Thursday, January 31, 2019

Mr. James Gifford

Why is it when I see something like this, I don’t automatically think, “Cool, what a great way to depict teaching people about D&D …”? Why is it my first instinct is to tear it all down? It is a thoughtful, richly effective manner of presentation. We can depict the game table, the players, the DM, the fantasy setting, all at the same time as we need to; if I had a comic artist as talented as James Gifford at my side, I would certainly take advantage of this strategy.

And yet … groan. There is this deep, acute scraping I can feel on the vertebrae of my lower back as I read the comic. Right off ~ the DM’s self-righteous introduction, his face, the pretentious choice to have one of the players get Shakespearean out of the gate (inaccurately using the idiom), the very idea that people who know how to fill out their own character sheets don’t know what a saving throw is, the cheesy internet complaint (never heard in real life outside a cheesy mass tournament setting) about “homework” … it all just rankles.

I put myself in the scene, I suppose. I don’t react well to anyone that speaks patronizingly to my questions; or tells me that he’ll answer them later when he thinks it’s the right time. I automatically distrust people who say, “I will inform you on what you need to do when we get to that point.” I mean, it sets bells ringing in my head; like the bells everyone ought to hear when reading anything that starts, “I am a Nigerian prince …” You’re asking me to invest myself in something I don’t understand, that you do, when very obviously there’s an other shoe that is going to drop at some point. Uh, no. Fuck you.

I’m going to say this. D&D is a game. I am a storyteller and I can say without a doubt that D&D is absolutely nothing like storytelling. Whenever I see someone return to this old saw to describe what the game is, I immediately go to this place where I think, “How? How is it like storytelling? When I tell a story, I carefully formulate every part of the story, already knowing the whole story, so that I can decide what order the story will be told to get the best effect. For example, my uncle Max used to be an explorer, and was particularly interested in strange and obscure birds. While in Australia, he heard tell of a bird called a Fu. This bird, he was told, had a biology that would transform its diet into a deadly poison, discharging this poison through its excrement. The poison was very harmful to the skin; but only if the skin was exposed to oxygen after coming into contact with the Fu’s guano. Well, as it happened, while exploring the Fu’s territory, my uncle Max was pooped on by a passing Fu ~ and without thinking about it, he wiped the discharge away. Immediately, the air reacted with the place the excrement had touched and my uncle was stricken with fever. He would have died, except that his faithful friend Joseph managed to get him to a hospital on time. I’m glad to say my uncle lived to tell me this story; and he would always say, “When the Fu shits, wear it.”

This is how storytelling works. I know the ending; each part of the story is carefully crafted so as not to reveal the ending. I use specific phrases and words so that although the reader knows I’m going somewhere, the destination is unsure. Each sentence fits into the story like a puzzle piece, until you see the whole picture. It is a craft to tell a story.

Supposing that because we don’t know how a D&D game will go means that it’s a story is like saying if I ask five people to glue sticks of wood together for a time it is like making a chair. When I read or see people use this analogy, it doesn’t just tell me they don’t know what the fuck D&D is, it tells me they don’t know what a story is, either. They’re stupid twice.

This is NOT a good way to teach what D&D is … no matter how nice the pictures are or how cheerful and friendly we make the little depictions of cute, air-headed players.

Perhaps this is it. Perhaps it’s because no matter how elegant the presentation is, if you’re just going to shovel the same shit, I’m going to tell you it stinks.

Three times in my life I have made a partnership with an artist in order to create a graphic novel [see? I’m starting another story]. Each time, the arrangement was the same: I would write the story and the dialogue and the artist would draw the images and color it. Frank Miller was able to work with Bill Sienkiewicz, Alan Moore was able to work with Dave Gibbons, Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez were able to work together … but every time I tried to make it work the comic artist would decide, “Why don’t I just do the writing, too?” The reason why is obvious ~ not to the artist, but to everyone else. The Art Spiegelmans of the world are rare.

Just because you can draw doesn’t make you a teacher. Just because you’re a DM doesn’t mean you’re not just apparently kind and helpful, but in fact a condescending, ignorant, self-promoting, toffee-nosed git. Is that fair? Look at the comic. Note how after the pompous delivery (“through courage, blah blah, your boundless imagination”) the immediate go-to joke is to depict your players as a murder-hobo. Followed by an enormously contemptuous, “sigh.”

Hey, Mr. Comic-Man … you made the choices here is your “story.” You chose to cast the DM as the Hero, as the snooty, stuck-up fancy-pants while casting your players as crazy-eyed, whining, lazy cry-babies. Why is that? Because while you’re explaining what you think a story is, I think it’s fair that I explain what your story is.

From out here in the cheap seats, your research looks half-baked. Your motives seem suspect. Your agenda looks awfully facetious. What makes you think you’ve got the answers? Who the fuck are you, besides being a comic book artist?

He’s probably cribbing. And since I don’t like the sources he’s cribbing from, there’s not much reason to like this, either.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

25th Class: Strategizing the Learning Process

We ended our last class by explaining that situational learning is something that can take place between the DM and players, as well as between players.  With each session, a DM acquires experience about what things worked during a session and what things did not; what might annoy players; what rules are impractical or incomprehensible; what aspects of combat are especially hard to run and how many combatants can be practically managed; points of weakness and places where preparation would have been helpful; and so on.  This is a never-ending process; even the most advanced and experienced of DMs will continue to learn things as they run games.

For the Novice and the Advanced Beginner, this learning process is painfully slow and even undetectable.  Each of the examples I've just given contain elements that defy intuition, so that a Novice might feel less like a session is teaching knowledge and more like it is proving the DM ought not to be a DM.  Role-playing offers a crippling learning curve for a lot of Novices, much like course programs that are designed to winnow out the incapable from the desirable.  Further, this learning process has been hampered in past years by various belief systems: that DMing is a "natural" ability, that it can be done or not, that no one can be "taught" how to DM ... or that its easier if you "relax" or "don't take it so seriously."

With D&D, it's not a question of whether or not you can walk.
DMs who say they don't feel this way are lying.

Whatever the rhetoric, a Novice DM must make sense, or meaning, from the complex interplay of player chatter, game rules, momentum and emotional aggression that compliments game play.  There are three strategies that must be employed if the DM is going to get better (see Zittoun and Brinkmann, p.2).  It should be noted that these will each naturally emerge for most DMs as part of deepening their knowledge of the game dynamic.  Our goal here is to outline these strategies in the hopes of making them more concrete ~ and therefore more structured and evident to the DM that exploys them.
1. We analyze what's happened, usually after the fact, for ourselves, reflecting on what we tried to do and how it ultimately came out.  We use this to explore better objectives, to employ ourselves more effectively in the setting's design and the game's preparation; to implement ideas that we think will work better; and to evaluate each time why a plan didn't work ... or why it did.  This is the teaching-learning process.
2. We sit and discuss the game directly with the players, asking them to give their opinions on what we should have done, or what we might do in the future, making up our minds about how reasonable the player's words are, what fits with the player's actions in the moment and what provides us with a clearer vision; often this centers our thinking; often we learn that we did make the right plan, we merely implemented it in the wrong way.  This is the didactic process.
3. We address ourselves to other examples of other DMs have done, to see their design paths, to copy them, to deliberate on them, to adjust and alter them and to "steal" small concepts and fit them into our own designs.  This is often the most fruitful strategy, certainly early on; and can also be the laziest strategy in the long run if we adopt them wholesale and cease to be critical of the materials' value.  This is the investigative process.

There's no need to examine these in detail.  The larger point is the understanding that if the Novice takes a position that there are things to be learned, and will set about learning them, the methodology for improvement is there.

Let's return again to my words earlier in the course when we discussed how the Novice becomes the Advanced Beginner (same link as above):
"As game sessions are played, our novice becomes increasingly aware that the conventions being followed have issues. Some seem to actively stifle play, or encourage resistance from the players, or lack sufficient reward for the players efforts. As our DM becomes familiar with game play, various "aspects" ... will make themselves evident. Recognizing these, our DM is encouraged to question the conventions and explore these aspects, and so becomes an Advanced Beginner."

