, "Hide in here!" ... but these are DM-interventions, designed to preserve the party from their own folly, or from having to face the real consequences of what a town is designed to do: destroy threats.

When the party pulls a weapon in a town, or tries to steal something, the party is the threat.

A lot of DMs recognize this; and they HATE the intervention tactic, as they feel it's not their job to wrest the party out of their own stupidity.  So the rule comes down: NO town adventures.  Ever.  Problem solved.

I've never made that rule, but at the same time I don't press the town adventure idea, either.  Unless the players are strong enough to take on the entire town, towns are just too dangerous ~ and players get that.  Getting the sense from me that I won't help them, that I'll just let the dogpile take them down, they will typically behave themselves ... excessively.  They'll buy some equipment.  They might get some advice from a particular shop owner; get something made; or something checked; but they won't start something.

Which is fair.  Players, being presented with the clear fact that the town won't hesitate to crush them underfoot if they don't toe the line, have no interest in testing that line by taking a step over it.  The consequences are too severe and the evident gain apparently out of reach.

Still, much of this is due to players not knowing enough about a town, or town life, or how things work, to circumnavigate the dogpile, as people obviously do in towns, even the most dangerous towns in the world.  And this is because we as game designers haven't fashioned towns and other urban spaces clearly enough to make such navigation possible.  That is what this series of posts is struggling to achieve: the reformulation of the town, both in our imaginations and in concrete, definable ways, so that adventure in towns is not only possible, but legitimately desirable.

Let's have another look at that Cracow video I linked yesterday:

It is so clean.  And while the historians who put this video together are well-aware that the streets would be much less pristine than presented, they are concerned with something other than verisimilitude.  But our imaginations are weakened by this sort of presentation.  Let me take a game example: the village of Hommlet:

Again, clean.  Yes, there's a lot of apparent detail, but remove the trees and shrubs and it can be seen that the depiction of Cracow and that of Hommlet are virtually the same.  As anyone who has ever wandered around in a small town knows, the maintenance of any like space is never this neat and tidy.  Vegetation is not neatly trimmed, as shown.  The building walls are never this straight and grid-aligned.  Shit piles up.  Houses are abandoned.  People never have such clear titles as "farmer" or "teamster."  Distractions happen.  People don't live together in peace, but ambivalence, tolerance and outright hostility.  There are people in a town who could be killed in the middle of the street and no one would care.

Hommlet's secret is that something evil is going on behind the veneer of the village ... but an adventure here need not be so overtly dramatic.  Clutter and hard feelings go a long way towards isolating one part of an urban place from another.  We've all run games where we've let the players climb into a sewer so they can have a fight in town ... but why not a simple basement?  Or in a slum court, too poor for the guards to bother about?  The guards exist to protect all that potential money from being plundered ... but they don't care what the lower classes do among themselves.  This is why crime thrives, and why it is particularly hard on other criminals ... because other criminals don't enjoy the protection that the rich do.

To circumvent the dogpile, the players need approach the problem of town adventures with two things in mind: a) how to isolate the fight away from the attention of people who care to stop it, or in a way that it won't be heard or noticed, or in a way that the participants themselves will all want it kept quiet; and b) the party needs to fight things that the authorities want fought and killed.  That's the idea of Hommlet.  No significant authority outside of Hommlet will mind if most of the people in Hommlet are killed, once the evil is brought to light.  No one would mind if the players found and killed a dire wolf being hidden by an owner feeding it the occasional drunk.  It's okay to clean out a nest of vampires.  People will reward you for doing it.

It is the responsibility of the DM to create the urban environment that makes this possible.  An environment with hidden holes and isolated stone houses; with gutted places destroyed by fire, where undead might be lingering; with natural insulation, making the sound of a quick sword duel practical; with clear rules that tell the players, and non-players, that if you break off the fight within four rounds, it doesn't matter who hears and sees, the participants will all be gone before the guards arrive.  The fight can then be continued again on another day, right?  Everyone knows this.  NO ONE fights for five rounds.  That would be stupid.

If we can make the environment clearer to the players; if the DM can make the environment conducive to play; if the players can then trust the DM; and if we can designate the spaces in the town in some way that the players can SEE what's going on, so that it isn't just a mass of meaningless houses and castles, as we usually see in a game map, there's room for real adventure.

Not just walking around talking to people about things.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

The Steady Urban State

The above is a screenshot from a two-part Polish youtube video, quite obviously describing the Galician town of Cracow as it once appeared (Galicia is in south Poland, east of Silesia and bordering on modern day Slovakia).  I post it to denote the openness of the city's layout, even within the walls, as shown in the video.

I have another example, much more descriptive and in depth:

Granted, the model and presentation is out of another time, circa 1950s and 60s, but the detail rendered here is archeologically and academically supported, which is a rare thing on the internet.  Note how much open space exists: farmland, grass for forage, space for play and gathering, trees, trampled ground isolating the town industries.  Compare this with a crammed generation product that I linked a few days ago, or with George RR Martin's 2012 popular depiction of King's Landing:

Did not do the fucking research.

The above is so ridiculously out of keeping with reality that it makes the traffic/supply problems of ancient Rome look ideal in comparison.  I've seen the bought version of this map; there's no green space inside the walls, which would mean that every gram of food would have to be brought into the city every day to feed the enormous population.  If you consider that the walled city of Constantinople had access to water on three sides, while King's Landing hasn't enough enough waterfront to fill even one side, no doubts the streets and houses in the center of this town have long ago been abandoned for lack of provisions.

And this is my subject today.  The reader may remember that in my last post, Putting Down Roots, I talked about how accumulation and assembly of towns occurred organically, due to the nature of the terrain, access to water, a need for defense and so on.  The principle applies inside the city as well. Cities were not, as they are now, built a neighborhood at a time, with every house the same and the roads carefully designed for the suburban commuter.  A system which, incidentally, is already starting to break down, even though it has been in place only fifty years (watch this whole video, it is well worth the time and it will reshape your thinking).

If the food comes in by the docks of the urban center, the population will naturally gravitate towards the docks, in order to have access to the best food ... and take advantage of the continuous demands for labor that a dock will provide.  A new ship may arrive any day; and though the wharf may be ready with an established labor force to unload a ship a day, what will then do when three or five ships all come in at once?  Hire temporary labor, of course ... so that poor people will drift to the town's port on the off-chance that they will work one day in seven, enabling them to survive.

The same is true of the gate through which most of the agricultural produce arrives, or the fringes of the toolsheds and mills, as shown in the Birmingham video.  The poor will flock in whenever something unusual happens ... a caravan arriving, the first cartloads of grapes at harvest time, the slaughtering of the spring lambs, the aftermath of a storm blowing in from the sea or a fire that has engulfed a city block ... like the people picking garbage as shown at the end of this piece of Ron Fricke's Samsara.

