Monday, October 29, 2018

Recoloring the Desert

I haven't worked on any maps in ages ... that's because back in December, I downloaded Microsoft Office 365, which it turns out is a ram hog of the first order.  It was effectively impossible to do any real work on large publisher files; apparently, Microsoft hates anything larger than a post-card, or ~ it could be ~ it insists everyone must spend $8,000 on a computer.  I've spent a year looking for a solution to this, reading endless accounts of other people complaining the Publisher runs like a frog with one leg on a Texas Highway in August, even though they've bought systems four and eight times as powerful as mine.

So, recently, I gave up.  I have obtained a copy of Office 2007 and, surprise surprise, Publisher works perfectly on it.

Prior to the hiatus, I was steadily redesigning maps, giving the more color and detailing parts of maps that were less civilized, primarily adding ice caps and swamplands.  Apparently the last time I posted about maps was in July of 2017.  Wow.

So, I'm working on my first desert; an area between the Aral Sea (old world boundaries, before it dried up) and the Caspian.  Here's an image of what the map used to look like depicting the area:

All the necessary information is there, but the it isn't exactly beautiful.  The empty hexes are all colored yellow (for dry steppe), orangish pink (for semi-desert) and grey (for full desert).

My idea for a map scheme has been to soften the lines; leave the hexes in place, but reduce the visual effect of the hexes for a more appealing, less rigid map design, while the hex color is reduced to the back ground.

I was fighting with the problem when my old computer began to suffer problems and then didn't pick it up while this new one couldn't manage the process with Office 365.  Now, poking at it for a week, here and there, relaxing after work, here's an example of the new color scheme for the same region:

Much better, I think.  More appealing to the eye, more colorful, and yet retaining all the information from the previous version.  I'll be using this color scheme as I continue to rework maps over the next year, along with adjustments to swamp (as around Astrakhan on the left) and deserts, while changing the names from Times New Roman to Garamond.  It's a relaxing process; I often do it while watching a movie or other entertainment.

Friday, October 26, 2018

Halloween is Nigh

My head is pretty much down lately.  I was given a day off in the middle of this madness we call Halloween ... a madness that I have been blessedly free of until these last three weeks ... and less than one week left, when it is all over.  Such is the experience of working in a costume shop.

Much of this month has been spent packing.  I've been fitting odd-shaped swords, bows with arrows, AK-47s, wizard's staves, 24-inch Captain America shields and other assorted items into Frankenboxes (where we make packages from the dead remains of other boxes), in order to ship them as far away as Sweden and Australia early in the month, and then progressively nearer as the time factor between shipping and Friday tonight, with the onset of ten thousand Halloween parties throughout the world.  I have the day off today because its more-or-less too close to party time to do much shipping.

And as October has progressed, so have the number of phone calls.  The calls we got at the end of September were different.  We were almost fully stocked, with costumes and accessories still arriving right through until yesterday (and probably today, but I'm not there).  The customers were cheerful, pleasant and sure of their costume ideas.  Not so much now.  The stock has trod its way out the door and more and more we have to tell the customers, "No, that's sold out."  Most take it well ... but there is an unquestionable air of desperation.  Impatient desperation.

When I go back tomorrow, it will be mostly parents calling.  Parents who didn't think to bring their kids in sooner.  Parents who were busy.  Parents who have been putting it off because Halloween is a chore.  We've already seen some pretty awful parents.  It is all part of the experience.

I'm slightly disturbed by parents who are anxious to find excessively violent costume ideas for their 5-year-old children.  I suppose I can understand Jason; the hockey mask is iconic and after decades of beyond-the-movie references the killer isn't any worse than Dracula or Frankenstein.  But Saw?  Okay, maybe Jigsaw, but some obscure character from the film?  I had a call like that just a few days ago.  Or what last year's Terrifier movie?  For a 5-year-old?  Just when did this near-infant child see this film character ... when they were four?

Some could argue with me, but I think that the kid has no idea, and the parent just wants to see the kid dressed as some obscure about-to-be dead character from Saw or as a freakishly murderous clown.  It's not a far cry from the parent who wants to dress their three-month old as a pink fluffy sheep or their two-year-old as Bonnie from 5 Nights at Freddies.  I'm saying that the line between, "I want to dress my children as my personal dolls" and "I want to let my children pick out a costume for themselves" is a pretty fuzzy line.

The other ask is the constant request for inflatable costumes for children.  Inflatable costumes are pretty cool.  For example, we sell this one for about $150.  That's a full grown man in the costume, because it's about 7 feet tall and 10+ feet long.  There are motors that inflate the costume and they weigh hardly anything, making them awfully popular.  And of course children want to wear them.

I hate to say it, but we basically sell this costume in
our store; only it is even more invisible.
However, the costume is basically a plastic bag.  Which reminds me of an old Saturday Night Live sketch with Dan Aykroyd playing Irwin Mainway, a manufacturer who sells Halloween costumes for kids that are really dangerous and inappropriate.  I did my best to find a clip but I think it may be banned from the Internet.  Yes, it is really that irresponsible - Aykroyd at his absolute best.

Putting children inside plastic bags is not a good idea; the motor conks out and the costume begins to deflate and the child either doesn't notice or begins to panic.  Instead of doing the logical thing and opening the costume, they freak out, roll around on the ground and suffocate themselves.  Most parents wouldn't think of that ~ and most who did would think, "Not my child."

I get about ten calls a day from parents looking for inflatable dinosaur costumes for children.  Fun, fun, fun.

It's a real kick when I can say "Yes," to someone who has been looking all over the country for a particular costume.  It's fun, too, when I can boost someone's confidence by assuring that the costume will fit and it will look good.  We sell some very, very nice costumes.  No one took me up on my offer of giving advice about costumes this year, which is a shame.  I really have the inside scoop here.

