Tuesday, December 29, 2020

So Long, 2020

End of the year and I must add that December has been a trip.  I intend to continue the series on NPCs, but I'd like to add a few diary notes, since it's late on the 29th.

I regret to say to some that I'm in a very good place just now.  I've watched the world burn down too, watched the American legal and political system tumble and watched the horror of covid's rise.  I'm in the midst of the worst outbreak in Canada, for pretty much the same ignorant reasons why there's a big outbreak in other reactionary parts.  Alberta is not a forward thinking province in Canada; it's full of people who made their money in raw material resources and agriculture, who possess that same dumbfuck maverick perspective that makes them feel untouchable.  But though I am amidst them, I don't leave my house more often than once a week to buy groceries—and thankfully, that's one place in the city where the rule of law is followed.  If people start congregating, the groceries have been supplied with an alarm and if someone presses it, the cops show up and will break it up.  Thank blazes.

I haven't gotten sick, nor has any friend or acquaintance I know directly.  I have several friends who would be very susceptible to the disease, but they're ensconced just like me.  And so, though covid's a nightmare, my people are bearing up so far.  Thankfully, there's a vaccine available now for anyone who might be hospitalized with it, so that in a month we should see a real fall in fatalities.

No, my news is of a different sort.  Back in early August, I was in a bad place with regards to the blog; I spent most of that month in meditation.  Some here might recall.  And some might have thought ol' Alexis had finally slipped a gear.  But truthfully, I've felt a lot better about blogging and about my message.  I feel sorted out, as though I'd turned a corner.  I've had three surprises this month with donations; Jack I've thanked already, but I'd like to thank Ed and Tom as well.  Their contributions were sincerely generous.

And since I'm here, I'd like to give a solid thanks to Carl, whose had a rough year of it in Wisconsin.  Hang in there Carl, you've been my rock for a long time.  I'd like to reach out to Wandrille too, and James H.  Thank you fellows.  Vlad, I never fail to appreciate your comments when I receive them; and Walter E., shake my hand.  I'm looking at you too, Laughing Lunatic, and Andrea, whose silent strength has been there for a couple of years now.  Robert, that was a truly great thing you did for me back in February; I haven't forgotten it.  Shelby U., thanks for your help with the wiki this year; at least we got it off the ground, though there's a lot of work there.  And Shelby M. too, along with Alejandro and Carl again, thanks for putting up with my meanness regarding the wiki.  Ellie, take a hug; we'll get the online game started again soon.  Jon L., Tim out there in Toronto, Chris R. and David B., you all feel good about yourselves.  I hope you and everyone else has had a good Christmas.  C.Angus, I haven't heard from you in ages; MPSpence, Jon R. and Elizabeth, you three have a Happy New Year.  Sterling is probably at sea; Deadly, I have no idea where you are, you ought to drop a line sometime.  Dusk, I see you there too.  And Recueillir ... sorry, I'm cutting Twitter out of my life, so I've stopped seeing you there.  To everyone else, and there are just too many to name, please believe me when I say that you've been great to me.  From the bottom of my heart I thank you.

I feel that 2021 is going to go very well.  Patreon is up, I've got an odd consulting gig going and a friend of mine has suggested he might be retiring and that some of his office equipment could find its way into my study.  It looks like I might be able to upgrade to a new neighbourhood in Calgary sometime in May or June, with more space and, hopefully, an end to restaurant work (at last).  Its the first time I've feel sincerely destressed since early 2015.

Be well, all.  I'll probably write another post before the end of 2020.  For those in the campaign, I'll remind you we'll be starting up again Monday, if you're willing.

Monday, December 28, 2020

Wait, Wait ... Isn't that Sherlock?

I don't ordinarily consider things like how to communicate in the game world.  I just do it.  Then I make a passing comment and find myself writing a series, because the subject material is so big, it can't be done in one post.  The task forces me to answer the question of what "just do it" means.  This takes me down rabbit holes to places where no one I've ever seen has gone.

What people want to find on the net is a titled post, "Nine Great Lines to Pick-up NPCs" ... which I won't do, because in essence a post like that is a sham.  Communication is more than finding a good combination of words.  It's more than convincing someone of something.  Approaching communication like it is a key that goes in a lock always ends in a bad scene, like how the girl that gets picked up with the great one-liner turns out to be a frightening mess you wish you'd never met.

[I'll veer away from one-gender references, but in this case, picking up potential sex partners through "cold-calling" is still a male-dominated motif; still, my apologies for the image]

Thus, so far, the dive into why DMs and Players are both pre-programmed to see NPCs as "flesh-sticks" without feelings, who represent a game puzzle and not people.  And why I've chosen to discuss why personal connection with NPCs offers possibilities as practical solutions for larger game problems, like how to clear a dangerous lair from the game map.  What I haven't offered, however, is any information on how to transform an NPC from a flesh-stick to a fictional being that the players would care about ... and this is the real task at hand.  If we find a means to care about an NPC, we don't need an operators manual on what words to say or how to communicate.  We already know how to do those things (most of us, anyway) with people in the real world.