It is this methodology for improvement, through meaning-making, that challenges those conventions we discussed earlier.  As we seek to free play, provide for the players, provide rewards and familiarize ourselves with game play, we transform from a DM who doubts continuously if the game even can be run into one who begins to see how this comes together.  We feel encouraged to change rules.  We push hard against those game aspects that are hardest to learn, seeking either to streamline them or to dedicate more and more of our time to their understanding.  We spend hundreds of hours working on dungeon design as we try to make that aspect of the game "come alive."  We stage battles for ourselves between combatants, like playing chess with ourselves, to study the game board and test new ideas.  We roll up new player characters until we're sick of it ... and until producing a new character is child's play.  We read and read whatever we can find, looking for new angles and new ideas, believing that someone, somewhere, has already designed or written down the things we know that we want.

We are, at this stage, still in a highly dependent position regarding our game.  We will continue to seek for things and ideas throughout our game participation, but as a Beginner we are yet in need of sign posts.  If we could call ourselves self-reliant, then we should categorize ourselves as Competent.  That is not this stage as we're defining it ~ or as Dreyfuss defines it.  We "get it."  But we're on the outside, looking in.

"The chess beginner learns to recognize overextended positions and how to avoid them.  Similarly, he or she begins to recognize such situational aspects of positions as a weakened king's side or a strong pawn structure ..."

Likewise, a Beginner DM learns to recognize when a battle is going very wrong for the players and that a TPK is in the wind.  Or begins to recognize when a player is arguing rules so as to gain advantage for the player's character and not for the sake of clarity.  We see that there are serious problems with aspects such as making perception checks, following one's alignment code to the letter or innovating new ways to use skill-sets in a way that is sure to break the game.  As a Beginner we may not know how to address these things or solve them, but we are definitely aware that they are challenges to both the management of the game and the game's functionality.

From this point forward, most of our strategizing (teaching-learning, didactic & investigative) becomes aimed at determining a satisfactory answer to these weak points.  Most exchanges between role-playing participants, particularly flame-wars, will be set to deconstruct, evaluate and reconcile one's opinions about these ... and as we know, there are a lot of weak points, more than enough to provide years of debate, disagreement and permanent rifts between true believers.

Steadily, over time, we do not so much as solve these weak points as reconcile ourselves to playing them one way or another.  With each final decision that we make, we move the needed a little further out of being an Advanced Beginner towards being a Competent DM.  For a long time, that meaning-making process ~ which can only be made for ourselves, as we will be the one running the game far into the future ~ will plague us, particularly with regards to things about which we have little or no real understanding.  For example, how geography or cities work, how weather works, how technologies work, how combat works in real life or how religion and politics work.  We will find that many Beginners, and Competents too, will take strong steps to work around such issues rather that research them and become knowledgable ... most definitely in a way that strictly limits the content of the game settings they design and allow.

Thank you.  We can leave it there for today.

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Thank You

A moment first to thank those who edited their pledges to my Patreon.  Thank you Matthew.  Thank you Jon.  Thank you Recueillir.  Those changes really matter to me and I thank you for stretching yourselves.

I guess there is an argument to be made that if a patron of mine wants to be called out, I should be willing.  So after a month's thought, let me know.  If it would please you to have your name in a list on this blog, I'll make it happen.  I don't know how, but I'll make it happen.

Our plan for the moment is to move on Friday; and after that move, the blog will go dark.  I won't have internet until it is installed Monday, so that's three days without.  I'm going to find that hard.  I use the internet as my thesaurus, I am constantly researching and reading on the particulars of anything that I'm doing; and not to have the internet right there is going to hurt.  I wonder how many times I'll open google without realizing it isn't there.

I'm glad to learn the 5e posts are enjoyed.  I have contemplated my strategy with the posts I've written.  I read the introduction to character making, which comes next in my deconstruction.  I think it might be less target shooting and more deep-think to pull it apart, since the content becomes mechanical in nature.  I'm not sure how I'll take it on when I start.

Thank you Stealth for what you said about it being perfectly reasonable to ask my readers for support. You know, it is the hardest part of Patreon; it has to be done and I must admit I find it difficult.  People don't give if they're not asked and I suppose that it fair; it is only that I despise that particular sort of creator who uses every blog post, every comment and every moment on the internet to sell something they've created.

I don't know about being the "gold standard."  Perhaps for a particular kind of role-player whose ideas coincide with mine.  But obviously most of the internet is pleased to pass me by.  They prefer the insidious poison of Mearls, Colville & Mercer.

No one needs to worry that I'll stop writing.

Except for the moment.  Moving, running around, getting things together.  I'm beat.

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Real Life: The Next Step

Let me be up front to start, to put my cards on the table.  If you are able, I am asking if you would be willing to support me on Patreon; and if you do support me already, if you would be willing to squeeze a buck or two more a month.

I'm not asking for any stupendous donations, but rather to provide a slightly better income for me and my partner Tamara.  Let me explain why.

For the last six months, I have been able to write about costumes for my minimum-wage, full-time job, which I use to support Tamara and myself.  Tamara, for various reasons, is unable to work.  We have cut our expenses and saved our money, and have now put down a damage deposit on our own apartment, so that once again we can live as people and not as squatters in my daughter's condo.  We have been trapped here for 2½ years ... and we are glad at last to be independent again.

We have a simple 525 sq.ft. one-bedroom apartment that I wouldn't call "posh."  It's ours, at least.  And while we can pay our bills, and our food and what else, it is going to be tight.  Like, $50 a month tight.  I've asked for a raise and no dice.  So while my work won't go a little further, I have to ask my other source of income if you will.

We've been living in a small condo with four people together, and a constant drift of 2-5 other people who seem to be here all the time, especially on weekends.  There is no quiet.  Tamara and I run white noise pretty much all the time to counteract the din.  We have no power over how much noise is being made.  We are looking forward to sitting in a room, in absolute silence, for months.  We may not even talk to each other.

I hope, with sustained silence, I can apply myself once again to serious writing.  I have tried all sorts of tactics but it has been the hardest contrary experience to creativity I think I've even endured.  If I can finish The Fifth Man, and something else this year, that will help us enormously to cover ourselves if something goes wrong or if we want to have dinner out and see a movie.  As things are going to be right now, a dinner out once a month is a very uncertain thing.

I also hope to add some features to Patreon to give people better reason to donate.  Additionally, while the apartment won't give room to run D&D, I would still like to make some sort of arrangement for a 360-degree taping of a D&D running.  Nor am I ruling out making podcasts in my nice, quiet apartment.

Finally, I will now be starting to search for a better paying job.  I enjoy writing about the costumes and all, but since a better income is not to be expected, I'll have to go elsewhere to look for a more comfortable wage.

This is me, laying it out for you all.  Like I said, I'm not looking for an upfront donation on Patreon, but rather a sustained, patient stipend that you can afford that will give us a little more wiggle room with our end-of-the-month finances.

Thank you for reading.  Please, I'll stress this again.  Ask me for things.  This is an exchange; if you're here for me, it follows that I'm here for you.

Reflections on Polymorph

Some things I just want to leave well enough alone. The polymorph spells are one of those. But a friend and Patreon supporter asked me to give my take on polymorph, pointing me towards this four-year-old post from Delta’s D&D Hotspot. The post pedantically quotes versions of polymorph from original D&D, AD&D, 2nd and 3rd editions and so on. It does not offer much insight and it does not produce a solution. The post spends a lot of time talking about how powerful polymorph is as a spell, ending with the effort to delete polymorph from the game. If you’re not familiar with why polymorph is a conundrum, take some time and read through Delta’s post.

Part of why polymorph has become so powerful has been a tendency towards fan-service ~ for a lot of gamers, the idea of being able to transform into a dragon and then lay waste to the enemy is just too tempting … and they believe that polymorph is specifically for that. This has produced an endless parade of rules trying to embrace that possibility while limiting it, at the same time. This has produced bullshit rules like system shock survival, losing intelligence, losing your mind and beginning to think like the creature you’ve been turned into, random hit point giving, limiting the number of attacks even though the transformed creature may normally have more, whether the polymorphed creature can “disguise themselves,” strength, dexterity and constitution gains, limitations of gaseous/ethereal forms, limits on which creatures can be transformed into and on and on. And since each is a stop-gap, and each dumb stop-gap hamstrings the player from becoming a marauding whatever, each new description of the spell eliminates some previous hamstring while imposing another. The end result has been a ghastly mess, with no clear consensus, no rationale, no certainty over which set of rules will be applied and so … yeah. Ban the spell. Not because it’s powerful, but because no one knows what the hell it does and the arguments … won’t … stop.