The above video showing all kinds of modern urban cultures.  The key factor here is money: which we should clearly see as acting on an urban environment in two forms.  We might describe these forms as "kinetic money" and as "potential money."

The garbage pickers, for all the unpleasantness of it, are participating in the kinetic form: the acquisition of money, the environment that makes the transfer of money possible (in its absolute lowest form, as people sustain themselves with refuse that can still be made useful), and what we would think of as being paid for labor in a traditional sense.  Farming, whether through garbage or growing things in the field, is kinetic.  Money is moving from one person to another, or from the environment into someone's possession.  In order to get money, the population of a town moves towards those places where the movement of money allows some sort of acquisition.

Potential money looks like this:

This is also from Samsara ... here, the money just sits.  The owners of these towers and flats are also in the business of accumulating money, but in a different part of the city than this place, where it is stored.  We can think of potential money as stored money, the same way that potential energy is stored energy.  As you stretch an elastic between your fingers, you "store" energy into the elastic, where it remains stored until you release the elastic, at which point the potential energy becomes kinetic.

When a riot occurs in a city, we have the same sort of mechanical framework in place.  The buildings above are raided, pillaged and burned, becoming a different sort of garbage pile for the raiders to pick over.  If an urban environment does not sufficiently provide enough kinetic money to exist in the system, increasing the potential collection of money, sooner or later those people without money or food, who are starving anyway, will force that potential to become kinetic.  Sooner or later, you will have to release the elastic band.

This is a good way for you to view the raw, thrumming energy that exists behind the veneer of houses and streets that form the city.  It isn't necessary to go so far as creating city-wide violence every time you want to create an in-city adventure for your players.  The transfer of potential money to kinetic money goes on all the time, on a small scale: robbery, muggings, forced prostitution, kidnappings, isolated murders (even between rich people, trying to get each other's potential money), witch burnings to place the victim's money into the pockets of the church or the authorities and so on.  And the reverse also happens, the daily efforts to ensure that potential money remains potential: clubbing poor people in the streets, enslavement and deportation for debt, free food, lands open to common settlement, restoration of prostitutes to their families, anything that will keep the population passive and happy to do little more than pick over garbage.

If we're going to make a city map that means something to gaming, we need to take these two things discussed above into account.

That the city has to exist as a much more open environment than we suppose, with gardens and fields that may exist even inside the city walls, where food can be grown inside the city, not only for siege purposes but also because the loss of an occasional apple is a good thing for the passive steady state that keeps the urban system from collapsing in riot.  Free space gives employment, it gives room to breathe, it makes for a happier population and it provides a valve for change, where a former field can be turned into another neighborhood, until such a time as the city needs to extend beyond the walls so that more fields can be incorporated into the system.

This ideal lasted until the industrial revolution, when labor took a whole new form and what made the system stable was a whole new environment: one where materialism brought new pleasures, where many more jobs could be sustained in much smaller spaces, where the accumulation of kinetic wealth could enable the tight, packed-in cities with which we're much more familiar.  Without the industrial revolution, without factories and mass transport, cities could not sustain so many people without the need of a lot of space.

This space made contentment possible; life was still hard for the poor, who could steal an apple but might spend three days in the stocks for it (which gives another escape valve for hatred and anger, directed at a prisoner instead of the authorities).  But the hard life was sustainable for those better able to make use of the shifting, changing, seasonal job market.  You might be a temporary day laborer, barely surviving, but with the right attitude you might be the temporary laborer who found a permanent job once some more trusted fellow was injured or killed.  There was room for advancement, for change, for luck, if you found some opportunity in that city that was missed.  So you wandered the streets, looking, looking, adventuring even, ready to turn to even crime if it could be made relatively safe and sustainable.  Which is what we'll look at with our next post.

Friday, April 27, 2018

How to Help

Late night on the 27th and there's just a few words I want to say going into this weekend, the last weekend of April.

First, I want to thank everyone who has pledged to me this month on Patreon, and those who have sent me direct donations through paypal.  You guys are terrific ... every month you give me a terrific motivation to plow forward, whatever the obstacles.  But that is nothing compared to how happy you make my partner, who is the bright shining light of my life.

Thank you, thank you.  I hope you will go on supporting me, so that I will go on building the wiki, making podcasts, writing posts like this latest investigation into cities and everything else I can do to expand your games and your imaginations.

Some readers, I know, cannot do the same; and I understand.  Some of you simply don't have the money ~ and believe me brothers and sisters, I know right where you are coming from.  Some others feel very strongly that the internet should not be monetized in this way and therefore steadfastly refuse to contribute.  Well done.  I respect your principles and I won't ask you to break them.

I want you to understand something, however, about the internet, from the perspective of a creator.  There is no way that I have to self-promote, except on pages that I own.  I can create videos; I can write posts; I can make comments and hope someone follows my name back to the source.  But I can't go on Reddit and say, "Hey, I wrote this great post about cities."  I'll be deleted.  I can't write on a D&D board saying, "Have you seen my podcast where I interview DMs?"  I can't talk about my wiki.  I can't talk about the comics I've made.  I can't talk about anything, except right here.


If YOU post one of my blog posts, or my podcast, or my wiki, or anything about me, on Reddit, no one will take it down ... unless they think you're a sockpuppet.  If YOU talk about something I've written in a forum, that's fine.  I can't do it, but people want YOU to do it.  When YOU do it, that's the internet working the way it is supposed to work.  It is people finding cool things and telling others about them.

So I want to make you a deal.  If you can't, or won't, give me a minimal $3 donation once a month, then take this pledge.  Pledge to write about me, share something about me, post something on Reddit or some other place, ONCE per month.  That's it.  Just twelve times a year.  It won't cost you a dime.  But it is absolutely worth a $3 donation for me, as I live and die by what readers I can reach and who can see what I have to say.  I depend on Reach, on fair, legitimate, friendly Marketing, by people who come here to see what I've written and who like it.

That's all I'm asking.  Help.  Some help.  You don't have to help pay for my water and power, you don't have to make it possible for me to buy medication, you don't have to contribute to my monthly food bills.  I love and appreciate those who do, but YOU don't have to.  You just have to take five minutes and help me.  Once a month.

Honestly, though.  I just spent almost ten weeks and hundreds of hours transferring the wiki so that it would still be available, free, for the public.  I just spent more than 14 hours cutting a podcast three times, because of technical problems and having to teach myself Audacity in a week.  I've spent uncounted hours writing blog post after blog post.  All free.  All on subjects that you won't find anywhere else on the internet.  I'm all alone here in my agenda and NO ONE else is creating the content I'm creating.

If you have the money and you won't give $3 a month for that, or more that you're able to give ... If you're too damn busy to share a post or something you like of mine on the damn internet, on your Facebook page or whatever ... and If you're willing to keep coming back here and reading my stuff just because it happens to be free ...