Well, after a few days, we can put Halloween to bed and then it is Santa suits, Santa suits, Santa suits all the live-long day.  I've already had quite a number of those conversations ... and let me just say: if you're one of those people who buys your own $300 Santa suit so that you can dress in it every year and make kids happy, someone ought to erect a statue to you.

You're a damn hero.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

The Silver Age Cometh

If you’re the kind of D&D player who wants your reading material intellectually rich and gooey, this is definitely the blog. Still, I’d just like to comment a little on the recent posts, which I know hasn’t left much room for light-hearted reading. And regarding that, I’ve been thinking about the scattergun posts that I began writing years ago, and how that has evolved into lengthy series posts and in-depth investigations into the core beliefs underlying D&D and other role-playing genres.

Truth is, my agenda from the beginning of this blog was to inform, to explain what I think D&D “is” … its measure, its potential, the fundamental methodology that underlies how it is run and how it is played.

Unquestionably, it was presumptuous of me to believe that I knew the answers to those questions. People said that I was flogging the "one true way" and that my whole approach was that I was right, and they were all wrong.

That's almost true. They're all wrong ... but so am I.

Which is why I keep trying to figure out how to be more right tomorrow than I am today.  It doesn't do any good to offer another subjective opinion on the substance of role-playing.  We've been offering that since the days of the Dragon Magazine and it hasn't moved the conversation forward in 35 years.  When I have a discussion about alignment today, I hear the same arguments, the same evasions, the same half-baked definitions that I heard when Boy George was singing Karma Chameleon.  The conversation is stuck in the Dark Ages and all the rationally considered personal rhetoric I can offer isn't going to change that.

That is why, increasingly, I've been trying to approach the game from established precepts outside the D&D community ... and trying to build a consensus among those actually playing, rather than those who want to profit from having us play.  Or from those who are turning liveplay into a business, so that film companies and celebrities who have never offered a thing to enhance the game can pollute the agenda and the format for at least a generation.  Whatever approach I'm here to offer now is on the verge of being completely washed away by sponsored louts in a way that will make the min-maxing of powergamers look like an appreciated characteristic of RPG's Golden Age.

Make no mistake, we are definitely moving into role-playing's Silver Age and it is going to be ... an unholy mess.  Those readers who talk about playing D&D until they live in a retirement home are going to find themselves increasingly isolated and made into dinosaurs by the wave of fanboys and girls who don't play, don't understand why anyone would play, when the liveplaying by their heroes is so ... much ... better.

But then, there are so few of us around anyway, who would care?

I have no wish to watch my active game be transformed into a passive experience, where I watch others play, no matter how charismatic.  We've seen the process before.  Where once we had shows that taught how to cook, now we have shows where cooking has been transformed into a sport, where the actual cooking is never explained or even reasonably demonstrated, in order to make room for infantilised adults to express their anxieties and ultimately their blubbering tears when they fail to "win" ... as though knowing how to cook isn't itself an achievement.  Where once we had shows that explained how to make furniture or rebuild your house, now we watch people argue with each other in houses that are being remodeled in the background and off camera, presumedly by a crew of someones who come in when the main personalities stop arguing and go to bed.  Because while tens of thousands might be interested in cooking and renovation, millions are interested in watching people they will never be fight arguments they will never have, during experiences that they will never experience, because it is easier than rising to the bar of having to do something.

For a lot of people ~ a hundred times more than those who have ever DM'd or played in an RPG ~ the Silver Age is going to be a wonderful thing.  They're going to love their personalities, their favorite shows, their most cherished moments and their re-enactments of episodes and adventures, spotted with actual attempts at role-playing but mostly their attempts at producing their own liveplay theatres, which have already exploded across the web.  What they won't like is the inevitable Bronze Age that follows ~ and more quickly than it did for comic books ~ when efforts to create more and more interesting liveplay events drift into the "dark age" of attention-seeking.  But I won't have to write about that for a few years.

My only refuge ~ the only one I can see ~ is to drift myself into academia.  There's a chance that actual role-playing can be preserved ... but I admit, not much of a chance.  I see no chance at all if it isn't grounded in some kind of legitimacy; an examination that will stand the test of time and the shattering of gameplay as "doing it like the heroes on our game channel" becomes more important than playing the game.  Sometimes I feel like a monk in Ireland, glad to have a hovel near the coast where it's quiet and we can think clearly about things that really matter.

Of course, that's my presumption again.  Who says I'm good enough to be a monk?  I'm probably what they say I am: just a boring guy who doesn't understand that the game is just about having fun.

My plan is to produce 36 classes in the RPG 201 course, if I can.  I do plan to present a mid-term exam, and then a final exam, though I'll be surprised if more than a handful try either.  I intend to grade the exams, just as though I were a professor, and I intend to be quite clear on what the exams will be graded upon, so that I can demonstrate after the fact to anyone why this effort got a 'D' and why this effort got an 'A.'  I've been trying to come up with some meaningful artifact that can be gained by those who pass the course (a C- will be sufficient), as proof and for "bragging rights," but I can't think of anything that satisfies my standards ~ meaning, something I would be proud of having if I participated and someone else was grading.

Once I've finished the full course, I intend to reproduce the work as a book, with expanded passages, more examples, fixed passages and a better construction for the overall work.  Afterwards, if I can think of a 300-level course that would follow, I will work on that.  And so on until I choke on my bedsheets at the age of 90+, if I can manage to live that long.

I expect to do most of this in obscurity, watching millions get thrilled as they pay $75 to have their picture taken next to the celebrity of their choice, who can't seem to remember their spell list and needs to read it over again every time it is their turn to cast magic.  Or perhaps I'll watch a movie with the smug bastard who, after preening through nine years of being a DMing celebrity, will finally be given the lead role in a Rom-Com.