It’s a waste of time, since I’m only adding another layer of rules to the layers that already exist (and who the fuck needs that?), but for shits and giggles I’ll talk about how I’d run it. I haven’t had to employ the spell for 15 years, because none of my player mages able to throw 4th level spells were interested in it, but someday one might ~ so I’ll set the standard today.

First and foremost, a lot of the confusion comes from arguing that making me into a dog and making the other guy into a dog ought to be different things. If I cast a spell that makes me into a dog, then everyone seems to agree I should be able to go on thinking like a caster. But if I transform YOU into a dog, then you have to think like a dog (unless you make your saving throw or you resist the spell or whatever other endless reflexive horse-pucky we want to keep dredging up to make this spell stupidly complicated). I say no. If the science/magic exists that will change me into a dog, researched until we found the formula, I argue that the formula is unchanged when applied to someone else. I change you into a dog, you still think like you. But you’re a dog.

This will suck for people who want to punish others by transforming them into a dumb animal. We have literary precedents that say the victim ought to be a dumb animal and we have precedents that say the victim is still self-aware. I can see an option where a 5th or 6th level mage spell, improved polymorph other, exists … because then it is on par with magic jar or a feeblemind spell. But NOT at 4th level.

Two. If you are yourself, then you are still you, no matter what you transform into. Your strength is your strength, your other stats are unchanged also, I don’t give a damn how smart the dragon is or how dumb the ochre jelly. Your hit points are your hit points, so yes, if your 5th level fighter with 45 h.p. becomes a snail, that snail has 45 hit points. Step on it all you want; it’s going to take a lot of jumping to kill it.

That doesn’t mean your 18 strength fighting snail can lift a sword. Height rules vs. weapons and encumbrance still apply, so forget it! This is part of the problem I keep seeing where this particular spell is concerned. Just because you’re polymorphed into a tiger doesn’t make you suddenly proficient with claws, bite and raking. You’re a humanoid in a tiger suit; not a natural instinctive tiger born from its mother’s womb. You can swing that paw, but you’re definitely getting a non-proficiency penalty with it. If you want, you can build up and take your proficiency in feline paws-and-claws (I’ll be generous and let you have the whole package as one proficiency), but that doesn’t suddenly transfer to dragon claws, giant lobster claws, bird claws or bear claws. Sorry. Biology doesn’t work that way.

So, there you are: you decide you’re going to transform into a black pudding. Awesome. I’m totally willing to let you have full black pudding powers to eat metal and whatever else, including seeping through cracks and having immunities. How, exactly, do you move? What parts of your new body need to press against the floor and how does that work? Do you know? I’m guessing not … unless you’ve been studying black puddings or you’ve already experimented with the concept for a while. But your first time? Ha. You’re like a patient with two new prosthetic limbs that thinks you’re ready to jump out of bed now and run the hallways. Uh uh.

Take that dragon. How exactly does that breath weapon work? Do you swallow first? Do you contract your chest? How do you control the stuff coming out? Don’t say you’re immune to it because I can argue that easily. Spit out of your mouth and you’re fine. Ever cough some spit up into the back of your nose? Pleasant? Now imagine you’re a human mage in a brand new red dragon suit, and that spit is now burning fire.

The sheer idiocy connected to the polymorph spell gives me fits. You’re smarter, you’re dumber, you’re this, you’re that … but no one takes any effort to consider the simple limitation of needing practice. Which limits automatically how many creatures you can meaningfully transform into. It’s less a smorgasbord and more a mess of strange dishes that might give you terrible heartburn or worse. Approach the problem cautiously.

Very well, how many attacks do you get as a tiger? As a 7th level mage, you usually get one. But I’m willing to bend some on the fan service and let you accumulate to three attacks. Not the first time you’re a tiger, no; but perhaps there’s a simple side experience accumulation you can gain with each form of creature. As you cause damage or sustain damage in a particular form, you gain the same experience as always … but the experience you gain specifically as a tiger is mirrored into the tiger column. The same with the dragon column or the black pudding column or whatever. You need 400 x.p. to figure out how to manage a claw-bite combination and 800 x.p. to manage a claw-claw-bite. Then 1,200 to manage the raking skill. There. You’re a tiger. Your THACO is still that of a 7th level mage, and you’re still -5 to your attacks because you’re an unproficient mage, but you can’t have everything.

Still, if you really like being a tiger, you can build up. You can get that proficiency and reach 11th level for a tiger-comparable combat table and start to feel, you know, like being a tiger in a fight is fun.

But can you be everything?  Not effectively. It is, after all, just a 4th level spell. It’s not wish.

Saturday, January 26, 2019

What is Playing a Character?

I wonder if someone who has been a DM as long as I have, without much playing, should give any advice about rolling up a character. I’ve watched many do it; I have seen players create back stories and establish “characters” outside themselves … but I’ve never seen any of these people choose their stats for any reason except to satisfy some mechanical need, such as dexterity to ensure safety checks or a high charisma to help with speaking to NPCs.

Suppose that before we threw any dice, we decided who and what our character was going to be, regardless of race and class. Suppose we didn’t base a character on our die rolls or upon our skill set … what would we base that character on?

The most obvious answer would seem to be alignment: is the character good or bad; a team-player or a loner. My feeling is that generalizations such as these are so large as to be useless. We are all sometimes a loner and sometimes a team-player. We are all sometimes good and sometimes bad ~ and I lean to the argument that villains consider themselves either justified or heroic. Adhering to alignment just creates cardboard cutouts. We can surely do better.

Likewise, I am learning through these last five years that it’s no good to think in terms of ambitions, either. We expect that everyone wants to be rich and powerful, certainly enough to obtain those things they want, whatever they might be. That’s all very well for the future, and it might be a motivation for the present, but it isn’t a personality. It might explain why the character is willing to raid this dungeon, or how hard the character is willing to quest … but unless your character is a one-note monster, it doesn’t make much sense. Nor does it make interesting play.

Does this character, or this player, have any sense of personal growth, beyond accumulation and revenging his father’s death? How about the character’s ideas about community, social responsibility, the state of the kingdom or the world? None at all? What entertains the character? How does the character relax … does the character like doing ANYTHING except killing and hauling away the loot?

We can pretty much assume, “no.” The subject never comes up. A stranger turns up, starts up a story about some secret amulet that a bad person is using to mess with a kingdom’s residents and everyone gears up and heads off to a land we never heard of five minutes ago. Ask someone if they’d like to borrow a strong cabin in the woods near a pleasant pond and spend the week there before the next adventure and we get blank faces.

We build murder-hobos because the adventure format demands we pack up and ship out on a moment’s notice, while most of what we’ll meet is so evil there’s nothing to do with it except kill it. There’s no time to think about having a family or building a future. There’s no time to deliberate the everyday issues of the local troubles of the people. If everyone here is starving, don’t ask us; unless there’s a Macguffin involved, we can’t be bothered.

It is silly to talk about “character” when every facet of the game boils every individual down to pressboard cut-out.

I guess that’s where I am different. I’m happy to go on adventures and kill things. I like hauling away loot. But I want a home. I want a reason to go home, and someone to go home for. As I beat this ogre into the dust of his own bones, I want to be thinking of spinning my kids around and showing them this beautiful new gem I found. I want to be planning the new mill and getting back in time for the festival that begins this year’s harvest. I want to tell the stranger who’s bitching about how some wizard in HIS kingdom is stuffing his face with the blood of his people to get the hell off my land, I have problems in my own kingdom to fix. I want to enter into adventures that are RELEVANT to my needs, my environment and my future.

If I think of the character I want for that, I’m ready to forego some charisma in favor of wisdom; or to suspend dexterity in favor of strength. I’ll pay someone else to do my talking; I’ll pay someone else to backstab an enemy. I want a class that will let me command men; or at the very least, will help me establish an entourage that I can rely upon when enemies begin organizing the local villagers against me. I want to encourage grateful immigrants and hamstring entitled locals who resist my changes. I want to help a scarlet-lettered woman regain her reputation; I want to sully the reputation of a narrow-minded bigot. I’m going to need to be tough; generous; dutiful; self-sacrificing; pleasant to know and fearsome to oppose.