Then I don't think you're a person I ever want to know.  You should stop reading me.  Because you haven't earned anything that I've given you.

Authentic RPG Podcast, with Carl Olson

Bet you thought I'd never get another one of these in place.

This is the fourth episode of my podcast, Authentic Role-playing.  Carl and I talk about getting started in the game, issues having to do with everyday life, participation by military players, the definition of the game and the presence of elitism among participants.

Please thank Carl for taking part, if you're able.  I couldn't make these podcasts without brave people willing to talk about themselves and each one deserves to be rewarded with a kind word and a pat on the back.  Carl did great here and I for one am grateful.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Putting Down Roots

The comments upon the previous post, What Good are Town Maps?, brought up some points I mean to take up ... but I feel I need to make it clear that the reason why this "town problem" has not found a solution has much to do with the way the game is approached.  The functionality underlying some issues and circumstances of the game cannot be properly handled by fiat, ass-pulling and winging it: they are too complicated and just too damn needful of research, preparation and solid data that can be reviewed often for game use.

I've run towns in all my games like anyone else: with a little intrigue, with some mystery, with an occasional opportunity for a street fight or a spontaneous small dungeon in the town sewers or catacombs, but this has all been happenstance and shallow in design.  I'm only now beginning to see a bigger picture because I've been building a number of different structures for the past decade ~ cities, hex design, the concept of development vs. geography, etcetera ~ to where I am beginning to see how a city can be deconstructed for what it IS and what it needs to provide in terms of adventuring.

Understand, however ... I'm still wallowing here.  My process for building structure is to think about it, research, talk about it on the blog, think some more, write it into the wiki, then run it in a few sessions, then tweak the blog rules.  So that should explain where I am right now.

Since it has come up in the comments, let's set aside the services that a town provides for a moment and talk about how towns happen.  For this, we should turn to those people who study the formation and lay-out of towns:

Let me quote a piece from the video description:
"Here a new approach is furthered, which argues that rather than seeing towns as planned or as organic, that they are emergent - places become urban as social relations are played out at multiple scales. Towns are more than buildings and streets, they are social assemblages which are reiterated and transformed as the people, materials and things interact within and around them. Utilising the concept of ‘lines of becoming’, this paper traces trajectories of urbanism, to view towns as dynamic processes rather than static plans ..."
And from the video itself, regarding the town of Andover:
"I think that materialized in the plans as it were, we can perceive of two sets of interactions come together ... so we can see a localized reiteration in the performance of place, the marketing activity, the worship, which has got the dignity of the administration, which has gone on here for centuries, colliding with a more dispersed network, which we could call royal activity ~ and money, really, was the key thing which flowed between these two scales.  So we can see that money is finding this dispersed royal network, with this localized performance of place; and maybe it's in this tension that we can conceive of the agency for the guild merchants to be founded emerging ... and in 1205 the granting of the borough charter following ... now the concept of plantation implies that a decision was made to build a town; but if we think about how the flows and goods and people and money had passed through this place, I think rather we can see that this isn't town foundation by decree, but rather we see the agency for town urbanization as emerging from these processes."

I put this up as an academic example, to give my arguments weight; I have been thinking of towns in this way for quite some time, certainly since 2004, as I began to map out the thousands of towns on the 20-mile scale maps I had designed.  Towns were clearly "accumulating" in places, rather than appearing at random ~ which is what MOST towns do when placed on a map by an RPGer who hasn't taken any time to consider exactly why a town should be there, except as a convenience store for adventurers returning from the local dungeon.  Personally, I think accumulation is a better noun here than assembly; we need to think of the mass of people moving over a landscape, affected by the money that exists to be made, tempered by who controls the money, accumulating at river fords, on passes between hills, upon natural harbors and so on, just as the water in a stream will pile up deep an slow in some places and run fast and shallow in others.  The land itself, resources, ease of travel, supplies of water and food, defines which places will accumulate humans and which will not.  It is out of our hands ~ once we understand that we as a species are prepared to subject ourselves to our wants and needs.

That Andover is a much larger city than nearby places like Thruxton or Finkley was inevitable, just as London would end in being a much larger city than Andover - and the largest urban area in Europe, even now.  Acknowledging this, we need to investigate reasons why accumulations occur, to have a list we can turn to, as a tool that we can have in our minds when plopping a sizable town or city on a map, striving to set a scale for ourselves why it should be this big and not bigger.  Thankfully, I already have such a list, from a 1990 textbook I picked up in university, which is still conveniently at hand (I use it often): Bruce Marshall's The Real World.

Searching for a google link, it's clear the book is not much cherished; my copy appears exactly as the Amazon page, without a cover (which I've provided for the post from an image search).  For D&D, it is a fantastically useful book, as it strives to explain how towns and geographical humanity emerges, what problems we face, how we structure our environment through urban planning and the lack of same, etcetera.  The whole book describes urban assembly from the ground up ... though in a coffee table format, as it was meant for a 300-level geography course [second year].

Be that as it may, I would like to have a picture from the internet to show here, but the best I can do is a composite from my phone.  This is a copyright violation ~ but judging from the lack of the love the book has online, I don't think anyone is going to care.

Sorry I can't do better.  What's funny is the two images were shot one second apart but even moving the phone over a few inches changes the light quality. It must be hell to be a photographer.