Look, whether we're talking about a meeting with fellow parents at the P.T.A., or fellow fiends in a burned-out basement, the rules are clearly understood:  we're talking to a person who has their unique viewpoints, issues, stresses and intentions, and we understand there are lines we don't cross too soon.  First engagements are careful, uncertain, with walls up; and though neither side has the benefit of knowing what the other is thinking, BOTH sides are well aware, even if unconsciously, that the other is guarded, just as we are.  So we approach moments where we meet people in ways that we've formed by habit: small talk, appeals to mutual interests, don't get too personal ... not until there's some reason we have to trust.

These guards don't exist in D&D because, first, we can get as personal as we want with an NPC and so what?  If the conversation gets too "boring," we can draw our blaster and wreck the control panel.   Not caring is so immediately gratifying, so deliciously unlike having to deal with real people.  NPCs are just cardboard cutouts.  We can whack them with clubs and swords without a shred of guilt.  The escapism of it is a huge part of the game for many, many people.

The contrary position isn't an easy one.  Why care?  Why want that?

As much fun as cutouts are, the fun is limited.  They offer only one kind of fun.  There are more emotions available than gleeful destruction, which is all cardboard allows.  Were we stuck on a planet with nothing but cardboard cutouts, we would very soon starve for more meaningful interactions, the sort of interactions that only humans can give us.  It isn't easy to explain, but while escapism through immediate gratification is a legitimate exercise, there is a higher form of escapism that we pursue.

The apt example, and the one that many don't like, is that as a youth we escape from the mediocrity of being under the thumb of life's expectations through the pursuit of danger, drugs, alcohol, sex, violence and other gut-driven activities.  Some never rise from that; but many begin to realize that a greater escape can be obtained through acquisition of knowledge, family, responsibility, materialism, personal authority and so on ... even though these things come with awful occasional trials.  It is a question of what kind of escape do we want to pursue.  For many, the escape offered by slapping down NPCs (or monsters) is enough.  For others, it isn't.

It is for those others that we're writing now.

Let's examine a concomitant gaming phenomenon: the attachment players have for their characters.  We well know that if we have a character we love, and the character dies, we will feel a deep-seated response to that.  I recognize many players never experience this, as detached as they are from their characters, but it is a common phenomena and has always been evident in any game I've played face-to-face.

Suppose, however, that your fellow player's character dies.  Yours is fine, but Jared's character Vika has bought the big one and won't be back.  Let's say Vika and your character have been together for three years.  Where are your feelings about Vika?  On one level, you will probably feel bad for Jared.  You will probably regret losing Vika's fighting ability, spells, whatever things that Vika might have offered the game.  My question is, will you miss Vika.  Will you find yourself thinking, "Oh, damn.  Vika.  I really liked her."  Is that a part of your process?

I've asked around over Christmas and I've had varied answers.  Witnessing characters die over a long time, I can attest that the death of your own character is much more hurtful than that of someone else's.  Unquestionably, there is more empathy for the other player than there is a sense of loss for the character left behind—though I must admit that until this past weekend, I've never given it any thought or asked anyone about it.  I feel certain there is a greater detachment for someone else's character, because while we have lost Vika, we still have the player Jared.  Jared is fine.  Any loss we feel can be transferred quickly to the sense of comfort we have for Jared's continued presence.

Whereas this doesn't work for our own character.  When we lose our precious Driksos, the fact that we didn't die in actuality doesn't help much with our sense of loss.  Everyone has grown up learning that things get lost, from the bunny we loved at the age of three that just went missing during that one move, to the car we finally had to surrender in favour of a new one.  Things stop working, they break, they get broken or stolen, or they're made redundant ... and though it keeps happening, and the callous we feel for loss gets thicker, we know it's going to hurt when our Cocker Spaniel Zenita passes, as she surely must because we're certain to outlive her.  Knowing we're alive, when Zenita is gone, isn't a comfort.  That knowledge only adds to the pain.

This feeling isn't there for a lot of D&D players for numerous reasons.  It's the approach to die rolls, or how easy it is to get a new 9th level when the old 9th level has died.  Playing "one-shot" campaigns helps a lot with a player's attachment to the character.  Some people don't own cats or dogs because the commitment is too great and the idea of having one or the other for 12 years, only to watch them die one day, is unbearable.  Some RPGers don't like campaigns, because they might feel too much.

But I have one more phenomenon that fits into this later query.  I have watched players grow just as attached to an NPC as they are to their own characters—and feel just as much loss when that NPC dies, as they would their own character.  Why?  I've seen the sense of loss be felt more keenly towards an NPC than towards a fellow player's character.  What is that?  Is it also because the NPC also has the finality of not feeling reassured that the fellow player is still alive?  The NPC has no player; and the DM isn't much comfort.  

Players associate DMs and NPCs only when the NPC is a hateful, miserable baddie.  Then the DM is accused of manipulating the party, arbitrarily screwing with the party's well-being and otherwise playing fast-and-loose with fairness.  This is never the response when the party likes the NPC.  If the NPC shows up in the nick of time to help the party, the DM is never accused of unholy interventionism.  And if the NPC dies, the DM is the murderer, as in a third-person party that interferes with the NPC's well-being.

When parties like an NPC, it is always because the NPC has some characteristic the party relates to emotionally.  A friendly, paternal figure who is both able to forgive and wag a finger now and then.  A brave idealist who gets into trouble but miraculously survives.  A wise servant who, despite being self-sacrificing most of the time, nevertheless seems armed with a hundred unexpected talents.  We have characters like this in the literature of every culture.  It's Obiwan, it's Indy, it's Jeeves.  We are drawn to these characters even though we know they're entirely fictional—which doesn't matter, because we care.