It'll probably win an Oscar.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

13th Class: Game Consensus

Today we want to look at how some of the material we've been discussing has a practical application.  To begin a brief overview, we began with the question, what parts of the game are absolutely fundamental, regardless of the participants and their impact on the material?  We then discussed the methods by which we prepare ourselves for playing the game, employing research, estimation and planning, resources and education, then practice and rehearsal.

Afterwards, we examined the process by which an uninformed player of the game becomes competent, then how a competent player becomes an expert ~ and linked to that, an examination between subjective and objective evidence and its influence on our thinking processes.  We then discussed methods of determining the values of subjective evidence, as a means of pursuing objectivity where none exists, through conventions, preparations and mentorship.  Our next three classes dealt with popular theories of RPGs: storytelling, heroism and episodic game-play.  Then with our last class, we pursued the fundamentals of meaning-making, in which we spoke about the meanings we make for ourselves, that serve as a stand-in for knowledge, when making decisions about presenting role-playing games.

Our intention today is to show how preparedness readies us to be mentors, through our understanding of the principles, language and distinctions of RPGs, that in turn places novices on a strong footing to apprehend the game and make themselves capable of the social interactions that take place at the game table.  This is not only a matter of creating new gamemasters, but also through improving the comprehension of the game players themselves, enabling them to know more thoroughly the game they are playing, through the eyes of the person running the game.

This is all important.  All the participants, and not just the Dungeon Master, need to understand every facet of what is happening, all the time ~ just as the participants of any recreational joint activity are given full and complete information about all the facets of any particular game, sport or recreation.  We inform others interested in fishing where the fish are, what the rules surrounding fishing are, what lures and available means of fishing exist and we do so cheerfully and without reservation.  Likewise with participation in a team sport, or when we sit to play a board game.  Socially we consider the social process of meaning-making includes full disclosure where the rules and opportunties are concerned ~ we only conceal our individual strategies and tactics.

As individuals, it falls upon us to explain concepts and limits to other players freely.  We do so because the activity is communal and friendly.  We do so because fellow informed players who learn the game we play waste less of our time asking questions, making confused and erroneous choices, failing to take part in discussions because they don't really understand what's going on and ultimately choosing not to take part again, either because they don't "get it," or because they are ashamed to admit they need help.

It does nothing for us not to explain how specific tools, weapons or spells work.  We have nothing to gain by insisting that players teach themselves, to "prove" themselves worthy of our games, as though the goal is to demonstrate commitment to an ideology rather than active participation.  It does nothing for the DM to reserve knowledge about rules from the players, as an "edge" that gives the DM more power to pervert the game in the DM's favor, as though knowing what the rules are exists as a challenge to the DM's power, rather than a means of facilitating easier and better game-play.  A lack of clarity among players and DM is tiresome and destructive to game play.  A social agreement upon the rules ~ all the rules, all the time ~ creates momentum, trust, unified goals and streamlined play.

Where possible, we should take the time explain the terminology used throughout the game, suspending the game as necessary.  If need be, we can invest some time explaining the relationship between the terminology and how the players view the matter being represented - for example, what a "hit point" is in the game we're running, and what it represents.  We need to obtain a consensus on the use of each skill used by the players, what it does, how it works in this campaign, what limits it has ... and then expand that practice to all the aspects of the game.

In some sense, this is like the "session zero" that is postulated by some participants ~ but we really need to go further.  Role-playing games change progressively as more skills, powers and levels of status become available to the players, so orientation needs to be a constant part of the game process.

Where a consensus cannot be reached; where discord repeatedly disrupts the game over a point of the rules or a point of character building, or with role-play, then discard that rule ... disallow that means of character building ... and reduce the use of role-play.  We cannot stress this enough.  Meaning-making demands social connectivity and relative thought processes, in order to produce a symbiotic thinking apparatus that enables all the participants to share the experience.  If discord keeps popping up, it is a system error.  The system is driving the participants apart.  The answer is to change the system ~ either replacing it with something better or removing it's necessity.  Organizing thinking among the participants improves the subjective experience for all, because it is the same subjective experience.

By investing comparatively little time in making all the participants aware of the game's precepts, we reduce opportunities for gamesmanship.  Gamesmen take advantage of conflict, distraction and antagonism to "break the flow" of the activity.  "Flow" is the mental state of operation in which a single person, or group of people, are fully immersed in an activity to the point where they are fully absorbed.  A common experience where flow occurs is when one's sense of space and time is lost.  Hours go by without consciously experienced as one does when participating in activities that are dull, repetitive or taxing.

Breaking flow is the act of disrupting immersion by tactics such as asking questions that have already been answered, demanding approval or attention, making comments or refences to material that are out of context, dragging out a decision that needs making, adding unnecessary noise, giving purposeless or directly destructive advice, speaking out of turn and so on ... all elements which are advantaged by unclear semantics in the rules, practices that spark conflicts and multiple interpretations of the same game element.

When explaining the rules and precepts of a role-playing game to the participants, the least likely person to appreciate the effort will most likely be the player who feels they "already know the answer" ~ which precludes the certainty of consensus ~ or who feels that the practice is a "waste of time."  This last clearly indicates that one participant at least is not seeking the social aspect of game play, but is instead already angling for advantage against the others.  The most troublesome players will most likely resent any methodology, most of all one that brings the less prepared players up to speed on aspects such as character abilities, options and ways to strengthen their character's effectiveness in play.

In particular, many DMs will resist enhancement of their own players on these lines, being themselves anxious to advantage their own understanding of the rules while undermining the understanding of their players.  Such DMs will resist any attempt to gain knowledge from the player's perspective.  DMs of this type should be recognized early and avoided.

Very well.  With our next class, we'll be discussing the group dynamics of play, covering group strategies, learning through game play and the manner in which brighter more experienced players can be encouraged to "apprentice" players of lesser calibre.