The reader can see numbers on the map; and on the bottom, some of the explanation for those numbers, each with a little green icon all its own.  I won't produce the little icons (though I suppose they might be useful, it will take too much time just now), but I will write out the intro for the map and the descriptions next to the numbers.
"Certain sites in the landscape are more likely to attract settlements than others.  London, for example, was established at the narrowest fordable part of the Thames, and was also on the Roman route north.  The main part of the city developed along the outside meander of the river, thus allowing easy access to fresh water.
"The advantages of the favored sites tend to fall into one or more of the following categories:"
  1. In some cases, the physical conditions of a settlement site are of overriding importance.  In a mountainous area, for example, where winds are strong and most of the land is steep and rugged, the floor of a river valley may provide the only protected level site for a village.
  2. In a like situation, it may be advantageous for a settlement to develop on a gentle slope ~ in the northern hemisphere, sites on south-facing slopes benefit from more sunshine (in the southern hemisphere, north-facing slopes are warmer).
  3. Topography may also have a symbolic significance; a prominent hilltop my become the site for a religious center and its associated settlement.
  4. Villages are often located within easy reach of a key resource. In such cases, the priority is to reduce the daily expenditure of time and effort.  Miners and their families, for example, may choose to settle close to where mineral deposits lie.
  5. A dependable water supply is another vital resource, used for drinking, cooking, washing, irrigation of crops, and often for industrial purposes.  Hence, settlements may develop along a river, particularly on the outside of a meander, where the water is deeper and land is less likely to be marshy.
  6. In the desert, a settlement is more likely to prosper at an oasis.
  7. The siting of settlements is influenced by trade routes, whether passage is by land, sea or air. Settlements may emerge at any point on a route, but places where routes converge, or where the flow of traffic becomes concentrated, are prime sites.  The confluence of two rivers is one such place [and here the book begins to give some examples] ~ Duisburg, Khartoum, Kuala Lumpur, Montreal, Phnom Penh.
  8. Or railway junctions.
  9. Or river crossings ~ Budapest, Frankfurt, Kansas City, London, Omsk.
  10. Trans-shipment points ~ where boats must load and offload their freight ~ are also favored sites.  Protected deep water harbors, for example ~ Cape Town, Havana, New York, Rio de Janeiro, Sydney, Vladivostok, Wellington.
  11. Which may also be found on the inside of bays ~ Maracaibo [my example].
  12. Or river estuaries ~ Antwerp, Banjul, Buenos Aires, Lisbon, Montevideo, Oslo.
  13. Ports are often located on the first solid ground on the margin or head of a delta ~ Alexandria, Astrakhan, Cairo, Ho Chi Minh City, Shanghai.
  14. Other trans-shipment points that may spawn settlements include the mouth of a lake.
  15. Or the highest navigable point on a river ~ Basel, Louisville, Minneapolis, and [my example] Smolensk.
  16. Or at a portage point, where river freight must be transferred over land to another waterway ~ Chicago, Moscow.
  17. Settlements often originate at sites that are readily defensible or which provides strategic protection for resources.  Many otherwise desirable sites have been impossible to build on because of the threat of invasion.  In such cases, the ability to protect the site may be the first priority ~ immediate personal comfort is a secondary consideration.  An isolated crag or hilltop can provide a commanding view over the surrounding plains ~ Athens, Edinburgh, Jerusalem, Luxembourg, Madrid.
  18. A site at the entrance to a mountain pass can give strategic control over a vital cross-country route ~ Kabul, Peshawar, Sion.
  19. The most easily defended sites are those partly or completely surrounded by water.  Such locations include a hill around which a river meanders ~ Berne, Dhaka, Durham, New Orleans.
  20. Or a peninsula ~ Bombay, Boston, Helsinki.
  21. Or an island in a river ~ Leningrad, Paris, Seoul, Stockholm.
  22. Or an offshore island ~ Copenhagen, Hong Kong, Lagos, Mombasa, Venice.

Okay.  That is enough to think about for the present.  I'm not done, but I'll leave off until the next post.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

What Good are Town Maps?

As I write this, I have 22 pages left to move from the old wiki to the new; with 1,136 pages moved.  Hard work accomplishes miracles.

These last nine weeks, I've had to put my creativity on hold.  I haven't created any new content for said wiki, I've made no maps, I've stopped running my on-line game (which will be the first thing I correct, if there are anything but crickets there) and I've been unable to write anything even remotely inventive.  I've pushed myself to write some posts for the blog; but these have been observational, not operative.  I've introduced no new concepts, no formulas, no functional apparatuses.  I miss having some new concept to describe.

But I'm feeling the pressure fall away.  For a long time, I worried about losing my focus before the wiki was even half moved.  I worried about becoming sick of the process.  I worried I wouldn't have enough time.  But the wiki will be done and finished tomorrow.  I will be deleting it the end of April, so that I don't have to pay my monthly fee to wikispaces again.

I feel an urge to be creative.

So before I spend the rest of my day fighting with the Audacity program and the next podcast, I'm going to write a post about city adventures.  And yes, as I write that, I can feel the wet blanket of ennui fall on the head and shoulders of the Gentle Reader.  Gawd, why even bother writing about such a loathsome and utterly useless subject.  Town encounters don't work, they're boring, we're sick to death of mystery runnings and please, can we just drop it before we start?

Believe me, O Reader, I agree with you.  But let's try, anyway.  I have some ideas.

Some many months ago, I came across this map generator, which will create random map images such as this one:

Which will get comments like, "Thanks for sharing it. It's awesome and super helpful," "You made at least one person happy" and "This will make a fine addition to my collection."

Seriously, what am I missing?  This map is useless.  Try hitting the generator a few times and it is soon evident that the map "generator" is capable of producing the most banal, useless, generic collection of blocks and grey squares imaginable.  Yeah, I know a town has streets and buildings ~ but how is something without labels, without context, without a scale, supposed to be helpful in the least way?

But I confess, what would it matter anyway?  If the map above had every building meticulously named, if we knew the exact scale of the main avenue running through the town, if we knew how many ships the wharf was capable of handling, what good would it do us for actually running a game?  Would it be helpful to tell the players, every time, that the apothecary, with name and all, was three blocks west and one block over?  Who cares ~ as long as I can go to an apothecary's.  What do I care what it's called?  Or who runs it?  Or any of the other unsupported meaningless information that a town might potentially offer to me, the user?

If you're a DM, you've run into this problem many times.  Perhaps you've tried to make a party negotiate a town; perhaps you've tried to fill the houses with interesting people for the party to talk to; perhaps you've tried giving nice names to the taverns and inns, the theatre, the keeps and castles, etcetera ... but I'm sure you've found the players don't care.  Players care about two things where it comes to a town: where is it; and can I shop there?

Realistically, you can't map every town in your world; and that is where the generator seems like a needed support tool.  But the generator is as uniform as a small black dot on your general map.  It doesn't help me adventure.

Cities are not dungeons.  We can't just smack down a bunch of roads and buildings and pretend that we've created the same formula that a dungeon creates.  Dungeons are designed to resist movement; and they're filled with death dealing dangers and vicious monsters.  Urban centers can't afford to stop the inhabitants from moving around freely and the absence of danger is the point.  None of the characteristics that make a dungeon work as a dungeon exist in a city.  So the map itself is useless.

A real map, for real people, matters because we can't handwave travel in the real world.  But we can in role-playing and it makes sense to do so.  Why in the hell would we want to force players to stumble over every curb, turn every corner, walk along every by-way?  It's fucking boring.

And so we ought to ask ourselves, do we need a map at all?  I can tell you honestly, no.  We don't.  I haven't had an urban map in decades and no player has ever requested one.  We force urban maps on players because we think they create a sense of space and relevance.  And they might, for a minute or two; but then the next time the players hit a town, or the time after, and there's no map, the game doesn't suffer.

To justify an urban map, we must first create a need for one.

What does this map suggest?

This is Millau, in the south of France.  I've chosen it because it's old and because, like much of the rest of Europe, it has not seen modern war in any sense.  Thus, the old town, identifiable from all the red roofed buildings, is intact.  Likely, the layout of this town has not changed in a millennium.

