Sunday, September 29, 2019

Mapping Food & Hammers

Our first step is to understand the mechanics of the image shown on the right. We have here an obscure 6-mile hex found in Rogaland, in an area of tundra (as indicated by the greenish-tan hex). The number indicates that this is a type-7 hex ... which means that while the hex has been settled, most of the hex is wilderness.

There are two other symbols beside the number: a single food and a single hammer.  The food originates with the settlement.  The hammer originates from the natural environment: because this is a tundra hex, there is a certain amount of raw material exploitation, most likely furs, timber or prospecting.  

Our agenda with this post is to get a firm handle on how much of this hex is settled and how much is wilderness; and to firmly understand how the symbols for food & hammers represent an amount of something being produced, and the number of people involved in producing it.  This will set a scale for more settled places with more elaborate results of production and the devising of a local economy.

First, as we've discussed before, let's expand the hex above into a 2-mile representation, that will provide us with more information.  This helps if we want to take a fairly empty part of our world and expand it rationally so that the players can relate the larger map to something that is more detailed.

I have had a fair amount of practice with this, but in truth it is a matter of copy/pasting a few hill icons, adjusting the colors and postulating some hex characteristics for interest's sake.  Here I've depicted the full 6-mile hex separated into its 2-mile components.  I rolled randomly using my generator 3.0 to determine the one settled hex would be in the east, the one lightly coloured hex among the other tundra hexes.  The low hills are put in for flavour, but in fact you may imagine the landscape being open, bare rock, small pockets of marshy pits and holes, with small stands of forest pine throughout.  Oh, and I added renditions of locale lakes based on their Rogaland counterparts, with a big one on the south edge of the settled hex, to give more interest.  I've named this small area of the world Kleivaland (an actual town that is quite close to the location of the hex).  A game version doesn't have to be pretty, it just has to be something the players can relate to.

Continued on the blog, the Higher Path, available through my Patreon.  Please support me and gain the complete series of estate posts related to the post above, as these have all been written.

Friday, September 27, 2019

Estate Mechanics: a Fresh Start

The further I get into any system of estate mechanics (and yes, still thinking and working on this, but slowly), I grow more conscious of the necessity to balance what can be reasonably worked out in game terms without an elaborate program.  All while providing a game experience that will appeal to savvy players.

Regarding the latter.  We have all encountered mountains of game fixes and gamified features in role-playing games ~ and gawd help us, in video games as well ~ that simply failed to grab our imagination. In some cases, we've made these fixes ourselves. While at the outset they seem to manage the problem, after a few uses they've worn out their welcome. An estate management system shouldn't just solve the problem of where the money goes ... it should provide context and purpose, that itself feeds the adventuring spirit. We're not looking for a cheap mini-game or a side quest of "let's build a town." We're looking to create an ongoing, interesting, adventuring companion, where what happens on the estate affects the player's game choices, and where the player's game choices affects the estate.

In the past, I have run such a campaign piecemeal, fitting in as much detail as the players seemed to expect or want. This I did with my offline party, and then again with the Senex campaign when they arrived at Koufonisia. But the latter exposed the inefficiencies of my former strategy, particularly in a venue where numbers can't be calculated in real time on a mutually observable surface.

It is a challenge, then, to create a system that fits a greater requirement than I would need myself: to not only build something that I can use, but that others can also use, especially if I am not there to show them how. Seeing this, I've been moving slowly on how to approach the problem, with an eye to providing solutions that will create fascination and not just accounting.

Continued on the blog, the Higher Path, available through my Patreon.  Please support me in writing further posts on every aspect of role-playing and D&D.

Canada's Approach to Immigrants

Hearing the things coming out of the 'States, it's strange to get this from Canada's nightly news channel on the CBC.  Though the story states that the government is trying to suppress it, the very fact of its existence and the manner in which it is being handled clearly indicates that the government really doesn't have a problem with this.  And neither have I.

Thursday, September 26, 2019


But why should you keep your head over your shoulder? Why drag about this corpse of your memory, lest you contradict somewhat you have stated in this or that public place?  Suppose you should contradict yourself; what then?  It seems to be a rule of wisdom never to rely on your memory alone, scarcely even in acts of pure memory, but to bring the past for judgment into the thousand-eyed present, and live ever in a new day. In your metaphysics you have denied personality to the Deity: yet when the devout motions of the soul come, yield to them heart and life, though they should clothe God with shape and color. Leave your theory, as Joseph his coat in the hand of the harlot, and flee.
A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day.  "Ah, so you shall be sure to be misunderstood."  Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood?
Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self-Reliance, 1841

To this I add that it is not a sin to be foolish.  But it is a sin to compound that foolishness by failing to set it aside when it is recognized as such, for the sake of pride.  And so, instead I shall set my pride aside and disregard certain promises I've made, and damned if I'm misunderstood for that.