Consensus isn't easy.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

12th Class: Meaning-Making

In each of the three theories discussed so far in this class, including other theories we might have mentioned, the interpretation in each case relates to the way participants learn to manage role-playing games.  RPGs are interpreted as story-driven because they draw on the story telling process that has always been there in our communications with each other ~ but role-playing seems to enhance that importance.  RPG players are interpreted as heroes because positive games result when we act morally and with respect towards others ~ which has always been true, but role-playing seems to make this more evident than usual.  And RPGs are interpreted as goal-driven because we have always strived towards goals, largely by describing our personal narratives in purposeful ways rather than as unpleasant random statements.

Role-playing games simply reflects normal human behaviours.  We are story-tellers, whenever we communicate or express what matters to us.  We may not always pursue an heroic course but we know perfectly well what's expected; and when in the company of others we present ourselves as the sort of people who would do what's expected.  And we are goal-oriented; in many ways, our biology makes us so.  We are not interpreting the game with these ideas.  We are interpreting the way we play the game.  We are holding up a mirror and thinking it is something else.

We should not interpret this as a negative approach.  It is, essentially, what psychologists call "meaning-making," a process that we develop at the youngest age, which we carry with us continuously, as we seek to make sense of situations, relationships or ideas we don't fully grasp.  We look for frameworks that will help us understand these things; and like our Novice learning an RPG, we start with conventions as children, then move onto axioms we create ourselves and finally, if we are so motivated, we begin to see how other people view the world and establish precepts that enable us to make decisions from multiple possible options.  This is how we as humans become proficient as humans.

Let us step back and consider an early issue that arises as we first become acquainted with role-playing: our relationship to the rules of the game.  Initially, due to the number of rules involved and our lack of experience, we will view the rules with a "surface" interpretation, much like studying for exams that demand quick answers.

We focus on the words, accept each rule as written, with some assumption that it will become clear later.  We view the individual rules as separate bits of data, having little to do with one another.  We give considerable credence to the rule source; we interpret the rules as the meaning, bestowing innate, inviolable knowledge to the writer of the rules, presuming that the writer cannot possibly have failed to make the meaning clear when wrestling with the language.

This surface learning begins to break down when others in our association begin to interpret the rules differently than ourselves; and at once we set up standards by which the rules ought to be interpreted, which in turn become conventions for new players.  We are making meaning out of the rules in a way that satisfies the immediate needs of the game, but fails to engage with deeper issues and concepts that underlie the rules ~ the very purposes that the rules were originally written to serve.  We need to ask ourselves, were the rules written to establish the rules themselves, or were the rules written to enable the full dimensions of the game to be played?

With experience and awareness of how the game's rules apply in a wide variety of situations, we begin to understand that the meaning of the text is deeper than the words used to describe it.  We recognize that learning the game is a conscious agent of understanding the rules in an holistic sense ~ how the object of the game depends on a wide view, where the individual rules are not isolated but in fact relate to each other in multitudinous ways.  We seek to compare our interpretations with the semantic message-making of the rules as written and integrate both into our game play (possibly making new interpretations or rewriting the rules), creating axioms.  And finally, we test our interpretations on players during games and either reinforce our axioms or revise them.

For most people, this is done entirely without conscious awareness of the process. We only discuss the process here in order to understand it, and through understanding make ourselves more aware of what we ourselves are doing, and what others are doing when they communicate with us.

The rules of the game are merely one small facet of the meanings we create for ourselves while comparing what we're told, or what we read, with our own deep investigation into the fundamental material used to communicate RPGs.  Deep learning leads to meaning-making that produces stronger practices and more relevant advances in game play (it does with all other human activity as well).  Deep learning encourages closer examination of the sources, which leads to strategies for an even deeper and more holistic approach to meaning that we make out of the game.

With the last three classes, I have been emphasizing that what we believe about the game, as expressed in various theories, is subjective and is therefore not knowledge, which requires objective proof.  At this point we need to ask the question, is meaning-making knowledge?

No.  It is not.  Meaning-making is also subjective and we should not mistake our interpretations of the materials as knowledge-making.  It would be fully possible to concoct meanings from a given source material with a highly obscure or highly prejudiced sensibility, ending with a viewpoint or values that were extreme or even perverse.  In our experiences with the internet, we have all seen many such examples ... we need not list them.

What makes meaning meaningful is that it has the potential to be shared.  Our perceived reality must be communicable to others, to give it any legitimacy.  The reason why we draw on studies and resources for this class comes from our recognition that others have produced ideas and theories that sought to be recognizable to others in the same field, who were examining the same materials and arriving at approximately the same axioms to explain the various facets behind human behaviour or comprehension.  When we make meanings that approach a positive self-concept, others respond to the values of that concept and re-evaluate their own approaches along a continuum between interpersonal behaviour and intergroup behaviour.  This concept defines what we think of as social identity theory.

Without the possibility of knowledge making, given that objective proof of our interpretations has escapes human abilities for the present, meaning-making along that continuum is the best we have.  It is not enough for us to make meanings for ourselves.  We are prescribed to create meanings that others will find valuable; and to express those meanings in a manner that will enable others to build on our interpretations in a positive manner that can then be carried forward by other persons and later generations.  In this sense we move the process towards knowledge, even if knowledge itself is outside our abilities.

With our next classes, we'll be investigating meaning-making strategies for game play that semantic, interpretive and holistic in nature, before moving onto lectures where we'll be discussing a base understanding of key structures and functional design of role-playing games.

I'll just remind the class that the mid-term exam in coming up with our 16th class ... and that studying early should be something you'll consider doing.  We'll talk about the particulars of the exam soon.

A little early for Christmas, but the right sentiment nonetheless

Friday, October 12, 2018

Ray of Enfeeblement

Giving some oomph to this long-considered weak spell:

Range: 10 ft. +5 ft. per level
Duration: 1 round per level
Area of Effect: 1 creature per level
Casting Time: 1 round
Saving Throw: negates
Level: mage (2nd)

Weakens an opponent by striking them with a magic ray, emerging from the caster's hands or eyes.  If the struck creatures fail to make saving throw, their strength will be sapped at once, causing 1 round of dazed weakness equivalent to the creature being stunned.