The width of the map is all of 1300 meters, from the left side to the right.  From that, I deduce the first important thing from this map: at a good pace, taking into account the lack of a straight and easy route, to cross the map from left to right would probably cost about 20 to 25 minutes.  To walk the tree-lined, pear-shaped route in the map's middle, about 1600 meters, would take about the same amount of time.  And easily triple that if we take into account the other passersby, the need to look at shop windows, taking a rest on a bench, staring at a statue or two, having an appetite and so on.  In fact, if we were to go to Millau today, and start in the morning, we'd probably still be at it by dinner time.  Without even covering all the side streets inside the loup.

So the first thing we can get from the above it how much time does it take to explore?  It doesn't matter that the characters can move throughout the town freely ... that doesn't mean they have the will to walk that far or the wherewithal to know what lane to walk down to find that really important thing they have to buy.  If you or I wanted to locate the critical bookbinder in the town, we need to know how long that would take?

The other question the map above answers is "What's there?"  Not in the sense of where is it, but rather denoting that it does exist.  Most of the above consists of residences ~ useless for play.  We're not kicking our way into those unless we're pillaging the town or robbing a place ... and we don't need a map for the latter.

There's are restaurants, a pharmacy, plenty of hotels, a museum, a government office, even a dentist; but there's no waterpark (it's about twenty miles away, up the valley), or fountains, or airports.  At a glance, we can see that there are places where the party can't go ... it doesn't matter how free their movement is. The things themselves don't exist.

That may not seem relevant; or necessary to map.  But when we think about towns, we need to have it clearly in mind that although they offer services, they don't offer ALL the services that might exist.  Nor is it a matter of saying that bigger places have more services; that waterpark is near a small village called Compeyre.  Yes, the bigger places have a better chance of having more ... but that doesn't mean that something crucial, like a gourmet winery, a precision tool maker or the greatest sword-maker in the world won't be in some terrifically obscure place.

Rather than making a map, then, we're better off knowing how much actual space a town covers, and what's actually there, than we are in drawing meaningless streets, plazas and back roads.  We can run those things on the fly; hell, we have more than enough examples in our memories.  Just picture the players walking down a set of roads in some remembered resort town once visited in Mexico, Tasmania, Colorado or Maine.  It's even easier for European and Asian players.

Monday, April 23, 2018

Grognard's Progress

I'm sorry, but there will be no podcast today.

The reader may remember last week that I edited a podcast for last week, only to find that the export file was corrupted. I said at that time that I would have a podcast ready for today, probably loaded last night.

This last week, I found out why the file was corrupted.

The editing program I was using, Videopad, was licensed to my old computer, the one I replaced with reader support this last December.  Unfortunately, when I tried to transfer the program's licence to my new computer, I found the license had expired.  I could still use it on the old computer, but unless I wanted to re-license the program for a fee, I couldn't transfer it.  The solution seemed to be, then, that I should just use the old computer for that one thing.

This last week, the old computer died.  Completely.

Again, work lost.  Leading me to think that I need to get out of my old ways and teach myself Audacity.  Which I am doing.  But ... I'm not familiar with Audacity like I am with Videopad; so it is going more slowly.  Editing is a bit like art; and I've been very comfortable using a system that I've cut hundreds of hours of video on.  I've just had a few days with Audacity.

So if you will all rest patiently ... I will get these troubles under control.

In other news, I have moved 1,116 pages from my old wiki to my blog wiki, over a period of 9 weeks.  It is difficult to ascertain how many pages I have left, because part of the copying process creates duplicates.  Less than 150 I am sure at this point.


I have an exact number.  I have 94 pages left to move.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Gamesmanship Examples

Which brings us to the subject of gamesmanship.  Here I'll be suggesting techniques to "game" Dungeons and Dragons, in a way that does not contravene any rule, nor rely upon an argument that "the rule does not exist," in keeping with Stephen Potter's 1947 book, The Theory and Practice of Gamesmanship (or the Art of Winning Games without Actually Cheating).

Techniques may be used to interrupt, distract or otherwise break the flow of the DM's presentation, making it difficult for the DM to remain on message, or the players to maintain comprehension of what the DM is saying, allowing for opportunities to misunderstand, misquote, quibble about fine points or otherwise undermine the DM's arbitration of events.

  • Taking an unusually long time to roll up a character, choose the right die, make up one's mind what to do next, or otherwise holding up the game while asking for enough time to properly and accurately make a decision (and thus causing the DM to feel guilty if this "necessary" time is not granted).
  • Asking for key elements of the adventure's descriptions, goals, NPC participants or other crucial facts to be repeated, explained again, explained more in depth, or otherwise dissected, while pointing out aspects or key points that were previously stated in different words ~ then taking further steps to identify which "version" is true.
  • Leaving one's chair at a key moment, to use the bathroom, to fetch a drink or food, to make an important phone call that has been forgotten, or otherwise to simply step out of the picture so that either the campaign has to be suspended for the interim period or tied up with having to explain to the absent person what has happened in their absence.  Often includes momentary disappearances just when the character's participation is crucial.
  • Throwing dice as to be a distraction, dropping dice on the floor, throwing them under objects, rolling dice without purpose, organizing dice or other objects so that key moments in the adventure have to be repeated, or acting in a like distracting manner when other players must make a decision or the DM is presenting something important.
  • Maintaining intensive eye contact with the DM or another player except when attention is desired or asked for.
  • Complaining at length about lucky dice, not having lucky dice, the failing qualities of lucky dice, the importance of getting lucky dice ready or any other lasting verbiage on the subject of dice and which needs to be used.
  • Failing to remember a character sheet, failing to properly update a character sheet, getting pages mixed up, shuffling pages, losing pages, offering to "remember" details that were not written down or otherwise using bookkeeping as a means of distraction or furthering one's advancement through guesswork and the natural generosity of others who do not wish to take a hard line.
  • Encouraging others who are feeling a sense of stress from game play that it is "only a game," waxing at length with academic details about facets of the game or adventure, underscoring statements made by the DM that fearful events "aren't so bad" or that consequences are "no big deal."  In general, downplaying the emotional qualities of the game.
  • Using tools or weapons with which a character is not proficient, only to mention afterwards that they're not.
  • Connecting the wrong results with die roll numbers momentarily, such as stating that a roll is under wisdom and then stating a half-minute later that "I was mistaken."  Various innocent-sounding mistakes that seem to occur with frightful regularity.
  • Deliberately overthinking situations, so as to slow down game play.