I can do that with any race; there are quite a few classes that will let me manage that. If a fighter, I’ll move to an urban setting; with a ranger, something rural. With a cleric, I’ll seek a mission. If I’m a mage, I’ll need isolation at first, then the opportunity to marry into a reputable family. There’s always some means to make my designs work. My designs are flexible enough for that.

What I can’t bear is to have some DM decide what adventures I ought to follow, or what designs I ought to have, or whether those designs deserve constant harassment from the DM. I’m willing to admit a little bad luck, but when it is orcs this week and last week it was giant grasshoppers eating the crops, and the week before that a chimera was destroying the neighborhood, it gets to be suspicious.

But then, I’m weird. Truly, truly weird. I think this game is about playing a character in a setting, when in fact it is about playing a block of wood in a very small box.

Friday, January 25, 2019

24th Class: the Didactic Contract

Before moving forward, let’s take a moment to discuss the process of the DM’s relaying information to the player ~ since in the last class we talked about conventions that would limit how much information the DM must manage in order to run the game as a novice. We can think of this information as outgoing and incoming. Incoming information is the DM’s effort at listening and interpreting the player’s game contributions. Outgoing describes the information about the setting, and the setting’s responses to that incoming information from the player, which the DM then relays to the player.

The player, too, experiences incoming and outgoing information. The individual player must take the incoming information from the DM and the other players; and the individual player must produce outgoing information to keep the game going. However, the player can afford to ignore much of what is incoming, if the player feels something isn’t important; and the player can “ride along” and let another player handle the outgoing for a piece. The players, as a group, can jointly suspend the game and settle on their combined outgoing message. Additionally, the players can afford to make errors in judgment or interpretation which they would hold the DM to task for committing. A player does not need to be accurate near as much as the DM. But then, an error in judgement can kill the player’s character; there is a consequence.

For the moment, let’s consider the DM’s outgoing: the presentation of the setting and that setting’s response to the player’s action. We can interpret this another way: in a definite sense, the DM is teaching the players what the setting is, what it looks like, what it does, how it responds and so on. The players are learning about the setting as they go. This is a very PARTICULAR knowledge, one that applies only to role-playing ~ and moreso, specifically to the particular genre and system within the game-style of role-playing.

This is what we call a “didactic contract” ~ but while the link speaks specifically of teaching in a classroom, we can easily extract the same principles for running a game as a DM. The rules are implicit: the DM and the players do not sign a charter of “rights and obligations,” but those are there and both sides know what they are and when they are broken. If the DM begins to verbally attack the players; if a player begins to engage in a video game on their phone; if either blatantly cheat about the dice or the rules of the game, it is immediately understood that the contract has been broken. The campaign will likely survive a few infringements; but over time, both the players and the DM will lose interest in continuing to engage in such activities … or will embrace a didactic contract that will seem depraved to an outsider.

Let’s look at some of the generalizations that exist in the contract, without feeling compelled to create implicit rules:
  • The DM is asked to create specific information about the setting, that will empower the players with enough knowledge of their surroundings to recognize the right action to take when an action is warranted.
  • The player should act believably and in accordance with the tone of the setting.
  • As the game continues, the DM should feel free to ask more from the player; the player should be prepared to give more; in turn, the players should be free to ask more of the DM.
  • Neither should argue their right to expect or do anything on the basis of an emotional justification. There should be a reasonable for any expectation, regardless of the source.

All that happens in a game comes down to these principles. If the DM is slack in preparing the game; if the players are slack about participating; then the contract is broken. If the players treat the setting, and the DM’s preparation thereof, with disregard and contempt, by acting in a mocking or abusive manner, then the contract is broken. If a DM or a player refuses to adapt to a new circumstance of the game due to bias or preconceived opinions based on unreason or prejudice, then the contract is broken. The DM cannot freely present a setting unless the player is prepared to freely accept what might happen in that setting. If the player tries to control what happens in the setting, the player is stepping outside the player’s scope of influence. The player is trying to be the DM.

Conversely, if the DM dictates what the player is allowed to do based solely upon what the DM would do in that situation, or what the DM feels the player must do, then again, the DM is in the wrong. The DM is trying to be the player.

Finally, the DM owes it to the player to create a setting that the player will WANT to play in. If the DM creates any setting with total disregard for the player, then again, the contract is broken.

For the most part, these “rules” are never consciously understood. That is what we mean when we say a didactic contract isn’t explicit. We don’t begin with firm, clarifying statements that dictate when someone has acted inappropriately towards us; we just know they have. Just as every relationship we have with other people is a minefield of determining exactly where the boundaries are, what we're permitted to do and what we’re permitted to expect, the DM is in a peculiar situation with regards to the player.

To return to the link above, Anna Sierpinska in her “The Notion of Didactic Contract” presents the problem a teacher has with educating her students:

“… the didactic contract puts the teacher in front of a paradox: everything that the teacher undertakes to make the student produce expected behavior tends to deprive the student of the necessary conditions for [the] understanding and learning of the notion she aims at; if the teacher tells the student what she wants, she can no longer obtain it.”

The struggle for the teacher, and for the DM, is that both must create a situation that demands that they “stay in their lane;” and this creates challenges for both the student and the player. The temptation to step out of one’s role: to fudge dice because there is a mandate for the DM to give the player a “better experience” in the short run, when in fact a bad roll might give the better still in the long run, is an example of DMs straying out of their mandate. Similarly, anytime the DM seeks to “protect” the players, or provide undue compensation for the players who have had a bad run of luck, or influence the players to act in a particular way ~ or even goes so far as to act FOR the players, by arbitrarily describing the actions of players based on a roll of the die, is guilty of patronizing the players and acting against the contract.

Sometimes, eating a player helps inspire others.
Just as a parent learns to let the child fail, or as a teacher learns not to help the child in order to teach something that requires intuition, the DM must adopt an understanding that apparently kind or helpful redress of the setting in the player’s favor is, in fact, CHEATING the player of a full, rich, complete experience. We do not ask the opposing team on the sports field to hold back with the argument that holding back will create a better experience for us. We do not ask a teacher to teach us only those things the teacher thinks we deserve to know. We do not request others to deliberately keep us in the dark and protect us against our own folly. Yet when the DM does this, with the argument that it improves our “fun,” the DM is demonstrably in breach of the same contract that governs all human interactions.

Determining how to play within this contract is the FIRST hurdle the Novice DM must overcome. It does not take long for the Novice to understand that all the conventions we might provide will not prevent the troubles caused by these very difficult and complex relationships arising between DM and player. Some DMs will suppose, early on, that they’ve “got this,” like it is no big deal to determine how a DM should act or what a DM should expect from a player. Often, we hear simplistic frameworks like, “The DM is always right,” which is clearly contrary not only to the spirit of the didactic contract but to any situation where humans interact with humans. NO ONE is ever always right; the DM who thinks that way is riding for a hard fall.

However, if the DM is open to listening to complaints from the players about their game’s presentation; and if the DM takes the time to explain their motivations in a way the players can understand; then the situational learning that occurs between players can also take place between players and DM. Both can learn a lot from each other ~ and through that learning, the Novice gains experience and ceases to be a Novice, becoming instead an Advanced Beginner.

Which is where we can begin more thoroughly with our next class.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

5e: Achilles Heel

I'd like to revisit why I am writing these posts about the 5th Edition Player Handbook.  I don't know the book or the system; yet it has clearly taken over the rhetoric of D&D in these last four years, so that huge swaths of the conversation now invoke dozens of terms and ideas directly connected only to this edition.  And it is clear that the framework of D&D has changed, and is changing, moving away from a group narrative rooted in boundaries to one where boundaries have ceased to matter.  Where formerly we could tell a joke about a player wanting to make a perception check to learn the weak point in an enemy's armor in order to gain a bonus to his attack role, that sort of thing is becoming the norm.  The "game" is becoming a crusade in how to bend the definitions of existing skills so that any skill may be used to create any success than strategizing how to succeed at a situation despite skills.  We're pretty much at the point where players don't want to participate in adventures unless they have a skill set that ensures they'll succeed.