Carnival barking works.  Damn it.  This blog will start including teasers to The Higher Path, where my content is largely appearing now.  The Higher Path costs $3 a month.  One cup of coffee.  Why cheapen your lives by not paying for it?

Friday, September 20, 2019

Crass Commercialism

Well some of you may have noticed this blog has been down, restricting access for some time. For various reasons I've decided to step away from the OSR and the tabletop gaming web community - possibly permanently. Part my decision to withdraw is personal, I find myself with insufficient time and desire to write about games but I also have the sense that the 'OSR' scene this blog is devoted to has become a rather disgusting place where crass commercialization is strangling a formerly creative amateur community ...
Gus L., Dungeon of Signs 

In the last few years, I've seen several of this sort of post ~ not always expressing the end of their blog, but often disparaging selling of gaming products by single designers as "crass" and couched as detrimental to "creativity."  Gus L. goes on to include "alt-right" influences also causing his action, but we don't need to talk about that here.  I am quoting this blog only because I remembered where it was, so it was easy to find.  It is the sentiment that concerns me.

I don't want this to be a post excusing my behaviour, or explaining at length why I moved towards commercialism.  In 2015, I lost my comfortable job and turned to the internet as a means to help support myself.  I had published two books about role-playing in 2014, I published a third in 2015 ... and since then I've had a hard time of things.  I haven't been able to maintain reliable employment in an ongoing recession, along with tens of thousands of others in Calgary.  The news keeps saying the recession is coming and going, but no one I know has been able to identify any improvement since four years ago.

The most successful thing I've done has been to employ myself.  I am my only reliable source for income.  Three of the restaurants I've worked for in the last three years have closed permanently; the brick and mortar store I worked for last year is showing signs of collapse.  A straight job, working for a straight employer, obeying the cult of work, has been the bane of most everyone I know personally.  Amazon is killing retail employment across the board, and those I know who were comfortable in customer sales positions 10 years ago are scrambling for whatever they can find.

And this brings us to the subject of robotics replacing human employees, highlighted in at least one American presidential candidate running on a platform that acknowledges this is actually happening.  It is.  And while the magic solution of the government giving people money is a fantasy, the reality is that each and every one of us has one option left in the coming economy.

Find something you can do, and do well, then do it for money.  Being self-employed and a solitary worker, you can sell directly to your customers with a minimum of overhead, potentially finding the means to pay for your food, your rent and your small personal needs.  If you are too high-and-mighty to exploit your own abilities, because you believe abilities should be exploited traditionally by others who offer you a paycheque, and that self-employment is "crass," then may jeebus help you.  The capitalists and the government won't.

But, I would like to express an observation that has arisen out of my experience with this.  Success is often ... shall we say ... a bitch.  I've recently been told by a fellow artist [which I'm accepting as hearsay for now] that I am in the top 10% of earners on Patreon.  Yet I'm making barely a third of my needed income.  I make a bit more through my book-sales.  And I am quite often stressed by this, as anyone might be as they realize they need a second job or simply the panic they feel as they struggle to get more customers to walk into their shop.

I watched this happen three times with restaurants, as I said.  The managers cut the staff, they cut the hours, they cut the food quality, they cut the amount of food on the plates, they water the drinks, they adjust their hours, they police waste of every kind, they make the employees work insensibly on make-work tasks because they're being paid, after all ... and the stress level coming from the top increases palpably.  It is a frustrating and bitter thing to be manically polishing a restaurant until it glows for no customers that will ever come in.  When a restaurant bites the dust, it is often the cleanest it has ever been.

The worst part of commercialism is desperation.  The slow swing around the drain, knowing that you're going down, or merely the knowledge that you're not making enough and this can't last forever, is how it changes your intent.  We start thinking, "This is a good idea; I love this idea."  And we end thinking, "What can I sabotage?  What will keep me alive?"

Ladies and gentlemen, based on the receipts Mrs. Crummles has shown me, Liverpool has little relish for high-minded theatrical entertainments properly conducted. We must give them our pity. Now, we must give them something they will pay to see. "Romeo and Juliet."
Mr. Crummles, Nicholas Nickleby (2002)

Steadily, the all consuming purpose becomes, "What can I create, or write, that will win me an audience, since what I'm writing has such a limited appeal?"  And like polishing the brass and scrubbing the floors, and even pouring money into rebuilding the bar in an attempt to drum interest, there is always the risk that, no matter what we try, it won't work.  The fear that even if Mr. Crummles stages Romeo & Juliet, the ticket sales won't improve.