    Techniques may also be used to cause other players to overthink parts of the game, mislead other players from chosen decisions, cast doubt on the DM's presentation or otherwise make an issue or a situation more confusing by introducing complications.
    • Proposing speculations that fit the facts that have been given to the players but which are not, in themselves, substantiated by what's happened or what's been seen: "Maybe the villain is some kind of noble lord;" "Maybe there's a beholder at the bottom of this dungeon;" "Maybe we can't find the informer because it's a trick and there is no informer!"
    • Giving advice to other players that subtly increase the advice-giver's advantage.  Such advice is often vague or potentially destructive to the listener.
    • Asking for advice in order to seem like a member of the group, then paying no attention to it.
    • Claiming less ability at running a character, speaking in character, knowing what to do and so on, in order to gain an advantage as someone who shouldn't be held too much to task for errors made.
    • At the same time, claiming a much higher expertise than the player has, in order to cause others to give greater weight to the player's statements and suggestions.
    • Stopping play in order to point out possible dire consequences if other players take actions they've already decided upon, pointing out key details that slant the decision in a very negative light, so that the player feels a greater stress or hesitates before taking the action, or balks.

    And techniques may be used to "set up" other players by deliberately failing to act as a team member.
    • Making a promise to support another player in a dangerous situation, then failing to act when the time comes.
    • Attacking weaker or minor creatures in order to minimize the amount of damage sustained, while strongly remarking upon the joint participation at the end of the fight.
    • Hanging back to be sure to give support in the way of healing or other aid, while risking no real harm.
    • Inflating one's participation, particularly when rolling extraordinarily well at a lucky moment.
    • Refusing to share resources because they must be "saved for later.

    I'm sure the reader can think of several of their own.

    Friday, April 20, 2018

    Will the Real Participant Please Stand Up

    Continuing with yesterday's post, I'd like to expand some of my points about character, discussing what a character is, as opposed to what a character does or wants.

    First, I'd like to express any misgivings that some readers have that this post, or the last one, is a lead-in to any idea of creating game effects to enhance character play.  Far from it.  It is my wish here to explain that characterization is so far afield of role-playing games that it is actually quite foolish to pretend that we're role-playing a meaningful character.  At best, we're manipulating cardboard cut-outs of characters ~ what I called in the last post, "robots."

    To understand what I'm arguing, we have to get a better idea of what makes a character.  It's safe to say that the readers and I are helplessly adrift where it comes to any assignation regarding character types, character quality or the meaning of character in a story.  As individuals, we easily fall in love with characters whom we find familiar, or with whom we identify, blinding ourselves to legitimate interpretations of merit or import.  Because we think a character is "cool," we discard all discussion regarding the actual structure, function or legitimacy of the character in the story, becoming hot-headed and insisting to others that they just don't understand why such-and-such is the "greatest character that has ever existed," a belief that is based more upon our visceral sense of that character as it relates to us, rather than how it might relate to others who have different interests or tastes.

    It gets worse when a judgment is applied to that belief.  We decide not to be friends, or even acquaintances, with people who don't like our favorite characters, as though these are yardsticks towards determining who is a real person of value and who is obviously a dolt.  The internet is full of this sort of thing; and it makes any instructional discussion of character nearly impossible.

    I am, here, going to discuss three types of character, directly in terms of how they functionally act within a story, with an intention to explaining what makes something fictional more like what any real person actually is.  The goal of an artist making a character at all is to relay a certain reality, from the perspective of someone who is not you in the hopes that you will understand the motivation of a perspective other than your own.  Our perspective, however dear it is to us, is limited.  We turn to art to expand our limitations; to understand better how other people think; and hopefully, in understanding, we expand ourselves, so that we become more aware, better prepared for other people and more empathetic of their needs.

    And so ... this long-winded effort is simply for this purpose: please put your emotional attachments on a shelf, and listen.

    Looking through literature on this subject today, I am unsatisfied by the scholarship on this subject.  Most of us are familiar with the terms round or flat characters; fewer, perhaps, with dynamic vs. static.  I'm perfectly in agreement with these terms; but I find that I want a more definitive separation in types of round or dynamic characters.  Therefore, I'm going to propose three character types that I'd like to discuss: fixed, reflexive and conflicted.

    Fixed characters are those that fit into the categories flat and static.  Regardless of the circumstances of the story, regardless of what's happened, the character neither expresses nor functionally acts in a different manner.  For example, He-Man and Skeletor.  Every episode of the children's show features the same characters, acting in the same predictable manner, with the same goals, the same function, employing the same responses, with no real emotion.  An earlier example, from my childhood, would be Dudley Do-Right: utterly without fear, or comprehension really, but excessively brave, ready, tenacious and indestructible.

    Virtually every character ever run by a player in a role-playing campaign is a fixed character.  The background fetish, as a feature, is the means by which most players set their character's behaviour or motivation in stone.  Who among us have not noticed when a given fighter, regardless of how many fights, how many close calls with death, how many foolish mistakes, ALWAYS bulldozes into every doorway and every fight without the least hesitation?  Or the thief that always steals, or the cleric that always gives the same sort of speech before a fight, or the dwarf that perpetually argues with the elf, no matter how many years the two of them have spent saving each other's hide?  Players, as a species, love fixed characters.  This is part of their fetish.  Having dreamt up the perfect representation of their character's identity, they will play that identity with unvarying exactitude ... even to where that same identity will float from character to character, as previous incarnations (whatever their skills, class or backgrounds) die away.

    Fixed characters, however, are boring.  They may satisfy the player, but they exhaust everyone else.  They are the furthest sort of being from an actual, real person ... and in a way, for role-playing, that is a positive feature.  For while fixed characters don't change, they also can't be really missed when they die.  Another stock character can be easily made on the same pattern.  Therefore, any personal relationship between the player and the made-up character can be dismissed.  Nothing is lost, because nothing was ever really there.

    Reflexive characters, which might also be thought of as responsive characters, are quite different.  As the narrative continues around the character, the character is forced to adapt, converting themselves to fit the new world they find themselves in.  Reflexive characters are a kind of dynamic character; but in a very particular way.  Intrinsically, they don't change.  I have hundreds of examples to pick from, but I'll choose something from a film that I'm sure 90% of my readers have seen more than once:  the character Henry Hill from the film Goodfellas.

    Throughout the film, Henry is repeatedly forced to deal with the steady, unrelenting changes going on around him, as the mafia/mob lifestyle he lives transforms from the 1950s into the 1960s.  He experiences the lifestyle in multiple ways: as a kid, as an enforcer, as a husband, as a member of a vitriolic set of friends and acquaintances ... then as a struggling drug dealer trying to make it on his own and finally as an informer against the very people he's known all his life.  With each change, he adjusts, he bends his moral framework, he allows himself to participate more fluidly and in an hands-on manner, he submits to the risks he has to take and finally, he submits to the only choice he has left as the walls close around him.