Why does it make a difference if it is Our character or it's the NPC we hired, who is also a part of the party and also strives with their might to help us on our way?  Is one more "fictional" than the other?  Or is it an arbitrary line we draw, because we want to be close to our own character but to no one else?  Why is the loss of our character more keenly felt than our neighbours?  Is it because we did all the work to keep our character alive?  But what about all the times that Jared's character saved ours?  And if Jared, the real life Jared, died, don't we often think we'd rather it was us that had died and not him?  Is that not where we so often go in our thoughts?

There is a LOT more going on here than cardboard cutouts.  Until we surrender ourselves to the fact of fictional characters as they affect us, we can't see the deeper layers that exist under every D&D game, and every interaction we have with an NPC that we meet on the street.  Every NPC is potentially a Jeeves or an Indy, or a thousand other beloved characters that we discount by insisting that there's nothing to "care" about with NPCs.  This is something about which we need to awaken ourselves.

This series continues with Building Likeableness

Friday, December 25, 2020

Help & Problem Solving

Imagine you're a homo sapiens about 40,000 years ago.  You come to a thick tree, where you can see, just beyond your reach, a bee hive with an evident build-up of honeycombs.  You lick your lips, because things like this are very rare and you'd very definitely like to get your hands on some of that sweet, sweet comb.

How do you get it?  The most obvious route is to shimmy up the tree just enough, stab your hand into the nest and grab as big a chunk as you can get.  Naturally, you've done this before and you remember the many, many stings that resulted from that plan last time.  Still, you survived and you DID get the honeycomb, so win win, right?

Hm.  You give it a think and you come up with a different plan.  Searching around, you find a log you can stand on, that will get you just high enough to reach the comb without having to move quickly.  You experiment a bit and discover that if you move very, very slowly, the bees will land on you but they won't sting you.  You can even put your hand on the comb, and gently break off a piece; whereupon you can climb down and eat your honey without being covered with beestings.  Still, it takes a lot of self-control.  The bees are landing on your face, around your eyes—and if you move too fast, just once, one of the bees might sting you ... whereupon you'll jump, or shout out, and then its bees all over you again and you might not get anything.  How awful is that?

Still, if you get some experience, and learn to hold steady even if you're stung, you'll always be able to get the comb out of similar places—and wow the jibby-jabbers out of your tribe every time you perform this trick right in front of them.  Won't that be great?

It's only after a chance observation, however, that you come up with still a better plan.  At the base of the tree, not rushing, you build up a small fire, just a hand's width across.  Then, when it's burning and the bees aren't panicking (a small fire makes little heat), you douse the fire with a pile of partially damp leaves.  A big smoke cloud results, engulfing the bee hive ... whereupon you climb up, and with the bees fast asleep, you patiently take out comb after comb without worry.  By the time the smoke has cleared, you're done.

Think of these three plans as "Act," "Prepare" and "Get Help," in the last case from the fire.  It takes no brains to act.

A party comes to a dungeon door and without listening, a player kicks the door in and Wham!  Everyone is in a fight with the monsters behind it.  Probably, the players will get out of the jam, but they'll expose themselves to more damage than was necessary, take more time readying their extra attacks and in some cases won't be able to use their full abilities under duress.

Preparation takes thinking.

Before kicking in the door, everyone lightens their load, the spellcasters ready magic, the party readies weapons, someone lights a flask of oil and one person is designated to kick in the door and then hit the floor.  The first volley hopefully stupefies the enemy to such a degree that they fold at once or they never mount a decent counterattack, so they can be mopped up easily.  Sometimes, it doesn't work; sometimes, everyone misses with their first shot or the spell is saved against, or the monster encountered is very different from what's expected.  Still, preparation allows everyone time to give it their best shot.

Getting help takes imagination.

Any player can look down their character sheet and see what's the best spell to throw if there's time to load it before opening the door.  The weapons to be used aren't guesswork and this is why we buy flasks of oil.  In the example above, it's hard to recognize that the fire is "help."  We see it as a tool, and it is that; but in this thought lesson, I want the reader to see how the fire is busy distracting the bees, so the players can do something else.

The third option with the door is to create a situation where the creatures beyond the door come out of their own free will—and, in making our plan, we set things up so there's no visible threat.  We knock on the door and then hide or use magic to disappear.  They come out, find a pile of goods in the hall.  This is a Trojan Horse.  Together, they come out to pick over the stuff and Bam!  Piece of the roof falls in and kills them all.  Or some other trap, whatever seems best.  It isn't always easy to set up, and one thing hardly ever works in another situation (most things cannot be overcome with a small fire).  My point is to propose that more power can always be found by adding resources outside your immediate possession.

Now, let's consider The Keep on the Borderlands.

The module is deliberately designed to offer a bunch of mini-adventures that can be met, with the Keep in the background when the party needs to recover.  It is all smash-and-grab; load up your gear, go to the caves, fight until you're low in hit points, retreat, recover, re-equip, return to smash and grab, over and over, until the caves are cleared.  The players have to keep friendly relations with the Keep so that they have a withdrawal point; and the module is built so that this is fairly the only tactic allowed the players.