The strength lost will equal 2-5 points, +1 additional point per 2 levels of the caster above 3rd.  This would mean that a 5th level caster's ray would reduce strength by 3-6 points, a 7th level caster by 4-7 points, a 9th level caster by 5-8 points and so on.  The ray of enfeeblement is particularly effective on creatures with great strength, such as giants and warrior races.

When employed against creatures that crush or squeeze their opponents, whose exact strength is unknown, such as apesboa constrictorscouatl and the like, the ray will lower the damage done by these attacks by 1 point per strength lost.

Creatures can be drained until they are at zero strength but no more.  Creatures so affected cannot move or act, and have not even the strength to speak.  They must wait until the effects of the spell pass before regaining their strength.

Strength that is lost is regained at a rate of 1 point per round after the ray's effect has passed. Therefore, if a 3rd level caster were to affect a hill giant with a 19 strength, reducing that strength by 4, the giant's strength would be 15 for a total of 3 rounds (while the spell was in effect).  It would then take four rounds before the giant's strength would return to normal.

The ray of enfeeblement ignores percentile strength.  Those with an 18/percentile strength are considered to have a strength of 18 ... and when regaining their 18 strength, the percentile is assumed to have been regained also.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

11th Class: Game-Play

With our last two classes, Storytelling and Heroism, we discussed theories that contributed to player well-being and motivation.  Today I'd like to talk about a theory of game-play, suspending for the moment a schematic discussion of how moment-to-moment game play might be resolved, and instead discuss a theory that arises among role-players as they progress from Novice to Competent player.  That theory would be that the best campaigns or adventures are fundamentally goal-oriented.

Let's examine what I mean by "goal-oriented."  The imagination might leap to the most immediate example, the expectation of a party bound on an adventure that produces at the moment of success the substance of Joseph Campbell's elixir, enabling greater knowledge, insight, reconciliation with a lover or some equally necessary treasure to the so-called Heroes' Journey.  But here we limit ourselves if we consider merely stories that begin with a hero setting off on a quest, achieving that quest and arriving back home.  We have many stories in our lexicons that resolve themselves as simply, such as romances, court intrigue, mystery stories, comedies and tragedies, all of which are compelling and none of which depend on a concrete resolution.

We might base a role-playing campaign on any of these, though admittedly some would find fault with some of these examples ~ and we should understand that this fault finding is subjective, and not indicative of impracticality where role-playing games are concerned.  Many role-playing games explicitly examine alternative stories as a basis for game-play.

However, we must take note that all of these games are necessarily goal-driven, because they are fundamentally episodic.  They have a recognizable beginning and an end ~ and as such, "adventures" and "alternative" role-playing campaigns are largely bound by the broad strokes of Campbell's thesis: we begin with a call to adventure, we motivate the players towards a goal, the players set off, they are tested, they are rewarded, they return to the ordinary world and await for the next episode to begin.

Or to rephrase it in game mechanic terms, the players sense what is happening, view the model, evaluate the situation, make plans, act ... and then begin the process again with the next episode.

The example on the right is a further example of the same principle. Though we examine the various subjective aspects of what makes "good" or "awful" game-play, we recognize instinctively that the play itself is episodic.  The reason is plain to see.

To begin with, our game experiences were initiated with games far simpler than role-playing, almost always with characteristics that included "winning" and "losing."  And all of those games were distinctly episodic in format, and almost always in a format that enabled play from the beginning to the end in one sitting.  It is natural that we would see RPGs as an extension of that episodic format, even if a given scenario stretches out over several game sessions.

Additionally, when considering what a game scenario ought to be, we return to storytelling ... and again, virtually every example we have of a story is episodic.  A book may take many sittings to read, but it, like a movie, a play or the recounting of personal events by a friend, has a recognizable beginning and an end.  Long before becoming involved in RPGs, we have already heard many thousands of stories and are thus primed to think naturally in parcels of time when attempting to express ourselves.

When discussing stories, we talked about how good stories obtain the attention of our listeners and make a collection of facts easier to hear and remember.  We have all experienced situations where a speaker seems to ramble at length about a group of disconnected ideas and events, the recounting of which seems random and without purpose.  We can barely keep our minds from wandering, while wishing to press the speaker to "get to the point" ~ which can be difficult if the speaker is an employer or a lecturer, where self-interest or social propriety disallows such an approach.  When thinking of an RPG without a strong, worthy story at its core, our minds travel directly to some situation where we imagine a DM reading off lists of disconnected values, like an accountant droning upon our tax receipts, or the pursuit of a mundane collection of activities, such as an RPG called, "House and Handicrafts."

The necessity of an episodic, story-driven campaign scenario is so powerful that we're bound to think that it's presence cannot possibly be a theory.  Yet, again I will remind the class, what have we objectively proven?

Granted, we are raised on an episodic portrayal of events.  We have adapted to it, we have embraced it ... and through personal experience we have witnessed examples of the contrary that confirmed that we have taken the right path.  Subjectively.  We have not, ourselves, examined at length and over an extensive period of time any personal alternative, nor have we demonstrated with anything except our value judgements that RPG campaigns can only be effectively run in the manner of adventures and other episodic formats.

Remember that when we discussed the path from competency to proficiency, Dreyfus wrote about how proficiency meant being able to discriminate between a wide range of choices regarding what might be true and what might not, in order to explore a situation in depth and arrive at a decision that took all the facets of the study into consideration.  That is why we make the distinction between a "fact" and a "theory."  Not because the theory can't be held to a practical standard, or employed with day to day use, but because it can't be measured directly against other possible theories that might also be employed, if we were to open our mind wide enough to consider that there isn't just one subjective viewpoint ~ our present one ~ in the offing.