    But he doesn't change.  He doesn't question his infatuation with the goodfellas' lifestyle when his dad beats him, or when he sees a man knifed in the street, or when he watches his friends murder Billy Bats, or when he goes to prison, when people are murdered all around him, or when he's lowered to having to deal in coke or even after he's been forced into retirement as a relocated witness.  At the end of the film, Henry's chief regret is that he isn't able to return to the lifestyle he loves.  And while this makes an interesting movie, and it makes Henry into a very interesting, profoundly unique character, the actual character himself is without regret, without doubt, without remorse, without any rational response to any of the awful, criminal, sociopathic activities with which he's connected.  In that particular way, he's a very flat character ... no more changeable than Dudley Do-Right.

    This is the sort of character than DMs want when running adventure-driven campaigns that steadily move from adventure to adventure.  The characters need to make the best possible use of their resources, adapting themselves to the circumstances, overcoming the problems they face, and never questioning why their character is always ready for another adventure, always ready to risk their lives again, always ready to put it all on the line for treasure or what other motivation they have.  No one wants a character who hesitates at the start of an adventure, who suddenly questions the point of all this; that is not in keeping with the substance of the game.

    Conflicted characters represent much more nearly what we are as human beings.  They, too, are dynamic ~ but not only in the way they respond, but also in the way they recognize that there are multiple choices that they can make regarding any situation.  They're not sure.  They are filled with doubts.  When something startling, unexpected or significant happens, they question themselves, even to where they are ready to separate themselves from the life they're living, and accept the consequences of that decision.  Again, I have many examples I could draw from, going back to the Greeks and Shakespeare ... but none of you want me to explain any of this by pulling out Hamlet, again.  Given that I want an adventure of sorts, and a familiar character, whom most readers have probably seen, I will go with Remy from the film Ratatouille.

    Remy, like Henry, is in love with something: being a cook.  However, Remy is far more conflicted over the relationship between his love of food and his family.  He knows his father is wrong; but at the same time, throughout the film, it is important to Remy that his father understands, because Remy isn't capable of just abandoning his family without hesitation.  As such, he lets himself be pushed into situations (being food-tester, providing stolen food for his brother Emile and friends) ... but he knows its wrong and he experiences angst over it.

    Similarly, he doubts a lot of his actions, even his bold ones.  He hesitates before fixing the soup.  He runs away from Linguini at first before changing his mind.  He throws away his morals in a fit of pique and lets all the rats into the kitchen; and then experiences remorse when he's exposed and he's lost his friend.  Then he returns to the kitchen to help Linguini anyway, even though he is only a rat and may very well be caught and killed (we know he won't be, obviously, he's the star, but that is not Remy's perspective).  He does it because he knows Linguini can't face Anton Ego without him.

    With each change in the story, Remy re-evaluates his belief system.  He's never sure what he wants.  He's never sure how it is going to turn out.  And often, his choices land him in hot water, which he clearly regrets.  It is this conflict that makes Remy compelling: because it is a conflict that we ourselves struggle with every day, as we go to work, as we make plans, as we fight with our families, as we puzzle out the message behind a blog post, as we act like human beings.

    A character like Remy would be a disaster in a role-playing game.  Trying to run such a character, inventing the character's inward struggles with each part of the adventure, might be an interesting artistic venture, but it would make a frustrating, undesirable and masturbatory excursion for a group of players ... perhaps more so if every player attempted to do the same, in different ways, according to their personal interpretations of how their conflicted character viewed the world. Admittedly, there might be various drama troupes who found such an activity interesting (though note that when improving, actors always play the scene for laughs, not drama) ... but I don't think a role-playing game would be made better by the experiment.

    That said, we ARE playing this experience in one way. We are actual conflicted humans, playing the game with our own conflicted selves.  But we are not, thankfully, trying to puzzle out how some invented personality deals with conflict; we're quite used to our own conflict and we are quite able to put it on a shelf, if need be, so that we can participate in a social activity, like playing a game.

    Admittedly, some are not.

    When the players struggle with making up their minds about what to do; when they hesitate before fighting a dragon or question if their quest-giver is actually the villain; this is the sort of realistic, pleasant and meaningful conflict that we are seeking from game play.  We don't want this from characters; but we DO want it from players.

    And that is why questing to make role-playing a matter of playing a character is the pursuit of lunacy.  We don't want "characters" ~ we want flat, fixed, reflexive personalities that respond to their situations in a predictable manner, so that the REAL PEOPLE can enjoy the game for the contextual dilemmas it provides.  Any role-player waxing on about the "amazing" qualities of an invented character is in a state of delusion; they've fallen in love with a wooden, two-dimensional robot, and not with any being of the substance of a fellow player.

    We've missed the fact of this.  We've allowed ourselves to be hoodwinked by words used in a particular way, concocting a particular chicanery, which we've bought into because it "sounded good"; but it doesn't stand up to authentic scrutiny.

    It's bullshit.

    Thursday, April 19, 2018

    The Flaw in Role-Playing

    I have lately been thinking that there is a case to be made against "role-playing" ~ in which players take the role of an imaginary character who engages in adventures ~ which I am not seeing elsewhere.  I am seeing the very notion itself as a sort of fraud ... in which an idea, not very well explained or examined, is sold to a group of would-be believers, ready to pay out for something they haven't actually received.

    In my usual way, I'm taking this opportunity to write out some thoughts on the matter, as a method for concretely thinking through the problem.  After a time, pursuing thoughts in one's own head, without making notes, is a fruitless operation.  After a time, it requires an act of communication with others to force one to clarify one's thinking.  That is the purpose of this post.

    To begin with, looking closely, I'm not very happy with the definition of "role-playing" as it is described for the purpose of gaming.  Let's look at the definition as it appears on Wikipedia:
    "... a game in which players assume the role of characters in a fictional setting.  Players take responsibility for acting out these roles within a narrative, either through literal acting or through a process of structured decision-making or character development."

    The WOTC was somewhat disappointing.  I found this on their D&D support page:

    The best definition I could find on their website was this (after twenty minutes of searching):
    "The first Dungeons & Dragons game was played back when Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson chose to personalize the massive battles of their fantasy wargames with the exploits of individual heroes."

    Justin Alexander of The Alexandrian, a blog that's been around longer than me, defines it as:
    "Roleplaying games are self-evidently about playing a role. Playing a role is about making choices as if you were the character. Therefore, in order for a game to be a roleplaying game (and not just a game where you happen to play a role), the mechanics of the game have to be about making and resolving choices as if you were the character. If the mechanics of the game require you to make choices which aren’t associated to the choices made by the character, then the mechanics of the game aren’t about roleplaying and it’s not a roleplaying game."

    And the International Journal of Role-playing points out that, after expressing doubts about the latest attempts at defining role-playing (circa 2009),
    "There are no final definitions for role-playing games, only definitions suited better or worse to a certain historical understanding of role-playing games. However, this does not mean that role-playing games should not be defined, as the definitions given can advance our understanding of what role-playing games are and could be. This paper takes part in the ongoing process of definition."