I recall hearing the first rumblings against player death in the 80s and dismissing the complaints and resistance as something we could dismiss.  We can't dismiss it now; take a strange player into your traditional game and there's a good chance that if you kill their character there will be a scene.  One of the key points of a "session zero" at present is to explain how you feel about player death: is it allowed?  Is it common?  Under what circumstances is it allowed to happen?  Obviously, not when a wandering monster is encountered!  And certainly not from disease or some freak happenstance.

The game community has never been reconciled on this game element. A player doesn't want their beloved character to die, the DM feels awful about it and who's to say that the dice can't be picked up and rolled again.  Why is death even important?  Don't characters in television shows or book/film series have plot armor?  Of course they do.  Those things sell, those things are riddled with excitement; what is the difference between those things and my character in this D&D world?  It seems insane to create a character, fill it out, enrich it, spend hours and hours running it, only to then throw it away when it dies.  Insane!

D&D's Achilles Heel is that as a system it's not friendly to human beings.  Human beings gravitate towards comfort, reassurance, reliability or custom.  In my RPG 201 course I wrote about how we seek rupture because from reconstruction we grow as people; but in most cases we seek a particular kind of rupture.  One that doesn't require too great a risk; or that might amount to a real loss.  Most don't want to be upset too much; and for D&D, player death is just too far.

Worse, it feels a bit too much like real death.  If we're in a campaign that allows death; where rolls against death are a regular feature; then every adventure our character survives feels like we're pushing our luck.  Each adventure adds to our resource of memories, our increase in power ... and in the amount of loss we're going to experience when that character dies.  And we know, if we keep playing that character, if we keep pushing it, the character will die.  Sooner or later, the dice just aren't going to fall our way.  And then ... then ... everything we've fought for and suffered for will be gone.  Just gone.

And our only option ~ in the death-is-possible framework ~ is to retire the character.  Which feels like death.  If only death weren't hanging over our heads. If only our beloved characters didn't have to die.  Then we could enjoy playing them forever.

Except, of course, we can't.  Because we, my friends, are going to die.  For real.  And that's really the subject here, isn't it?  That is really the thing we can't reconcile; the flat out recognition that the longer we're here, the harder we've fought to get here, the less fair death feels.

Commonly, young people will look at the very old and think, "Why don't they just let themselves die?  They've lived a good life.  They should want to go now."  But as young people get older, they turn away from those thoughts.  They think they're going to hate being old, but as they roll into their 50s, 60s and 70s, it seems like a good idea not to quit.  Slowly, it looks like the young people who don't appreciate what they have.

Every day, there's that underlying memory that, yes, this might be the day.  We're stepping off a curb; we choke on something we've eaten; there's a strange pain in a place we've never felt pain before.  Some stupid, silly, unlucky, irrational thing ... and just like that, we're gone.  And if we need a reminder, we hear about Jack who was cleaning his rain gutters or Jenny who skipped getting her car tuned up last Spring, or poor Jim ... died of cancer.  Yeah.  Came up on him suddenly and he was gone.

And to make it worse, the older you get, the more reminders there are.  Partly because everyone around you is getting old too but also because as you live and drift around on the planet you accumulate people whose funerals you might attend.  Unless you're one of the unlucky ones, you don't have a memory of attending the funeral of Brenda or Britt or Brad in the sixth grade ... but you'll notice a string of funerals when you're 62, watching all three buried in their turn.  It makes you think.

D&D asking you to court that, to deliberately insert that sort of shit into your life, isn't reasonable.  Especially when no one should die because they went out to clean their rain gutters.  That shit just ain't kosher.

So don't tell ME, they say, that my character was killed because some one-hit-die kobald got lucky with a thrown dagger.  MY precious character isn't going to die because you, Mr. DM, thinks that a breath weapon deserves a shot at instant kill.  That ain't MY game.  That's not the game for ME.

Whether or not 5e is deliberately courting this attitude, the tone of the book clearly encourages it.  While twice in the introduction there is an acknowledgement that the players "might" die, there's no paragraph that addresses it up front; no solid, framed argument in the introduction that the game is about survival; nothing that states in boldface that your agenda is to live and not die.  It's all subtly hinted at, in language that we've come to connect with movie trailers and ad campaigns:  Batman is fighting his toughest foe yet; this summer Katniss is entering into the most dangerous of games; this is really, truly, seriously going to be the scariest rollercoaster you've ever experienced.  Yeah.  We're sure.

The company knows where its bread is buttered.  By far, the vast number of fresh young, dumb and full of cum players don't want a potential zero-sum game.  The character is too cool to die and rolling new characters is dull ... something I've heard said a thousand times but which I have NEVER actually experienced with any person ever rolling a character in my world.  Must be the people I play with.

Writing these posts about 5th Edition is an opportunity to explore these sentiments, and others, in this era of a new philosophy.  If I'm vicious, or bitter, or niggling in my deconstruction, it is because I think the new game as written is failing the community.  I think it would have been possible to write a good argument for player death; and to stand by it as a company.  I think the position would have ensured vitality and a sense of deeper drama and risk than mere schlock characters that couldn't die.  I think that the company is playing the short game ~ and that they can afford to play it because there is no competition.

It's easiest to design a game that kids will play for a few years ... or that will be interesting enough for a particular kind of player that they can keep going through the same motions for decades.  Most of the staff behind the book aren't very creative, if the book is any indication.  They're not good writers or thinkers, either.  It is hard for them to sustain a single thought for more than three paragraphs.  The language of the book paints the page like a shotgun: rarely does the second sentence expand meaningfully on the first one.  Each sentence tries to introduce a brand new idea, grouped into a paragraph where each idea is about magic, adventure, dice, etcetera.  There's no position; no theory; no argument; no effort to convince or elaborate.  A paragraph begins with a sentence (p.8):
"Magic is also a favored tool of villains."

And then nothing explaining the sentence or why villains particularly and not others.  Just a list of villain synonyms and their actions, like a list alone is all that's needed to convey an idea.  Then we finish by saying the good guys ought to use magic too.  Duh.  It is all empty.

Without guidance, all we have is an awful mess.

What is D&D for 9-Year-Olds

[I was prodded into this]

To play Dungeons and Dragons, one person is chosen to be the Dungeon Master, or DM.  The other players then pretend to be characters, like those in a story.  These characters are made up partly by the players and partly by rolling dice.  The DM watches the players roll and acts like a referee, making sure everyone follows the rules.

Different parts of the player's character say what the character can do.  We learn how strong or how smart the character is, or how tough or limber.  We learn how much damage a character can take before dying and how hard it is to hit the character.  We also learn all the things the character can do, and all the things the character owns.

Then the players pretend to run their characters in a place that the DM makes up.  It can be any kind of place: a city or forest, an underground labyrinth or a desert, whatever the DM decides.  The DM describes what the players see and where they are, so that the players can say what their characters do.  In a way, the players pretend that they are in the actual place the DM describes.

There are lots of imaginative settings the DM can invent.  The DM can invent lots of different imaginary persons for the player's characters to meet.  There are lots of different things the characters can do.  They can talk to the imaginary people (the DM pretends to be each person) or they can wander through the world to find things.  The players can fight other people or they might meet monsters they can fight.  If the player's characters win a fight, they can grab the stuff other people or monsters had in their pockets or in the places they were living.  If the player's characters lose a fight, they could die ~ and then the player has to "roll up" a new character, who then joins the game in progress.

There are many rules that explain how to run fights or what sorts of things can be found and taken.  There are also rules about things the characters can try to do and possibly fail at ~ like jumping between high places and possibly falling, or trying to climb a wall and succeeding.

The game is a lot of fun when the DM makes up a place that is interesting.  It is also good if the players want to get something special and it is possible, but challenging, to get.  It can be fun to chat with all the strange people and creatures the DM can invent.  In a lot of ways it is like be a character in a movie, who starts out to find something and then meets friends and enemies along the way; or discovers strange monsters; or gets trapped in a bad place; and then has to figure out how to get out, beat the monsters, defeat the enemy and get a lot of treasure at the end.  Sometimes the players' characters can come home and receive a parade.  They might even be allowed to marry the King's daughter or son, or become a member of the King's guard.