But let's say that I'm running the module and not TSR.  Let's say that the denizens in the module are not stock characters, but intelligent beings—both the residents of the Keep and the Monsters.  If the players keep returning to the caves over a long time, the monsters are going to pull together and set additional traps, block off parts of the caves and agree to live with one another until the "danger" passes.

The players can reduce the time needed to return to the keep, recover and re-equip, by establishing a forward base, with fortification, plenty of supply and positions to defend themselves from watchtowers and palisades.  Thus, they can assault a cave, stir up one nest of bees, then draw them out to the players' base where they can be cut down and slaughtered out of their homes.  Additionally, they can cut logs and brush, bear them to the Caves of Chaos and plug up one or more open holes, setting them on fire if need be; in fact, the whole surface can be set aflame, to reveal the "hidden" caves.  There are plenty of strategies we can try without having to go underground more than a few dozen meters.

However, there is the Holy Grail, isn't there?  Get Help.  Spend all your time at the keep figuring out who needs what and how to get it for them, making friends, solving the problems that ought to beset the various members of the keep (who, remember, are rational persons in this scenario) and making arrangements for the future, based on one simple strategy:  organize the keep, motivate them and take everyone to the Caves of Chaos together and wipe the place off the map.  Then, the party takes their cut and moves on with their own adventure.

Most D&Ders would hate this idea.  It isn't "adventure" in their minds, they'd make the argument that it would mean they wouldn't get all the treasure, nor would they feel the pride at having taken the place by themselves.  It's not what they call "D&D."

Yet for those who tout the sacred practices of "role-play," is this not the more interesting option?  It's a mind-bender to figure out how to "buy" the members of the keep with promises and rational arguments, encouraging them to believe that it's in their best interest to help wipe out the Caves of Chaos, such that the party ends up befriending the crew and leading one of the major groups assaulting the dungeon.  The gruff corporal we spoke about with the last post might have become a close friend, offering a heart-wrenching moment when he fails to overcome some tight situation and ends up dying in the arms of his comrades (not that we should set that up to happen, it's only that in a fight, unexpected things DO happen and spontaneously, producing the most profound unexpected emotional reactions from a party).  Some minor functionary survives round after round, even as we're rolling the dice in the open, when it is obvious to everyone he should have died almost immediately.  Someone chance kills the minotaur with a ballista after its been lured to the surface and the Captain of the Guard unfortunately dies from disease caused by rats, after both the Curate and the Priest are trapped underground by a mass of orcs.  Like I said, weird things happen.

When it's over, the players have to make good on their promises, shipping in settlers, finding an even larger horde of wealth that has to be shared with the Castellan and maybe the Jewel Merchant, getting the place recognized by "The Realm" and turning the Keep on the Borderlands into a jumping off point for further forts and keeps that push the borderlands further away.  Sounds like a helluva an adventure to me ... a lot better than patting ourselves on the back because we cleared out every room personally due to our OCD.

None of which means a thing if there's no way to talk to all these people who run the place, because every one of them is an adventure cock-blocker of the first order.  Why shouldn't the keep's residents feel its worth their time to eliminate the Caves?  Isn't "keeping the peace" an issue competing with "make ourselves rich"—with both problems being directly solved by scouring the Caves with a wire brush?  Seems obvious ... to everyone except the designers, that is, who had a very deliberate idea of how this ought to be played out by lone wolf types, which every party member is assumed to be and which, being honest, IS what they usually are.

Nevertheless.  If we're speaking about how to talk to NPCs, it has to be clear why we should want to talk to them.  It breaks down to two principle aims:

1.  To get help.

2.  To give help.

What I've just described does both.

This series continues with Wait, Wait ... Isn't that Sherlock?

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Talking to NPCs

We'll get nowhere if we cannot understand the premise:  

NPCs are living, self-motivated beings with personal agendas, in the pursuit of those agendas full time.  They do not exist to provide players with information, send players on quests, fulfill a role in an adventure or otherwise service the party's existence.

Before comprehending anything in this post, it must be understood that you will not be able to take the information here as a DM and apply it to your game world, because your players will not understand what you're doing, and will not have grasped the premise I've just given.  Likewise, if you are a player in a gameworld, the DM will not grasp what you're doing, because the DM's non-players will not have adopted this premise either.  The only way that anything can be gleaned from what I'm about to write is that both the DM and the Players must, together, be informed and made to comprehend what is proposed as a design principle.

In role-playing games at this time and according to the presuppositions I see in place, even if the DM and players can be induced to sit down and consider the premise above, most likely they still won't get their heads around it, or understand how to employ it.  In short, we're digging out of a very deep hole here.

The Hole

Let's discuss first how NPCs are usually run in a game.

On page 8 of The Keep on the Borderlands module, we are given this description of an NPC, the corporal of the watch:

"He is dressed in plate mail and carries a shield, with sword and dagger at his waist.  The corporal is rather grouchy, with a low charisma, but he admires outspoken, brave fighters and is easily taken in by a pretty girl."

This is not an atypical description of an NPC in an ordinary module, even today (though the company will have left the sexism out).   First, we're told his armor and weapons if the players start a fight.  Then we're told how he's going to approach the players when he's talked to.  Finally, we're told the "key" that's needed to get what's wanted out of the corporal: be brave or be pretty.

It's a game puzzle.  You want information, you have to press this button or that one.  You want to fight, here are the statistics.  We get nothing about who the corporal is, if he likes the job, if he's honest or what his motivations are.  We have limited space and we don't need to know those things, because the purpose of the NPC being here is to provide a game challenge.