    I warn the reader at this point that the paper above spends most of its time trying to produce a universal definition of role-playing games ... which, like most academic papers that quibble, sours for me on that issue.

    Finally, we come to the definition that the above paper from Finland discusses, the definition by Michael Hitchens and Anders Drachen, which can be found on the same article.  It is quite long; but what the hell, we're not paying for ink here.  Let's have all of it.
    "Game World: A role-playing game is a game set in an imaginary world. Players are free to choose how to explore the game world, in terms of the path through the world they take, and may revisit areas previously explored. The amount of the game world potentially available for exploration is typically large.
    "Participants: The participants in the games are divided between players, who control individual characters, and games masters (who may be represented in software for digital examples) who control the remainder of the game world beyond the player characters. Players affect the evolution of the game world through the action of their characters.
    "Characters: The characters controlled by the players may be defined in quantitative and/or qualitative terms and are defined individuals in the game world, not identified only as roles or functions. These characters can potentially develop, for example in terms skills, abilities or personality, the form of this development is at least partially under player control and the game is capable of reacting to the changes.
    "Game Master: At least one, but not all, of the participants has control over the game world beyond a single character. A term commonly used for this function is 'game master,' although many others exist. The balance of power between players and game masters, and the assignment of these roles, can vary, even within the playing of a single game session. Part of the game master function is typically to adjudicate on the rules of the game, although these rules need not be quantitative in any way or rely on any form of random resolution.
    "Interaction: Players have [a] wide range of configurative options for interacting with the game world through their characters, usually including at least combat, dialogue and object interaction. While the range of options is wide, many are handled in a very abstract fashion. The mode of engagement between player and game can shift relatively freely between configurative and interperative.
    "Narrative: Role-playing games portray some sequence of events within the game world, which gives the game a narrative element. However, given the configurative nature of the players’ involvement, these elements cannot be termed narrative according to traditional narrative theory."

    Excellent.  That is nice and meaty.  I grant it does not define a great many role-playing games, of a kind, but it does better for D&D than anything I've seen.  It gives a sound, roundish definition for role-playing games as a body

    It does not, however, make a good case for "role-playing," per se.  Where it comes down to the principles of "playing a character," we have the same familiar designations:

    • Players can have a personality.
    • Players can participate in a dialogue.  

    I can see that I'm going to get in deep water from here, so I'll ask the reader if they really want to keep reading past this point.  I'll give this warning: if you view "role-playing" within the game with strong sense of nostalgia, personal subjectivity and visceral prejudice, you're not going to understand what comes next ... because you will have missed the point that this post is a deconstruction on what the game allows, not a judgement on how you, as an individual, feel about the game or the sense you have of role-playing in it.  Whatever your personal gut-level instinct about the intuitive thrill you get from pretending to be whomever, most of that is coming from the cathartic soup that is the human construct that defines who and what you are.  All of that is not coming from the game; it is not transferable to any other human; and it is not relevant to this discussion.

    All right.  I'm going to take a moment to explain that the substantive quality that makes a "character" is that it has a set of mental and moral qualities distinctive to that construct.  We can call this a personality.  Exploration, skills, definable traits like how much we can lift, how fast we can run, how much we know about beekeeping, what sequence of events have recently revolved around us and so on ARE NOT elements of our personality.  My personality, your personality, any personality will view exactly similar events, will possess exactly similar skills, see exactly similar places and react to such things in a wholly unique and individual manner.

    Therefore, it must be understood that when we say, "we are role-playing a character," we do not mean someone with a high strength or a breast plate made of bronze or possessing red hair; we do not mean a fighter, a cleric or a thief; we do not mean someone with dead parents or a lot of money or seven reasons to kill the man who killed our father.  These things are outside our mental and moral qualities.  These things are what we have, how we look, what circumstances have occurred and what plans we make.

    The moral quality of a character is NOT defined by the desire to seek revenge.  It is defined by why this particular character, and not a different character, would seek revenge for something that many other characters would happily leave as a problem for the authorities, the gods or pure chance to resolve.  Why in particular is your character built in such a way that your character sees the only possible reaction to murder as the compulsion to commit more murder?  Until you look into the character, and see the motivation ~ which is not, as many believe, the death of the father ~ then you are not, as yet, playing a personality.

    And it is here, I think, that the role-playing game offers absolutely no contribution whatsoever.  Once it is established that the role-played character is going to kill the killer of the father, everything else that follows is a mechanical operation that can as easily be performed by a robot, with little or no evidence to the contrary.  The player must find the killer, the player must trap the killer and the player must kill the killer ... all of which is problem-solving and none of which is in any way captured as the "mental quality distinctive to the individual."  Another character, with a purportedly different personality, would have to solve the puzzles of finding, trapping and killing the target in pretty much the same way.  We are fooling ourselves if we think we are "creating a personality" by defining what the character wants or does.  Such things are superficial materialism, and nothing else.

    Therefore, the "role" that is being played is very definitely not a matter of reproducing a personality.  None of us are remotely capable of understanding any personality except our own, except in the superficial observation of others, whose thoughts we don't possess.  Therefore, if we are killing the killer of our fictional father, at the very best we are playing a part in which we are acting as we think we would, if our real selves lived in such a place, was possessed of such a father, had such and such abilities, had the nerve to carry forward with finding and trapping the enemy, with the understanding that killing is definitely our intention afterwards.

    Unless you are the sort of person whom NO ONE wants at their game table, this isn't even a realistic portrayal of your own personality.  At some point, in order to commit yourself to the deed, you will have to obtain a greater and greater perspective on your character, before the murdering even comes close to happening, so that you can view your actions as one would view the superficial appearance of another person whom we learned to be capable of such a thing.  So again, the role we are playing here is the role of a robot.

    And that is the definition of role-playing we find when we don't attach "game" to the search:
    "The unconscious acting out of a particular role in accordance with the perceived expectations of society."

    Role-playing is a delusion.  It is a chance for the participants to speak in funny voices, to ham up a performance, to present a thoroughly sketchy, slapdash, artificial representation, more or less as well as we might expect a sophisticated robot to present, without any real interest in subjectively examining the fundamental reasons why our character became a fighter, how being a fighter fails to meet our expectations, how neurotic we are about our ability to fight, how guilt-ridden we feel once we've acted in accordance with our abilities or how possessed we are by the general sense of inadequacy, doubt, a need for denial in the face of horror or any of the other uncomfortable, unspoken of things that we are careful not to speak of in mixed company.

    Once that is grasped ~ and I expect very, very few to reach that awareness ~ then we can see that all attribution to "role-playing" as a superior functionality in role-playing games, versus "roll-playing," as is often cried, is nothing more than a superficial desire to enact a superficial narrative in a superficially controlled manner, in such a way that no element remotely emblematic of game-play can circumvent our intentions.

    Which is atrocious.