For our next class, we'll be talking about the origin of these theories and why they seem to make so much sense that we're loathe to consider any alternative, as we discuss meaning-making.

Monday, October 8, 2018

What to Do, What to Do?

I was asked this question in Quora today, but I've decided that I hate Quora's restrictions on links and such, so I'm going to answer it here.
What are some ways to help a GM who is running an adventure you've written to improvise the rest of the adventure if a PC takes an unexpected action?

Truly a remarkable example of cluttered thinking at it's very, very best.  Not only do we have GMs who are put in the position of having to control the game participants when the adventure is broken by players daring to show independence, now we have a game designer who wants to help the GM when the situation arises.

My answer?  Stop thinking you can control everything.

For years I've been reading DMs on Reddit and elsewhere posing situations and asking questions about players "breaking the game" by doing something outside the adventure's schematic.  It wouldn't be hard to see this as a real problem of games, something along the lines of a catholic minister asking his bishop, "What do I do when the parishioners start thinking for themselves," or a rapist asking, "What do I do when the victim won't lie still?"

No action that a player takes in a campaign should ever be "unexpected."  That's my philosophy.  Players should always be expected to act in a manner that is free from outside control and influence, on their own initiative, in a manner that is allowed to be pursued autonomously and which happens in accordance with the players' desires.  The only curb on player behaviour should be the natural consequences that arise from the level of civilized society that has been impressed on the players as existing at the time of their actions, so that the players can decide ~ for themselves ~ if they can avoid or handle those consequences.

Those consequences should be obvious to everyone participating.  If I murder someone in an RPG in an open street, whether it is during the Roman Empire, the Middle Ages, the 19th century or the era of Buck Rogers in the 25th century, I and everyone I'm playing the game with ought to be shrewdly aware that a) someone is going to witness it; b) witnesses are going to talk to the authorities; c) the authorities are going to seek redress to the extent of their abilities; and d) that redress is going to depend on how powerful the authorities are.

All of that has fuck all to do with whatever adventure is happening or what the DM had planned for the next session.  It could be that some element of the adventure that was in the DM's mind might be affected by the murder, but again, that effect ought to be completely logical to everyone playing.  If it is not, if the DM is adjusting for some dumbfuck adventure that was written by someone else, then the DM has a head up an ass someplace.

Improvising is fine.  The action I took, killing someone in an open street, just started a whole new adventure, one which I obviously preferred to have when I made the conscious decision to commit murder.  And the DM ought to have considered long in advance that someday a player would do such a thing.  How?  Because we live in a world where people kill people every day, and it is hardly a huge shock or surprise that it happens.  Maybe not in front of us, I'll grant.  But given that the players of a game are carrying weapons all the time, and know how to use them, and have in the past, it isn't exactly a long stretch to figuring out that the guy in the street isn't exactly inviolable.

I hate when DMs make up their minds what my player will or won't do, simply because they want to be "set managers" of the tiny, tiny theatre they've concocted in their imaginations as the whole of acceptable human experience in an RPG.  And I equally hate players who happen agree to exist in such a tiny, tiny theatre.

Thank you, I'll embrace the whole human experience.  As it happens, I probably wouldn't commit an open murder.  I played that adventure a lot when I was 15 and 16 and it's somewhat juvenile now.  My capacity for doing the "unexpected" is, I'll have the reader understand, pretty fucking extensive ... so a DM with me in the campaign better buckle in and expect everything.

I don't play because I don't find DMs like that.

Except in a mirror.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Structured Activity

Life is boring.

I hear this invoked when defending the structure of role-playing games in every conversation.  Role-playing games have to be escapist because life is boring.  Role-playing games have to be about adventure and excitement because life is boring.  Role-playing games that are not about being heroic are equivalent to staring at, oh, something like tax forms, because life outside of adventure is boring.

I get it.  For a lot of people, life is boring.  We work repetitive, monochromic jobs with dull monochromic people, who do not change from day to day but repeat the same characteristics ... and there's never any achievement, or reason to be heroic, or element that causes us to think, "Wow, I really made a difference today."

We see this as we want to see it:

There are millions of people who lead very fulfilling, purposeful, busy lives, who do not find their day-to-day at all boring.  We like to think that most of these people must be wealthy, but in fact most of these people are simply engaged in doing something they like doing.  They're not "escaping."  They're pursuing.  They're running towards life.  They've made up their minds not to continue doing things they don't enjoy, so that they don't get up in the morning and think, "My life is boring."

They've examined their weaknesses and set out to compensate for them.  They've set out to learn whatever they need, overcoming their lack of education.  They've organized themselves and their relationships to make room for positivity, growth, support, understanding and direction.  They've worked their boring jobs to pay for it, then they've quit their boring jobs.  They've changed.

I refuse to believe that I am duty-bound to give any credence to people who feel a role-playing game must be "this" or "that" because their lives are boring.  That's not an argument.  That's an excuse.  My life isn't boring.  Harried sometimes, and lacking in some things, but certainly not boring.  When I wake up in the morning, and get myself together, I have things to watch, artwork to consider, a partner and a daughter to converse with and hug, music and films for entertainment on the bus, necessary work to perform for income, future plans to make, a difficult blog post to structure in my mind, a loving partner to come home to and lay in bed with and snuggle, games to work on and words to write ... and none of it is "boring."

Some of it I like much, much more than other things.  I would rather my personal writing paid the income that my job pays ... but it is fun to write about costumes and talk to people on the phone about what sort of costume they're trying to make for Halloween this year.  It is reassuring to help people and make them laugh at the absurdity of things they plan to wear.  It is fun to write posts and reach people's mental interests.  It is fun to snuggle.

I do not play D&D to escape anything.  For me, it is a structured activity.  I play it to pursue my intellect and my imagination.  I'm not afraid of life.  I don't need to shout at others not to spoil my form of escape.  I'm not that fragile.