Specifically, that game challenge is to "get" something from the corporal: the treasure of his +1 sword if he's beaten in combat, or knowledge about the keep.  Aside from being a threat or a medieval webpage, he's useless.

Every player that approaches the corporal thinks about him in this way.  If the DM were to create more character underlying the corporal's motivation, the players would assume this was a "game puzzle" that needed deciphering.  The more information we add to the corporal, the larger and more complex the game puzzle must be, in the player's imagination.  At no time and in no way will the players jump to the conclusion that quite possibly the corporal might just be "shooting the shit," because he's bored at his job and this is simply who he is.  The players have been TRAINED to deal with every NPC as a puzzle, a thing to be deciphered so the next important part of the adventure, or "story," can be wormed out and everyone can move onto the next puzzle.

Suppose the player, however, decides the corporal is a real person and decides to talk to him.  "How you doing, nice night out, isn't it, shame it wasn't pork for dinner, I was saying to my friends just yesterday that there seem to be a lot more settlers that have moved in than there were last year ..."

Listening to this, answering, the DM will be thinking, "What is the player doing?  Why isn't the player solving the puzzle?  We're just wasting time."  The DM has no conception of deciding if the corporal maybe likes this player, or is interested in unloading a bit about the Keep being something of a rather pleasant posting, or anything that might lead to the player and the corporal becoming acquaintences.  Instead, the DM will keep turning the subject back towards the adventure's agenda, talking about the Caves of Chaos, or gruffly telling the player to "move on, move on," maintaining the 2D illusion that the corporal is meant to present.  There is no pathway of conversation that would lead the corporal to be anything except "spearcarrier 3" in the mental play the DM has concocted.

So the reader can see, there is no easy way out of the hole.  A 3D character encourages the players to distrust immediately, while players approaching the DM's 2D character is a dead-end.  How do we get out?

The DM's Path

Sorry, I have to start with an example.

Westworld is a 1973 science fiction thriller predominantly revolving around two young men, Peter and John, who visit an android-populated theme park based upon three genres, most notably the standard American western, this being the choice of the main characters.  It is really two movies.  The first part is a fun romp in which the visitors explore the options available to them through the theme park.  The second part begins with an unexpected twist that we don't need to talk about, as nothing about the second half of the film is relevant to this post.

Peter and John arrive in the non-Leone "Wild West" and are given their clothes and weapons.  They get a room at the hotel, visit the bar, get pushed around by the sheriff, kill the sheriff (a couple of times), become outlaws, head into the outback and eventually return to town.  Most of the standard tropes (gunfight, bar fight, bank robbery) are incorporated into the story.

The two men are not given an "adventure" to play.  They are released into a pure sandbox and are expected to make their own fun.  This is doable, since the liquor is real, the guns feel real and "emotionally kill" the androids, the old western furnishings, rooms, clothes and sexy girls all provide a treat for the senses.

It is perhaps unknown to many readers, but Westworld was a smash sensation in 1973.  Everyone saw it and everyone and anyone interested in science fiction or fantasy was blown away by it.  The film made a splash equivalent to Star Wars.  Only, it wasn't marketed through toys and the splash didn't last as long.

The notion that Gygax, Arneson and others, playing and publishing D&D in 1974, weren't greatly influenced by the film is laughable.  Michael Crichton, writer and director of the film, the same guy who wrote Jurassic Park, the Andromeda Strain and much else taught them how a sandbox worked.  Unfortunately, a sandbox does not make a very good movie, so the sandbox had to be subverted halfway through in order to ensure the rest of the movie followed the writer's rather cliched science fiction agenda.

When there is no adventure, the bartender is just a bartender.  The sheriff is just there to keep the peace or act crookedly if that power has been allowed to corrupt.  When someone throws a punch, a barfight erupts.  When the bank is robbed, the pieces are reset and the bank is there to get robbed again.  Crichton's idea of a sandbox was very, very simplistic, but it was a theme park and the movie was released in 1973.  Note that I've been specific about the western depicted is not Sergio Leone's ultra-violent unforgiving west, but much more the television west of Gunsmoke.  Crichton and his investors wanted to make money; still, the Gunsmoke version was still sufficient to scare people, as the second half of the film is something of a horror.  Imagine if it had been A Fistful of Dollars.  Or Peckinpah's the Wild Bunch.  Much, much more visceral.

When the denizens in your world are there to serve a personal agenda of yours to walk the party through a pre-designated path, there's room to give the androids (NPCs) a personality.  Instead of existing merely as obstacles or enablers, they may be given the opportunity to genuinely care about the well-being of the party.  We're usually able to imagine NPCs deciding "the party must die," but this is only a tiny part of the equation.  The gruff corporal of the watch might imagine, seeing the party retreat once from the Caves of Chaos and yet be willing to go again, that the party could use a little help on their second journey.  "Here, take my second Gareth with you; and take my sword—but bring it back."  Eventually, the whole keep might be concerned and rooting for the party, with dozens of them camped a safe distance from the Caves and yet ready to give aid should the party stumble out of the bushes.  After all, does anyone in the Keep actually like the Caves being there?