It is up to the DM what's possible and it is up to the players to succeed.  It can be hard to succeed, since everything might depend on a die roll or on making the right decision at the right time.

When people start playing, it can be very simple ~ a lot of fighting and hauling away the loot.  But as people get better at the game and the DM becomes more imaginative, it can be as BIG and as REAL as your imagination will allow.  There's no real limit to how complicated everything can get.  Even the rules can change if everyone agrees it will make a better game for everyone.  It really is different than any other kind of game!

You can even pretend that everyone that goes to a D&D bar will be smiling!
No one ever goes to bar unless they're happy.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Violet Fungus Rewrite

Violet fungi are a species of non-intelligent, carnivorous fungal growth. The creature is able to move slowly, able to sense spaces that are well-travelled, where they will tend to gather singly, in pairs or in very small groups.

Though easy to avoid (their prey is more likely creatures of animal intelligence who attempt to pick their way past the fungi), the process of exterminating the creatures is difficult and dangerous. Outdoors, they can be avoided; but when they block a tunnel underground, they are often closed in rather than contended with. A violet fungus might live for a year without sustenance.


The body of violet fungus possesses four stiff tentacles that can snap reflexively at any creature that approaches up to a distance of ten feet (two hexes). The creature expends none of its own movement in this attack. As these tentacles are positioned equally around the body, each is able to attack only a 180° half circle ~ so that while the creature has up to four attacks, this relies on the creature being attacked by more than one creature to take advantage of the benefit.

In game terms, one creature approaching within the range of the creature will be attacked twice. Two creatures, attacking side by side can be attacked three times (maximum of two per defender). If two persons attack from opposite sides of the creature, each can be attacked twice. Finally, if three persons attack the fungus, distribute all four attacks among them ~ with each being attacked a minimum of once.

Hits will not cause ordinary damage, but necrotic damage. This is damage that cannot be healed with ordinary cure spells or with rest ... and in turn begins to consume the body each day.

Violet fungus must be thoroughly destroyed with acid to be permanently rid of the creature. Otherwise, a new fungus will grow from less than an ounce of its original body in 4 to 5 months. The creature is fire resistant and will not burn unless cast into a enclosed oven or kiln ~ even small pieces thrown into a open bonfire will leave enough to sprout a new fungus. A level of expertise is necessary when removing or cutting up a fungus, expertise is necessary as gas from the fungus as it is cut apart will cause 1 point of necrotic damage to the victim's lungs.

Once a violet fungi has killed a victim, it will step over the body and begin to feed on the victim, dessicating its remains. Violet fungi hardly ever move during combat.

See Bestiary

Saturday, January 19, 2019

23rd Class: Conventions

Early in the course, in describing how a Novice DM handles the processes behind running an unfamiliar, complicated role-playing game, we discussed Stuart Dreyfus’ proposition that the Novice relies upon conventions, a set of if-then instructions. We did not, at that time, discuss what those conventions would be … so let us today take up that subject and investigate what we might include.

It would be preferable not to base our list upon conjecture or opinion, particularly because we ourselves are not Novices and are therefore easily led astray by those axioms we’ve developed for ourselves. The class will remember that we differentiated “axioms” from conventions, the former arising from personal observations that we accumulate through playing the game. Axioms are substantially reflective of our value system ~ the peculiar way we think that we should play the game. Conventions, on the other hand, should reflect the manner in which Novices should play ~ specifically because they are Novices and therefore lacking in the experience necessary to create their own axioms.

DMing is Scary

Therefore, upon what should we base a list of conventions? For that, let’s examine the viewpoint of the Novice when first sitting down to run the game for the first time, or at any time early in their game history.

By far, the easiest part of any role-playing game to grasp is character creation. Everything about character creation is linear, the process is usually established, a character sheet of some kind is usually included so we can clearly see all we have to do to complete the process and with character creation the rules are their most clear. Moreover, character creation can easily be practiced by the Novice as much as need be. If

the Novice wishes to save time in early runnings, because the creation time might be very long and depend on much looking up of rules, that is a convention that would be fair to suggest.

We could also argue that repeated rolling of characters with the players helps build familiarity for both DM and players at the same time, with the amount of time contracting as repetition occurs; but we could allow that to become a personal axiom for the DM once they gained personal experience with rolling up characters (thus making the DM expert for a group of novice players if that’s how it shook out).

IF there are a great many character types, and IF there are excessive numbers of skills, powers or equipment options to choose from, that in turn makes joint DM/player rolling of characters excessively drawn out, a rational convention would be to have the Novice selectively curtail the number of choices in the short term, until more personal experience is gained. For example, early D&D had less characters, less skills, less spells to choose from and a shorter equipment list. Even if more of each exists, as a convention the DM could say, “For now, you can only play these four character classes, we’re limiting the skills to this list, you can only choose from this group of powers and here is a minimal equipment list.”

Then, as the DM gains familiarity with the content, each list can be expanded piecemeal as is practical within the DM’s capacity to handle those expansions. This greatly reduces the number of elements, ideas, points to be remembered and manners in which the players can influence the campaign. While not optimal for a Competent DM with several years experience, it would be more feasible for the Novice DM who is already overwhelmed by the magnitude of these lists.

Additionally, with a greater direct knowledge of the limited player character attack forms, because it is easier to memorize less material in the short term, this empowers DMs, letting them grow familiar with those classes, skills, powers and equipment choices, encouraging confidence, a sense of control and time to expand the parts of their world they want to expand, when they are ready to do so.

We can then apply a similar convention to combat. With fewer classes to manage, we can see that the main difficulties for the Novice will be management of combat; knowing what dice to throw and when; making judgment calls on player innovation; making a measured assessment of how strong the enemy should be; plus knowing how much treasure and reward to give as compensation. Early combats can be daunting; there are many rules and exceptions to remember; players tend to get over-anxious and even upset over results; it is easy to kill a whole party, or to have the players dispatch an enemy with disappointing ease. It is very difficult for a Novice to refrain from fudging die rolls for psychological/emotional reasons, and very easy to self-justify such behavior rather than acknowledge its duplicity, again for psychological/emotional reasons. The process of judging combats is a hill to climb: how the enemy arranges themselves, how they approach the party, how they respond to success or failure, whether they are entitled to call for back-up, whether they should flee or fight to the death … all of these things temper the experience of the players, who are making the same decisions but with less resources.

To help the DM, we offer the convention of using a limited range of monster, those largely dependent on physical attacks, particularly humanoids. We suggest limiting the use of magical attacks, or don’t use them at all … at least until both the DM and the player grow used to combat and there is an increase in the DM’s ability to gauge what’s strong enough to kill the whole party too quickly. Then, again, as experience is gained, a wider range of monsters can be incorporated; and a wider range of monster tactics and defenses. It is best, in the beginning, that the Novice run all monsters as rather dense; later, these same monsters can develop intelligence and begin to act as supportive teams, while the player characters learn to do the same. As the Novice notices what the players are doing, situationally the DM can reflect that behavior in the monsters also.

By narrowing the amount of experience the DM has to have in order to run the bare necessities of play, shortening the list of character attributes and the possible types of monster enemies, we can then apply the same convention to the overall setting and the player character’s place in it. The creation of an entire world is overwhelming; even a detailed rendering of a single province, or even a complex detailing of a city, would quickly overwhelm a Novice who has never run anything like this.

Therefore, to enable the DM to have more control over the game setting, we suggest conventions such as viewing “the village” with a very simple eye. It is essentially a collection of houses surrounding a market, a tavern and a few officials or knowledgeable persons the players can turn to in times of confusion. The space around the village is filled with farms and exists primarily as a buffer between the village and any “dungeon” that might exist outside that circle. The players are led to understand that they must travel between village and the nearest adventure set piece in order to encounter foes that can then be dispatched, before returning to the village. These effectively become the focal points of our Novice setting.