Maintaining your virtuosity in this mindset is difficult, for the pervading thought becomes, "Can I waste my time with this."  Years ago, when I lived comfortably and could afford to scatter my time, I could waste my hours with all kinds of things.  And now, there is a niggling voice in my head that is always saying, "Is there money at the end of this?"

I've never wanted that voice.  I watched that voice consume my 20-something friends decades ago, burying themselves in cars and houses and five-day trips to Cuba squeezed between ten hour days and mountains of stress.  Some of them were artists, who no longer sit at a piano or take up a brush to paint ... but they have space and means to travel and the enslavement of commitments.  I wanted to write.  I grew up in a wealthy neighborhood, I'd had space and travel, I'd ceased being impressed.  I wanted the freedom to waste time.  I think there is nothing so precious as having so much time that it can be wasted fruitfully and well.

But hauntingly, there is the voice.  The audience does not care for high-minded designs and writings.  Pity them.  But get their asses in the seats.  It's not a choice.  It's a "must."


Friday, September 13, 2019

Policing Alignment

Let's take an example of design function and behaviour and examine it closely (this is part of a series on the closed blog).  For instance, alignment.  The base premise for alignment from the 1979 DMG, rarely quoted, is this (p.23):
"The overall behavior of the character (or creature) is delineated by alignment, or, in the case of player characters, behavior determines actual alignment. Therefore, besides defining the general tendencies of creatures, it also groups creatures into mutually acceptable or at least non-hostile divisions. This is not to say that groups of similarly aligned creatures cannot be opposed or even mortal enemies ... bands of orcs can hate each other. But the former would possibly cease their war to oppose a massive invasion of orcs, just as the latter would make common cause against the lawful good men ... it likewise causes a player character to choose an ethos which is appropriate to his or her profession, and alignment also aids players in the definition and role approach of their respective game personae."

You can read the whole thing yourself with the link provided.  This is the muddiest thinking imaginable, ignoring everything we know about emotional behaviour, even in 1979.  There is absolutely no logic whatsoever that orcs side together because they are all evil; they, like any group, must be expected to side together because they are all orcs.  Yet the general gaming public bought this idea; they continue to buy it, and argue its legitimacy, because it seems like a good idea.  We must structure our character ideals upon something, we are told ~ and alignment seems to represent an approximation of every kind of behaviour.

As psychologists, Gygax and his peers all get an 'F.'  But let's set that aside and discuss it strictly from a gaming perspective.  The design is intended to enable DMs and players to "group" creatures, presumedly to provide a better playing experience.

Shown here is one of the hundreds of alignment charts one can find on the internet that attempts to use figures from fiction or reality to specify what is meant by each alignment.  They can be found for Star Wars, world leaders, the Big Lebowski, Game of Thrones, Batman, the television show Community, the cast of the movie Pride and Prejudice, CGP Grey themes, Star Trek (the original series and later incarnations), the Big Bang Theory ... the list goes on and on and on.  The apparent need for clarity is itself evidence that there is a problem here.  Over and over we have to create memes that try to categorize highly vague categories into human behaviour (for that is what we're doing in every case, whether the depiction is real or fictional).  And in every case, just as in the example shown, it doesn't really work.  And how, exactly, it doesn't work is different for every witness.  Were I to begin a debate upon Lockhart's placement in the above, we could quickly find ourselves in an insolvable discussion based entirely upon our personal experience with what we believe is the accurate definition of a made up term that itself, in the rules, is no better than your position or mine.

In terms of player behaviour, this being the way the alignment tool was used, we're all over the map.  And attempts to nail down each of the categories are utterly subjective.  Yet in his original rules, Gygax spoke of the DM's need to "keep track of player character behavior."  If it deviated from the assigned alignment, we are told, "Such drift should be noted by you, and when it takes the individual into a new alignment area, you should then inform the player that his or her character has changed alignment."  And yet, according to Gygax, "It is quite possible for a character to drift around in an alignment area ..."

How exactly is this tracked?  I've never seen anyone try to break down one of the alignment fields into nine or perhaps 16 subfields, each with a perfect definition so we can plot the player's behaviour and be sure they're still inside the boundaries.  Ah, but Gygax says, "... any major action ... will cause a major shift ..."  How, I am forced to ask, do we delineate "major" from "minor"?  Except, of course, with the subjective opinion of the only person who counts, this being the DM.