Still, that reaction relies on the players TALKING like human beings to the members of the Keep: sharing information, asking and offering help, demonstrating generosity, telling stories, making peace during a barfight instead of joining in, thus gaining the bartender's good will.  In a real bar, broken furniture and bottles spells destitution and poverty; unlike a movie western, there aren't more tables and bottles in the back that can be set up for the next group of patrons who want to fight.  In a real medieval town, the guard don't show up and arrest the rabble, they strip the rabble of wealth and sell them as slaves to the mines.

The DM has to get out of the headspace that the NPCs are set pieces.  This is difficult to explain.  Let's put a pin in it for the present; this isn't something I'm able to outline directly.  It must be reasoned out.

The Players Path

Another example.  My online party lately discovered a wrecked airship on a tundra plateau a couple of days from civilisation.  They killed the giant spider inside it and discovered some barrels of wine and ale that were intact.  The ship looks to have gone down three years ago.  Retreating because of wounds and needing recovery, they returned in order to collect the barrels and return them to town.  In a heavy rainfall, they set up camp, heard a thump in the night and the next morning, found a nearly dead stone giant had collapsed nearby.  They restored the giant to consciousness, learned the giant had been nearly killed fighting a giant cave bear, learned that the cave bear was still alive and "out there" and that the giant had lost his axe somewhere along his way from the hills to where he collapsed near the ship.

The party decided to recover the axe, which they found lying near a tarn; but then they were attacked by a large wolf with either blink or teleport capabilities.  They struck the wolf a blow, the wolf missed and then disappeared.  The party started back towards the camp and now they are being tracked by the wolf.  That's where we paused the campaign.

The party could have killed the giant but they didn't.  If they had killed the giant, they wouldn't have learned about the cave bear.  They didn't have to help the giant, but they did.  The giant told his story and as far as the party knows, this is the giant's reason for being there.  Not to fight the bear or rid the land of the monster (it is a really, really big bear, not a natural one), but specifically to tell the party about it.

Learning about the missing axe, the party bit and went after the axe.  I did not need to ask them.  Upon encountering the wolf, I'm quite sure the party believes the reason I said the axe was missing was so that I could find an excuse to have them attacked by the wolf.  "A" follows "B."  If I had not dropped the fact about the missing axe, and if they had not agreed to get it, there wouldn't have been a wolf encounter, right?  This is clearly me setting up the adventure as a pre-planned story.  Not a sandbox.

Let me explain this again from my point of view.

The party decides to go into a random piece of Norwegian tundra to look around.  Statistically, they could walk across Norwegian tundra for the entire season and see NOTHING.  No one lives there for a reason.  There's no food, no wood, no precious minerals and it is cold and wet.  There's plenty of potential building stone, but this is NORWAY.  All the building stone we could ever want is within a stone's throw, and down here by the water there is food and wood.  We don't climb 3,000 ft. to get building stone.

As a DM, I am not interested in saying, "It is now September.  You've seen nothing.  What would the party like to do now?"  It's boring.  If the party is going to go up there, might just as well have them find something.  They will eventually, statistically; we might as well maintain momentum and have them find it today.

I picked a downed airship (with a hook), a giant (with a hook), a wolf (with a hook) and a bear (with a hook).  The giant knows about the bear but doesn't know about the wolf (that's a party spoiler, but a minor one and it doesn't matter because the giant will know about the wolf if the party gets back).  The giant dropped the axe because he fell off a mountain after a bad fight with a big bear and realistically, we drop things when we're on the edge of death.  The wolf's appearance is NOT random, and is NOT there so I can throw an random encounter, but to set up the hook; but I can't say what that is just now because that would be a bigger spoiler.

Moreover, the party DECIDED to get the axe.  The giant didn't need them to get it.  The party reasoned that if the bear showed up, then it would be a good idea if the giant was armed; but there is an immense air ship right there with hundreds of pieces of wood, any of which would serve as a club.  The giant HAS a weapon.  He just doesn't have his axe.

The party could sit tight, help the giant heal and then have the giant load the barrels onto their wagon.  The giant is clearly civilized and friendly, erudite, and has told them he was asked by the Count of Bergen (the province north of the party) to kill the cave bear, so the party KNOWS the giant has direct relations with humans.  They could simply ask the giant to return with them to town.  There's no adventure here.  There are things laying around in the sandbox and the players are giving them reasons for being what they are.  I'm just making sure they're all included.

All the hooks depend on the various entities (ship, giant, etc.) having agendas and motivations of their own.  The party isn't being asked to fight the cave bear; they weren't asked to get the axe.  If the party left, the giant would heal, find his own axe, meet the wolf, sort that out and then return to hunting the cave bear.  Like Indiana Jones chasing the Ark, without him the Nazis will still find it; and experience the same consequences.  Eventually.  It's just that with Jones' help, they found the Ark sooner and thus melted sooner.  The party is like Jones.  They're not needed; but if they want to join in, there's room.

Problem is, the party automatically creates what it thinks the DM's intentions MUST be ... and then they chase those intentions because they're willing.  Then they argue that the DM led them into the box they're in ... and this is understandable, because 99 times out of 100, that's exactly what the DM does.  Only, I'm not like that.