It is not a “world” but is serves the base needs for a Novice’s campaign. The players require the anticipation of going to, then arriving at, a place that offers a threat to get their blood up. The intervening neutral space between the adventure and the village becomes, by default, the player characters’ moment of privacy from both risky challenge and the comparative responsibility of behaving a certain way in the village. With experience, as the village becomes a town, that sense of propriety the characters must observe becomes more obtrusive. The open road suggests freedom from convention and yet rapid proximity to return to the fight if need be.

Initially, this can be enough for a Novice. The village/town relationship to various adventure spots, with lines drawn as roads between population centers and various adventures can support game play for a few years, until such time as that convention becomes tiresome and the DM begins to crave something more three-dimensional. By that time, of course, the Novice should have advanced considerably in their knowledge of game play, combat, small location design and character building, and will be ready for a more elaborate campaign structure.

Finally, then, we have the player’s worldview, to which the Novice DM must support and empower. This can be extremely difficult for the Novice, particularly as the player’s worldview itself is rarely seen in concrete terms by the player, much less understood by the DM.

We can assume the player wants things, and we can suggest that the DM gives the players those things – but the manner of giving those things can easily break a game if the things are given too quickly or only after too much price is paid by the player. As a convention, “Give the players what they want” can easily create an uncontained nightmare of a campaign.

We do better to tell the DM, “Give the players some of what they want,” with the added caution that the DM should always leave the players wanting more. This is not, however, a particularly useful convention. For example, what wants should be given? What wants shouldn’t be. WANT is itself a very difficult philosophical conundrum in its own right. People often want things that will not satisfy them and are often surprised to find themselves satisfied by things they did not immediately want. “Always wanting more” is more often than not a recipe for disaster. More than one DM, Novice and Competent DM alike, has tried to please a party’s wants only to create dissatisfaction and resentment.

The player, apart from the intricacies of the game, is at the table seeking many things: a positive game experience; fun; a sense of community; and validation from their peers. None of these things are something the DM can “give” to the players; and are, in fact, things the DM also wants. However, while the players’ actions can obstruct these returns, the DM is ever more so in a position to undercut the overall experience of the campaign, through trying too hard to grant things or disallow actions that my fruitfully contribute to the gaming experience.

Therefore, we often hear it said that a Novice DM shouldn’t take a hard line on rules, and should feel free to “loosen up” and “have fun.” The logic for this as a convention seems sound. DMs who take the game too seriously, particularly in their early history, do sound like the sort who will block players from the good, fun, communal and social activity they’ve come to avoid.

The difficulty with the “loosen up” suggestion is, “How much?” There’s no clear cut measure for what we can define as loose and what we can define as hard line. A Novice DM may have to take a hard line against players who choose to ride rough-shod over the campaign, potentially because they feel the DM is a Novice and therefore easily manipulated. The “loose” DM might become so loose that they’re handing over to the players everything that’s asked, resulting in a campaign so short of challenge that it quickly becomes either silly or boring. In all cases, we should keep from conventions that encourage behaviour that cannot be readily defined, especially by Novices.

Because a Novice has little conception of what consists of the player’s worldview; and because any action the Novice might take towards addressing it is bound to be overcompensation or wildly guessing, it is probably best not to take any action regarding the players’ worldview at all … until the Novice acquires a clear, conscious idea of what this is. Players will want things. The Novice should take note of what things. The players will want too much and on those occasions where the Novice sees the player has been overpowered by some possessed item, the Novice should take note of that and resist the temptation to give things like this again.

The Novice shouldn’t try to take a hard line or adopt a light stance. The Novice should by convention do what seems best in the moment and what seems fair to everyone. What is best and what is fair can be determined clearly through discussion and consensus ~ which is the best way to make meaning of any campaign. DMs should not take the position that they are responsible for the players’ game experience; all participants are responsible for the game experience of everyone present. By convention, the DM should concentrate on providing an honest, clear description of the setting, with the intent of fairly responding to the players’ choices about that setting. And that is all.

By no means is this a complete list. But these are conventions we can fairly offer based on the Novice’s immediate relationship to a game form the novice does not fully understand. Any proposed convention that does not take that fact into account is very much missing the point.

Very well. We can elaborate further on the subject of Novices and Beginners with our next class.

Friday, January 18, 2019

What is D&D?

Dungeons & Dragons is a game in which a single presenter, called the Dungeon Master (DM), describes an imaginary setting to the remaining players, complete with physical features and inhabitants.  The players then adopt a mental image of a fictional character that exists inside that setting.  The character may act in whatever way the player decides, but the character's limitations are determined by rolling dice that define the character's attributes, capacity for survival, skills and possessions.

Through play, the character, by interacting with the setting as maintained by the DM, seeks to increase their advantage in the setting, and to alter or modify the setting as they are able.  This is most commonly done by pursuing "adventures," the end result of which increases the player's possessions, opportunities, skills and hardiness, while causing small but satisfying alterations to the DM's setting.

The setting can be as elaborate as the DM is willing to present; the player's ambition in accumulating power and wealth, or in making a change to the setting, can be as willful as the player wishes.  The convergence of the DM's presentation and the player's will produces the effective quality of the game.  If the player fails to immerse themselves in the adopted mental image of the character, the DM lacks an enthusiast for which to present the setting.  If the DM presents an inflexible, unrealistic setting that acts contrary to the player's will, the player quickly loses the enthusiasm necessary to play.

Game quality, therefore, centers upon finding the correct balance between the DM's motive for producing the setting and the Player's motive for participating in the setting.

That is the Holy Grail.

The setting is usually a mixture of medieval and fantasy, but is not necessarily so.  Technology is typically 12th to 15th century European or Asian, lacking gunpowder, global economics or politics.  Magic, in the form of spells or physical artifacts, supplants the limitations of the technology.

For those who have never taken the position of the player, the process for creating the character, which identifies the limitations of the character, can be managed as a methodical, repeatable process that becomes familiar, so that the novice will adapt quickly to this part.  Interaction with the setting, which consists primarily of communication with the setting's natives, exploration, investigation of clues, confrontations leading to hand-to-hand combat with period weapons, this latter referred to as combat.  Combats are the primary cause for potential character death but are not the only cause.  Character death enables the player to roll a new character and begin the process from scratch.

For those who have never presented in the position of DM, the procedure is daunting, demanding the retention of considerable information at one's fingertips, the ability to manage players who may stoop to gamesmanship to gain advantage, the creative capacity to imagine, describe and alter the setting as need be, often demanding spur of the moment decisions that may alientate players or soften the setting's capacity to offer the player a meaningful challenge.  The DM must often keep much of the information about the setting a complete secret; the preparation of the setting from week to week can be a time-consuming project; and much of the DM's experience separates the DM from receiving empathy from the players, who often see the DM as an adversary.  Simultaneously, the DM's power over the setting can induce delusions of grandeur, an obsession with the maintenance and exercise of power, fear of the player's circumventing the DM's plans and a sense of wasted effort spent in preparation for players who fail to appreciate the DM's efforts.

As such, the DM's role is usually the reason that the balance between the setting's motive and the player's enthusiasm tips, causing the gathering of DM and players to scatter, ending the exercise.

The players, too, are sometimes to blame; but not nearly as often as the DM.  Bad players in a group are often tempered by good players; but the DM, who stands alone, has no other entity to temper errors in judgement or failings in the effort necessary.

Therefore, if we are to understand how to make the game of a greater quality, we must understand the role of the DM better; to understand what that role is; how that role affects the players; what the players have a right to expect; how to recognize players who are over-indulging in gamesmanship; and ultimately how to locate and maintain that balance that enable consistently good play over a long period.

That is my description of what D&D is.


Thinking on the last post, I was reminded of the basement suite I had back in 1985, back in the dark ages as it were. I had no computer then, but certainly an ongoing game that I’d started in high school and had followed me into university. I would sit at my small, cheap dining room table filling out ordinary paper with notes, lists, encounter tables, monster descriptions and so on … much like now.

I had no one to share it with except for my players; and my players could only share it with others by description. I did not have copies. We played every Friday like clockwork. Apart from my players, there were no voices in my head. Apart from what was written in the books and a few Dragon magazines, there was no advice. My players did not play at game cons, they could not watch others play and … for the most part … they didn’t have the time to play in another campaign other than mine.