In terms of user behavioural problems, this is recipe for disaster ~ and it was in every game that I played where alignment was used as a feature.  It doesn't matter what the actual opinions were; players would insist they were living up to their alignment while others would insist they were not.  And the more firm the DM would try to be in dictating alignment, the more the players would chafe at being told the motivations and limitations of how they were allowed to use their character.

This in turn created a long list of logical arguments for how and why a good character could "get away" with behaving cruelly or indifferently, while lawful characters found loopholes that would allow they to act selfishly and greedily.  None of this really matters, except as evidence that humans will find a way if they feel they deserve one.

The problem is from a behavioural perspective, what does the alignment actually do for the player once the alignment is chosen?  It can give me an inflexible standard to play ... which is nothing like a real person in any sense, and therefore becomes dissatisfying after awhile.  What with all the necessity of staying alive, adding alignment feels a lot of the time like having to fight the world with one arm tied behind your back.  "Sorry; I would happily ride on your back across this river, but I'm neutral evil, you understand, so both our characters have to die."  While an interesting tale for why we don't trust scorpions, it makes for a rather frustrating play experience.

And here is the larger thing: if we play without tracking alignment or caring about alignment, this doesn't keep any of the characters who want to use alignment for building their character to continue doing so.  It simply means that if I start as a lawful good person, I can change my mind later on.  Or with a particular incident.  Since no one is measuring my character's behaviour in a real sense, I can style myself as a fellow who floats casually between four alignments and that's fine.

Which means that alignment can still be useful as a means to group creatures (if you're going to embrace that concept) and for designing a personality ... so nothing is actually lost if we remove the policing concept.  The only person the policing concept actually serves is the DM; and only in the sense that the DM can slap a label on the player for "reasons."  The DM's actually running of the game, the presentation of the adventure and the dialogue between player and NPC can all take place without any change whatsoever ... except, perhaps, that where before the DM could say, "You have to fight the orcs because you're lawful good," the DM no longer has the legitimacy to make that argument.

I'm unclear myself on why the policing of alignment is still a thing.  It plainly is, because the community spends so much time on defining it.  Alignment itself, though psychologically ridiculous, and utterly useless if a writer wants to make three-dimensional characters, at least has the benefit of giving people two scales on which they can graph a character in the game.

I could argue this practice has led to an awful lot of misery ... but the reader would just argue back and then we'd be in a flame war, and who really cares anyway.

The larger point is that as a design concept, the strategy proposed by the invention of the alignment was never realized ~ and, in fact, the players did not need it to be realized.  Inconsistency makes a better story.  And something that is meant to be consistent, but cannot be rationally defined, yet is believed to be rationally defined by every person willing to argue about it, only creates obstacles to the playing experience, rather than obstacles between the player and achievement.

Friday, September 6, 2019

Four Zero

Today, almost to the hour that I'm posting this, I have been playing and designing D&D for 40 years.

Rather that wax poetical about the beginning or speak of the time spent, as I've done at other times, I think I will just say, it hasn't been long enough.

Apart from the book I'm editing, I have two other books in the works regarding the subject of game play and design.  I am considering accepting that the creation of modules for other people may be something I'm forced to do.  And I am rethinking other possible ways through which I hope to continue to add content to a discourse which has not begun to reach its zenith, not in my mind.  Far from feeling that I am on the periphery of the community, I continue to feel that I am breaking new frontiers, discovering new countries, meeting new peoples and forging out a game that will change the way people think about D&D.

Fifty years, here I come.

Sunday, September 1, 2019

Character & Characterizations

In the halcyon days of my youth, mostly during university, I spent hundreds of hours sitting in writers' groups and literary discussion seminars in a quest to learn how to write better.  In that era, I learned about the adoration that writers have for the shape and sound of words, an adoration that does not extend therefore to messages and communication.  I also learned about the love and infatuation that writers have for characters, while simultaneously dismissing any notion that these characters should change or adapt to their circumstances.  Slowly, I learned that for many writers, writing is a fetish.  For many, a group of words or a character is something like building a power drill that is intended to be framed and hung on a wall, never to be used for any purpose except show.

Of course, it doesn't really matter if someone wants to write that way or even to say it's "good writing."  I don't want to read books like that; most people don't, and it's standard among those kind of writers to carry a grudge against people who don't "get it" and "don't appreciate" what they're trying to do.  It is an indisputable problem of fetishistic books ~ if the reader isn't into the same fetish, the writing won't carry the day.  Thus, fetishistic writers tend to be successful when writing about highly popular subjects: teen romances about vampires and rich businessmen, or books about mothers about to give birth to children, etcetera.  In which case, it doesn't even matter how well the books are written, or how long they anguish on with their themes while nothing is actually happening.  If I want to read about 19th century prostitution, and its agonies, there are a number of books I can pick up ... and it won't matter if the characters of those books ever do anything.  I'm not reading the book for it's plot or that plot's relationship with my life.