Recently, I've grasped that when I say the party doesn't want to bite on the proposed adventure, that there is a black-and-white choice being made.  They either can pursue the adventure or they can pursue some other adventure.  That's not really the case.  Parties almost always go for it when the adventure comes up.  The difference is that I don't have a specific route they should take.  How the party manages the wolf, or meets the bear, or befriends the giant, or reveals the mystery behind the ship, might happen in dozens of ways, none of which I have to invent because that's not my problem.  I'm not the solver.  I'm the designer.  I make the pieces, but I don't promise they fit together in any specific pattern.  The players may imagine that's my goal, because they immediately make a connection when I throw out a possible connector (axe missing) ... but that's more a matter of their jumping at the first thing, not an example of them thinking through their options.

It's hard to make the players understand that the giant is telling his story because he's there, and the players are there, and anyone who had nearly died fighting a big bear would tell that story, regardless of agenda.  Wouldn't you?  It's not a set-up.  It's logical.  There's no stumpy DM stepping out from behind a rock and telling the party that now they must get the axe to move onto the next part of the adventure.

That stumpy DM is there, however, because a bad children's TV show put him in the player's heads.  Unfortunately.

I'll leave the reader to think about what's been said so far, while I think about what I want to say next.

This series continues with Help & Problem Solving

Turned Off

The first post in this series can be read here.

The image shown is p. 13 of 4th Edition's DMG, How to be a DM.

This sets my teeth on edge.

The content of this page gives no information whatsoever about how to be a DM.  What is it doing here?

In my early days, I was part of a group that rotated being the DM each week.  However, it was not as described here.  We each had our own game world.  Except for one commenter who wrote earlier this month to say that he experienced this idea of multiple DMs, I've not met another instance.  No one running a blog that I know of talks about it and none of the hundreds of DMs I met while working at cons spoke about it.  The searches I've made have people talking about how they used to do it.  I don't know exactly why 4th edition felt it was needful to push the concept.

In any case, yeah, in most games, one person does a lot of work.  That's not a weakness.  Dungeon mastering being characterized in that fashion makes me incensed.

It is equally infuriating to be told that an ongoing game does not expose the players to new ideas or different play styles.

I do agree that disconnected adventures can start to feel purposeless.  I feel that purposeless in the first two minutes, once I know it is going to be a disconnected adventure.  Why should I invest?  I don't play one-shot games nor take part in convention events; I would not do so under any circumstances, either as a player or an adjudicator.  I equate it to a one-night stand with a sex worker whose health is evidently lax.

I don't have more to say about these things I've mentioned.  I have no respect for the position being offered or the inclusion of this text in the book.  I have a few things to say on the campaign.

I've been fussing with a definition of "campaign" in D&D since reading this post from JB.  I am thoroughly unsatisfied with the examples given, from Moldvay or Gygax.  These don't go far enough.  I keep thinking about a quote from 1996's The Craft (of all movies): "If God and the Devil were playing football, Manon would be the stadium they played on.  It would be the sun that shone down on them."

The campaign is the adventure, it is the setting, it is the boundaries provided by the rules and the decisions made by the players.  It is not just the series of adventures being played; it is one single ongoing adventure with episodes that resolve moments but never all the threads of possibilities.  Because I play a deep game, where the players can pursue possibilities as far as they want, and weave their own plans into the various quests that occur, there are no episodic adventures that take place.  As with our experience of being alive, each day carries the possibility of a new path, the abandonment of a path that never does get resolved or events that may bring about success or death.

Therefore the D&D that I play—the D&D clearly implied by Gygax and which everyone I knew played between 1979 and 1984, before we were overwhelmingly met by cries that it was just too hard or even impossible to run—isn't even mentioned on this list.  At best, the "campaign game" described here is a watered-down version of that, one supposedly fraught with painful cliches.

I'm quite disgusted.  I'm going to put down this series for awhile before picking up page 14.  I'm going to need a little time to clean the stink off me.  These last sections have been enough to raise my gorge and I could use a clense.

I'll tackle the subject of talking to NPCs.  That seems a worthy change.

Sunday, December 20, 2020

What the ...

The image shown is from p. 12 of 4th Edition's DMG, How to be a DM.

I'd like to say there are no words, but this is a blog with too many words, so ...

The starting question screams trouble.  It gets worse as we realize the "right way" refers not to practical considerations of person and information management, but upon the feelings of the participants.  For specifically my game, and my relationship with my players, the "feel" of the game is intrinsically important to how we communicate and enjoy each other's company.  But any idea that the feelings of hundreds of thousands of potential participants can be addressed in a few paragraphs, in an attempt to be inclusive, is the sort of mindless propaganda that pretends to speak for, say, the LGBT community, while automatically lumping them into a single entity that all wants the same things.  Living in this age, we accept this as rote.  We've gotten used to it.  But a close inspection of the practice is enough to make one shudder.

No matter how many adjectives we stack together in a table predicting "style considerations," it will never be enough to account for all the possible styles of all the possible DMs participating in the game.  Moreover, with regards to the 16 adjectives listed here, my style includes every one of them.  My game is gritty but the participants DO accomplish heroic things—even though I, and they, do not consider themselves "heroic" by default.  My game is often silly; often intense; sometimes preplanned, with invariably large parts that are improvised.  "Heroic" and "morally ambiguous" are not opposites.  Any sort of concept can be "thematic"—it helps if the writer understands the meaning of the term.  "General" is entirely non-descriptive in any way.  How is a campaign "general"?  It's generally what?

It's bad enough that we've decided to take this graceless approach, we haven't remotely done it well.