Apart from the lack of a computer ~ that I would really miss now ~ I suppose I was very lucky. I could follow the advice I gave yesterday because there was no other way. We were all going it alone in those days. Clubs would form (the university had one, so did the games store) and then fall apart, because apart from needing space and a table, there wasn’t anything to talk about between campaigns. You had yours and I had mine … apart from boring war stories, what were we going to talk about?

People did not stand around bitching for hours about the things they do now. There were no other editions, though there were other games: Tunnels and Trolls, Rolemaster, stuff that’s all gone now. We looked at B/X as just more content for our advanced worlds and no one played or even mentioned the White Box set. I played it briefly in 1979 before Advanced became available and no one called it that when we were playing it. I never heard it called the “White Box” until after the internet.

I hear now from people that there was a hue and cry for a 2nd Edition; but I remember none of that. I remember that when the edition came out, the response was surprise; then the first echos of the later edition wars, as people started to shake out if they were going to play it or not. My players didn’t ask me to change. The subject of my embracing these new rules never came up; my players were happy. They were invested. The rules were established and everyone knew what they were. A new edition seemed like a silly idea.

That lack of a culture was a blessing, I guess. It didn’t feel like one at the time. There was a hunger for some kind of approval; it always felt like we were morlocks, furtively hiding our dread secret about role-playing in the dark. We didn’t talk of it with outsiders, not because of the Satanic Panic but because we didn’t want to be judged as sissies. We rarely met anyone new ... and most new people we did meet had never played the game at all.

It must be hard coming into the game right now, with the cacophony of voices. Naturally, like anyone with a yen, a new player is going to rush to youtube to find out how D&D is done … but unlike doing something like building a shelf, there is no agreed upon template. There are hundreds of channels dumping their values on the new enthusiasts, sometimes repeating the values of others and sometimes slagging them off. I think I would be a hard site for a new player. I don’t explain my references to content, I assume the reader already has played and knows what they’re doing … and I disagree with everyone.

It isn’t about a backstory; it isn’t about making up a story at all. You don’t make a world by drawing a map. Most maps you will ever draw for your game will never produce any results at all. Don’t play with people who are rude, indifferent, inconsiderate or dull of mind ~ and be up front about telling them to get out of your campaign. Miniatures, pen and paper … burn those things and get a computer. Pre-made characters, empty room dungeons, mega-dungeons, modules, splat books … don’t use them. Make house rules. Stop using game puzzles. Break the fourth wall when your players overthink. Live-play sucks. 4th and 5th edition aren’t only bad choices for systems, they are literally poisoning the water.

I just had a fellow this morning explain how it was possible in his game for a rogue to hide behind the leg of a fighter during a full-on melee, then climb the fighter’s back and leap at enemies from above, attacking them from behind in the process. Then it was explained that it’s possible to sweep attack and kill three opponents with one blow. Then it was explained that if you’re on the edge of dying from lack of hit points, you get a saving throw that enables you to survive. Then it was explained that when the player rolls a fumble, the DM can just make up any sort of story to explain what that fumble means, entirely arbitrarily, from throwing your weapon deep into the woods where it won’t be found to being told that you have handed your weapon to the enemy and given some money from your belt pouch as well. In combat. Which then continues unabated.

So. Not my game. But out there. A kind of poison that flows furiously through the game community, enabled by the collection of voices, noises, insistences, arguments, flame wars and shit knows what else on bulletin boards set up by fools and poisoners.

To be a new player in this culture … jeez. All I feel is pity. Not sympathy or empathy, just the utter pathos for the hopelessly damned. It must be hell to exist in this culture without a solid background of playing this game intelligently.

I wouldn’t know how to help. I’m one DM. I run maybe 15 people semi-regularly, on and off line. That’s not enough. I could maybe stagger 14 different games over a three-week cycle, with five people a campaign, if I had the money to do that and nothing else, and an aid to help me prepare the campaigns … and that still only 70 people. It isn’t possible for even a small, rational gathering of people who still remember how to play to teach this psychopathically poisonous culture how the game is actually designed to work. The company is methodically enabling the shit I just described in the paragraph above through tens of thousands of players weekly all over the continent. There are rational DMs, but the mindset is fading fast.

It wouldn’t be enough to write a book for noobs. Even if they read it, even if they embraced it, they’d still rush to the net to read what they could find and they would still be poisoned by the culture. No one who starts this game today is free. They all have the ridiculous over-dramatization of Matt Mercer echoing in their heads, with the goofy, continuous spattering laughter of streaming play, telling them that the game is supposed to sound like this, look like this, present like this: the slurred, mumbled speech of people staring into splatbooks on a table as they piece out what powers they can declare between the DM’s over-the-top, incomprehensible descriptions of doors, rooms and physical features.

That is all they can see.

The poor buggers.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Freeing Yourself

The second half of the last post ought to be about the infinite game as it applies to D&D, which is not politics and therefore more comfortable for an afternoon read. Here’s what happens when you get all sense of competition out of your head.

See, a lot of the readers here will be in a headspace where they are thinking, am I a good DM? Am I running a good campaign? What am I doing wrong? What could I be doing right? And you see, all these questions make an assumption that most of you will never consider or even recognize. These questions all assume that there are better DMs out there; that better campaigns exist; that whatever it is you’re doing wrong, someone isn’t doing that, and whatever it is that you’re not doing, someone is.

You’re obsessed with the competition. And begin obsessed with other people, you’re obsessed with your ability and your value. These are bad things to be obsessed with, when you should be obsessed with how much you love your game, how much you want to run your game and how much you miss your game.

Most of your thoughts about the quality of your game are based on misinformation. You pull together players who get bored with what you’re doing; or one of your players stops showing up; or the game doesn’t seem to go as well as you expected. And you think, “What is wrong with me? What I am doing wrong?”

Here’s what’s wrong: you’re giving too much credit to the whims of other people. You’re trying too hard to please other people. You’re measuring yourself when you ought to be pleasing yourself.

D&D isn’t a competition. It’s a passion. And when you get rid of your worries that someone else is doing this better than you are, and realize that what matters is that you’re exploring, developing and enriching your personal experience with a game that you love more than anything, all that other shit will just go away. There is no such thing as good or bad; there is only what you do today, and what you’ll do better tomorrow.

Better, because you’re teaching yourself the way we talked about Situated Learning in the 14th Class. The reality of playing an infinite game, where you’ve settled into the idea that you’re going to create, run and play with the fabric of your campaign for the next ten, twenty, thirty years, is that you are that campaign's only measure. And here’s the thing with that:  if you keep working and designing your world, it is impossible not to get better.

Of course, if you slack, if you refuse to read the books, or ever change your mind, or ever build an adventure of your own, and run the adventures you buy as is, and keep changing up your game so you never get truly familiar with any rules system or genre, then yes, you’re going to keep face-planting for the rest of your life. You will have to commit if you’re going to teach yourself anything. You’ll have to settle on the one system that works for you, defined as the one you care about, as the one YOU love, as the one you’re ready to marry. Because it doesn’t matter what your players like, or what they love, or how they think the game should be run, or what game you ought to play. Players, sorry to break this news, come and go. You’re the one that’s going to be running this game long after your best players today fade away in favor of other players, who will be better because you will be better.

Your daily objective is to create the best game for YOU, not for them. At the end of the day, you’re going to be the one that is always here, always set up, always ready to play.

When your fears about your value as a DM go away, when you embrace the game for its own sake, life gets easier. Rather than pleasing many masters ~ your players, your doubts, the books you read, the voices you hear, the pundits that you read online (like me) ~ you please yourself and the feel of slavery goes away. The answers to the questions of what is your world and what does your campaign do become simpler. The goals become simpler. The design becomes simpler. The message that you send to those whom you allow to sit at your table becomes simpler.

You don’t have to be cold-hearted, or absolutist; but you can feel assured that the decisions you’re making day to day are the right decisions … because they’re right for YOU. You’re the designer. You can choose to adjust the design to please others, IF that adjustment fits with your motives, your agenda, your willingness to change.  But you never have to change for anyone.

Find that place. Push all the fears of good/bad right out of your head. You’re not trying to win the game design award today. You don’t ever have to win the game design award, because that’s what other people think you should be. And what other people think just doesn’t matter.

You’re the one in the saddle. Take the horse where you want to go.