The habit of making characters an end in themselves, however, bleeds into role-playing ~ where players and DMs alike develop models that are intended to exist as inviolate entities, meant to ride above the waves of the game setting.  My angst-driven overly impulsive half-elven fighter, who feels he cannot be happy as either a human or an elf, will carry on that motif into every battle, every adventure, every conversation, for dozens of sessions, without ever learning anything about anything, and certainly never getting over his entrenched angst.  Because, obviously, that's how I want my elf to be.

This gets exhaustive for everyone else, who have heard every pre-scripted line a hundred times already, who get to where they can speak my elf's words before I do.  Fetishes are like this, even those that are not blatantly sexual or bigoted (though these get noticed at once).  Fetishes are tiresome.  They're boring.  They contribute nothing to game play except for the fetishist ~ and as such are at best selfish and at worst perniciously narcissistic.

I don't expect to change anyone's approach to character building, naturally.  I'm only explaining why these characters grow increasingly unsatisfying over time ... even for the fetishist, who eventually needs to create another like character with a slightly different fetish.  Characters who do not change over the course of time are sterile and ~ more to the point ~ unbelievable.  As "characters," they fall into the uncanny valley of stereotypes ... the sort that makes others around the table roll their eyes when the totally inflexible character decides to face down the dragon one on one or commit suicide for totally stupid reasons.

To them, the answer is obvious: "It is what my character would do."  The more accurate sentiment would be, it is what their characterization would do.  That's not a character.  That's a tool hanging in a frame where it doesn't get used.

Excitement comes from change ~ from the process of learning from mistakes, adapting to new circumstances, accepting that the past is past and making the effort to recreate ourselves from the new ideas we discover as we progress through time.  People who cannot get past their old lives, their old belief systems and their old habits are considered to have sociological and psychological problems.  Since those problems apply to the actual players, who are most likely to play characterizations rather than consider the possibility of character growth, we need to ask ourselves, what psychological drama is being played out at our gaming table.

This is a taboo.  We're supposed to pretend that if a player wants a character that is a stubborn idiot, this is a "choice" and not a red flag indicating the player may have other problems than our game world.  That is, unless those old buggaboos of sex and bigotry arise.  Then we're empowered.

Otherwise, our hands are tied.

A number of features have arisen surrounding the game to cope with this resistance to change.  The DM changes the genre, or the campaign, or shifts from party to party, or runs all adventures episodically, with a complete new list of characters for every one.  In addition, we start characters at 9th or 12th level, so that players are empowered to create their characterizations without having to worry if they're "strong enough" to play that particular ideal.

This is the saddest part: the game is clearly structured to encourage player character change!  The characters are expected to start off weak and legitimately humbled, knowing that virtually everything in the setting can kill them.  With effort and time, the humility is shucked away, the new character potential emerges, the characters are given larger prospects, the player swaggers a bit more knowing what's already been accomplished ~ and everyone can poke fun at each other, talking about the old days when "our characters" were soft and easily breakable.

All that is casually swept away in favor of jumping straight to 10th level, so that everyone can swagger immediately, and create back stories that make sense for high level characters (that would be ridiculous for a 1st level), while stiffening themselves with as much starch as needed to make their characters utterly inflexible.

This turned out to be a large problem with two online campaigns that I ran, in which the players had exact, intractable visions for what they were ... a vision that I began to screw with, because the world just doesn't care who you are.  My game delights in forcing people to lift themselves out of their prejudices, to make themselves suitable for new conditions and a shifting setting.  I want to push my characters into dilemmas, because these create drama without my having to return again and again to the old saws of more monsters and more puzzles.  The players I had, however, came from a different game experience; one where their pigheadedness was encouraged and even celebrated, because it didn't have to last more than a few months or just one adventure.  By next year, everyone is going to have a new character anyway.

I believe this sentiment underlies a great many unhappy game tables, without the participants being even vaguely aware of the problem.  This is my only reason for shedding light on it.  The diehard, steely-eyed character can't even sustain a modern-day, 100-minute film, much less a campaign expected to endure between 20 and 100 hours.  Why are we still encouraging this character in our game worlds?

Think about it.  This character is not interesting because he's inflexible; he's interesting because he's complicated.