I refuse to limit my game design for people who are.

Saturday, October 6, 2018

Preservation (spell)

Just a little fun.  I've been rewriting 1st and 2nd level magic spells for my wiki and thinking on ways the spells could be adjusted and applied so that they are more interesting and slightly more practical.  The spell "preserve" has never been a particularly interesting spell, but I think I've put a spin on it that makes it interesting enough for this blog:

Range: touch
Duration: one month
Area of Effect: 1 cub.ft. per level
Casting Time: 1 rounds
Saving Throw: none
Level: mage (2nd)

Enables the caster to affect organic materials of every kind so as to remain fresh and whole for the spell duration, as though just harvested, cooked or baked.  Further, the affected matter will retain the temperature it possessed at the moment of casting: thus coffee or tea will remain hot, a cooked biscuit will continue to steam, a block of ice will remain frozen and so on.  Note that the heat released from an affected object cannot be used to chill or heat inert matter.  A plate sitting on top of a preserved cup of coffee would not be heated.

The heat or cold of the preserved matter will affect living senses, however.  A bowl of preserved soup would still warm and sustain a living body, a glass of cool water would still relieve a hot day and be pleasant to drink.  A pot of hot stew could be carried, as the pot would lose its heat once removed from the fire, while the affected stew would not.  Other circumstances may need ruling as they come up.

The spell can also be used to preserve a severed limb, or a body so as to extend the practical usefulness of the raise dead spell, or to preserve ingredients needed for laboratory use.

The spell will not preserve magically affected liquids or items, such as firewater or magic stones.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

10th Class: Heroism

With our last class, we discussed how participants of role-playing games pursue storytelling in terms of the value it holds for them, which is something learned from experience while playing.  An individual's value judgment is a personally assessment of something that is good or bad in terms of that person's standards and priorities.  Value judgements and experience matter, but are not necessarily correct where knowledge is concerned.  This is a point we will examine more closely later in the semester.

Today, let's examine another widely held value judgment, also arrived at through extensive experience from playing: that the player characters of role-playing games are extraordinary people, whose bravery and resolve encourages them to be heroes against forces that would terrify most.  To understand why, we need to examine the motivations of players who choose to perceive their characters as heroes.

What is heroism?  This is not a simple question.  Philip Zimbardo, the psychologist best known for the Stanford Prison Experiment, has spent more than a decade studying heroism and has established four recognizeable signs of performed heroism:
"First, it’s performed in service to others in need ~ whether that’s a person, group, or community ~ or in defense of certain ideals. Second, it’s engaged in voluntarily, even in military contexts, as heroism remains an act that goes beyond something required by military duty. Third, a heroic act is one performed with recognition of possible risks and costs, be they to one’s physical health or personal reputation, in which the actor is willing to accept anticipated sacrifice. Finally, it is performed without external gain anticipated at the time of the act."

Suppose we take a moment and consider how an Advanced Beginner's DMing efforts might act contrary to the above ... explaining, in the process, many game worlds with some of us will have personally experienced, particularly in our early years of playing.

Our Advanced Beginner might tolerate players who do not act in the service of others, but only for themselves ~ whether against the other players, or the non-player characters under the DM, or even against the DM personally ~ in pursuit of their selfish desires.  Our Advanced Beginner might feel pushed to participate as a DM involuntarily, because no one else will play; while some players might feel they're coerced to play a particular kind of game or rule-set, because no other option for play is available.  Our Advanced Beginner may steadfastly refuse to make any concessions, or changes to their campaign, or put any personal sacrifice or preparedness into the game session ~ even a few hours time, to make the game better, may be considered a sacrifice too far.  Players, likewise, may resent having to sacrifice their personal time to redraw their characters, or properly keep notes as to their advancement, or arrive on time, or any of a hundred other personal sacrifices that make group activities more pleasant.  And finally, all the players may constantly gripe and insist on more and more gain for their characters, a constant flow of greater rewards, to make playing the game for them tolerable.  Such players may even threaten to quit if the rewards of the game do not meet their standards.

All together, this behaviour becomes unsupportable, destructive, even vindictive over time.  Some groups nonetheless stagger on under this burden, supported by the unhealthy combination of a self-aggrandizing DM and selfishly motivated socio-challenged players.  Most Advanced Beginniners, however, get a taste of a different game identity embraced by a competent DM, and cease to reproduce the style of play in their own campaigns.

Consider:  if the game story and adventure is geared towards the service of NPCs in need, this provides the players with a set of ideals that are clearly recognized as heroic.  Non-heroic principles are easy to recognize ~ players who fail to answer the call to advanture, players who fail to recognize the wisdom of a mentor, players who play for selfish pursuits ~ these are clearly not the sort who are going to heroically help a village throw off its oppressors.

Heroes will view the opportunity to help the village voluntarily, as Zimbardo stipulates.  They will even go beyond what they are asked to do, willingly doing more than preserving the village, they will lay down their own lives if that's what it takes to make the village a thriving and happy place.  No heroic player would refuse to do so ... and so that helps bind the party together towards a single goal, a single purpose, which eliminates much of the selfish infighting that would go on at the sort of table that an Advanced Beginner might tolerate.

Nor would lives alone be the only sacrifice the players might be willing to make.  As heroes, they would impoverish themselves rather than hold back wealth from the needy.  They would soil their reputations rather than let one person suffer in their stead.  And they would do all this, just as Zimbardo points out, with no personal expectation of gain.

This last greatly eases the pressure put on a DM to constantly award more and more treasure.  As treasure and advancement become less and less a part of role-playing, the selfish motives to gain either are stripped out of the game and what is left are players acting together to achieve personal redemption rather than personal gain.

If we compare this to the stories we tell, as noted in the source material for the last class, Dan McAdams and Kate McLean argue that redemptive stories lead "to a demonstrably 'good' or emotionally positive outcome" for the participant of the game ~ providing us with legitimate evidence, through research, that acting the part of a hero, and believing that it is motivated by an emotionally healthy impulse, provides greater mental health for the participants of game play.

The Party as One Mind
All these things together provide a strong argument for the characters rightly being heroes in a role-playing game.  Heroes work together and make good parties.  Heroes contribute to the preparedness of the DM in that they willingly participate in the adventure the DM presents.  Heroes ask less for themselves, reducing the need to build campaigns around the glorification of wealth and power.  This makes more stable games, where the players adapt to playing at a certain power level for long periods.  Finally, the absence of heroism produces patterns of behaviour that are unhealthy, divisive and campaign wrecking.

It is natural, therefore, that as games advance towards competent play, DMs would encourage players to act in an heroic fashion.  And players, having experienced non-heroic games, would be appreciative of the dynamic of heroic games and therefore embrace them.

However ... the positivity of a redemptive story as described by McAdams and McLean is not limited strictly to moments of heroism.  Any person may feel reinvigorated and redeemed by any positive choice they've made regarding any moment or event they encounter.  Heroism is, yes, redemptive; but redemption need not necessarily be heroic.

Heroism is, like storytelling, a matter of personal experience with a method of role-play that works better than non-heroic play.  This does not follow, however, that heroic play is necessarily the only possible model that challenges non-heroic play.  There is no reason to assume that heroism and the lack of it is a black-and-white model.  After all, we do not live in a world of only heroes and villains.  We all have the capacity to be heroes, and villains, from moment to moment, without being defined as either emotionally.

Which is why we say that Heroism is a theory of role-play.  The argument that the players ARE heroes is subjective and without basis of fact.  What evidence can we show that absolutely supports the claim?  None.  So once again, as with story-telling, we must acknowledge the practicality of supporting the players' choice to be heroes, but we must not conclude that heroism is necessarily a fundamental part of gameplay's structure.

Thank you, that's all for today.  Please read McAdams and McLean's essay all the way through if you have not done so already.

Halloween and the Movies

As I'm not getting much written for the blog, I might as well include a piece I wrote for work.  I confess, it's heavy-handed, and a hard sell at the end; but perhaps the reader might recognize my style.  I didn't edit it on the website, or lay it out ... work likes the copy, but I wince myself.  Still, it's all true, even the hard sell.  I'm in the middle of it now and I can confirm the details.

Throughout the history of Halloween, going back a century or more, among costumes there have always been a few standards that we all recognize witches, skeletons, ghosts, clowns, knights, devils or pirates, plus a few others. These icons have been with us for ages, a collection of roles that reach far back into our collective conscious. Some reflect our darkest nightmares.
But in the last hundred years, our tastes for horror and for dressing up have witnessed many changes. It began slowly at first. As horror literature and science fiction was translated to film, we found universal images for new roles: Dracula, Frankenstein's monster, the Werewolf and the Invisible Man, among others. These took hold of our fascination and, as the movies changed, we changed along with them.
With the rise of television, in the post-war period, we saw new stories. We found images in the movies for soldiers, doctors, cops and cowboys … and spacemen of course. A whole new groundswell of costume ideas found their ways into the lexicon, which rose and grew throughout the 1950s, 60s and 70s.
But with the 1970s, a new groundswell began, far below the radar of the ordinary Halloweener. In the mainstream, comic book heroes began to make their mark, the list of which is recognizable to everyone today … but an underground movement was brewing that would turn the costume world and it's head and expand the wearing of costumes far beyond a single night in October.
Cosplaying had originated in America as early as the 1930s, with increasingly larger conventions to celebrate costume wearing. By the early 1970s, fanzines, comic companies, scream queens and photographers were remaking costume history.
With the explosion of fandom that begin with the release of the Rocky Horror Picture Show in 1975, audience audience members dressed as characters from the movie with obsessive commitment – often every night for years at a time, as the decade ended.
At the same time, a different group of dedicated groupies, calling themselves “Trekkies,” began to gather with greater and greater frequency, with love for the Original Star Trek series that had been canceled in 1969. The fervor of these fans would, within a decade, drive Hollywood to relaunch the classic series, the first example of costume-conscious players to force a change in movie making.
It worked because Hollywood was looking for anything that would look like a blockbuster. Star Wars, and then Indiana Jones, changed the industry – and dedicated fans were making their own costumes based on the movies before pre-made versions were launched. In fact, all through the decade that followed, the costume industry struggled to find its footing with the staggering rush of possible costume ideas that the public began to demand.
Quietly, a few filmmakers making low-budget independent movies were changing the way we would see horror. Amidst the growing lexicon of movies, Halloween exploded on the scene, followed by Friday the 13th and other slasher films. Franchises were born and trick-or-treaters wearing hockey masks and carrying blunt instruments of every kind mushroomed. Along with Indy's hat and Luke's light-saber, the costume wearing universe had found a whole new level.
To keep up, the costume industry had to change. More and more demand for movie costumes, along with sources from comics, TV, books … and then video games, which was another level still, pushed manufactured costume demands to the absolute limit.
And what a limit! Every new exciting blockbuster or television series creates yet a new overwhelming demand for new costumes of every imaginable form. With satellite television, Netflix, direct to video and gorilla in the room, the Internet, we are literally adding hundreds of fresh costume ideas to the pile every single year.
None of this scares us, however. Here at the Costume Shoppe, we are making Halloween, and the whole year round, push the very envelope of costume availability. It's a wild ride every October and we are on top of it! It's a ride we love. That's why we have 15,000 costumes and 6,000 accessories available for purchase, covering hundreds of genres, from the smallest kids to adults. We have costumes for pets! We're the largest costume shop in Western Canada and we have the most.
We've gotten here by meeting the challenge and then going a step further. We're pleased and passionate and proud of what we do. Yet this isn't the finish line. There's only the future, as we grow bigger and better to meet it head on.