And now, it's time to answer the questions.

1. "Are you big on realism and gritty consequences, or are you more focused on making the game seem like an action movie?"

Typical North American bias here regarding action movies, which presupposes that every film that's action oriented is a two-dimensional romp with bad marksmanship, speeding cars, beefy guys who endure through pluck and courage and stock villains.  No Country for Old Men, Seven, La Balance, the original Swedish Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Harry Brown, Hanna, Straw Dogs (the 1972 film), The Wild Bunch, Greyhound, 1917, We Were Soldiers, Blood Diamond, Haywire ... these are realistic action films, full of gritty consequences, so obviously the question is trying to assume the distinction between "serious" and "not serious."  Which, incidentally, is the distinction between every comparison being made on the list.  So why not just say that?

Because we want to believe we're being helpfully descriptive here.  We're not.  The terms are so general that they're non-exclusionary.  Some elements of Armageddon are quite believable.  Some elements of Atomic Blonde are scarcely credible.  It makes no difference, because both are "cinematic" and both are technically "gritty"  Hey, people die in Armageddon—all of Paris, ffs.  It doesn't get more gritty than that, although the film's science is jerkily ludicrous.

The larger argument to be made is that REAL LIFE incorporates every adjective on this list.  We can hang in a bar with our friends, laughing so hard that we fall off the stool, like being in a beer commercial, and then be crippled for life in a car wreck on the way home.  Does that mean every moment in life is "gritty" and has "consequences"?  Or is it that life is way more complex that we can tag with adjectives?  We have 4,800 adjectives in the English language because we have a lot of different situations to cover.  Why would we assume that players, being human and using their brains, and speaking language, would be able to describe something as complicated as a role-playing game with 7 adjectives?

2. "Do you want the game to maintain a sense of medieval fantasy, or can you tolerate some incursions of the modern world and modern thinking (anachronism)?" 

There's no possibility of keeping anachronisms out of the game.  We don't live in a fantasy universe, we live in a real one, and our natural experiences will cause us to use metaphors and examples from the world we know.  It's reasonable to explain to players that in a setting without flush toilets, there are other habits and processes that must take place in order to shift the gong (medieval term) out of our bodies and put elsewhere.  But it's impractical to keep players from using a tactic they picked up in a movie or a book, or to actively train their hired soldiers like a 19th century military unit.  If a mage figures out how to cast a spell that will produce images on a flat surface, is it acceptable for the mage to then build a theatre and charge for a show every night?  Are you telling me the customers wouldn't pay?

Whose to say that if magic didn't exist, "wall plays" wouldn't exist, hm?  Perhaps they could be found in every medium-to-large sized town.  Ask yourself: does your game world have street lamps?  Those came into existence because there were many more workers at night with the start of the Industrial Revolution, but there's nothing intrinsically hyper-technical about them.  It's an oil lamp on a pole behind glass.  The Romans could have built them.  How about baseball?  Are your players allowed to teach people baseball?  That's what the character Hank Morgan does in Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, along with a great many other things.  Are these "allowed"?  And if they're not, precisely why not?  What is there about baseball that couldn't have existed in the 11th century.  Or in Ancient Egypt, for that matter.  How do you know for certain that it didn't exist, in some form.  We have staggeringly few records of that time.

And whose to say that the gods, being gods and not necessarily subject to time, haven't already taught other cultures on other worlds, how to play baseball?  They got it from Earth and now they've inspired my player character to reinvent it.  That seems believable and not a bit anachronistic.

I'm kidding, of course, but if you take the anachronistic thing too far, it must be noted how many things have come about since the 1200s that shouldn't be in your early medieval world—quite a lot of things.  No matter how you try to guard that gate, there will be anachronistic things in your world; you might just allow for their existence, realizing that it's not such a big deal anyway, whatever kind of fantasy world you're running.

 3. "Do you want to maintain a serious tone, or is humour your goal?"

I have very little to say on this.  I have an excellent sense for comedy, as anyone who has read this blog for a time can realize.  I'm a wit in real life.  My marriage is like living in a 1940s screwball comedy, with zingers crossing back and forth between my partner and I; we're both very sarcastic and half the time she will best me.  We don't unleash these gifts on anyone but my daughter who, obviously, learned from a young age.

Trying to force comedy into a campaign might work for the groundlings, but not being a stinkard, I refuse to pay only a penny for my entertainment.  The humour I see presented on Critical Role, for example, is infantile acting out ... and these are experts at the "humoured campaign."  No, thank you.  Why don't these people just hit each other with pies?

You get better humour when you don't try so hard. 

That's all I'm going to say about comedy.  Others have written much more than me, and I bow to their wisdom.

4. "Even if you are serious, is the action lighthearted or intense?"

It depends on what's happening, doesn't it?  I'll say both.

5. "Is bold action key, or do the players need to be thoughtful and be cautious?"

Again, it depends on what's happening.  There's a reason why we have the two adages, "Look before you leap" and "He who hesitates is lost."  It's because sometimes, it is the best idea to rush in and seize the moment, and sometimes, it's necessary to be cautious.  That's really the players' problem, isn't it?

Yes, my world is threatening, in that it has monsters in it and the dice will kill you.  Judging by the amount of caution my online players seem to possess, I'm guessing my world is a LOT more dangerous than most worlds.

6. "Do you have a hard time improvising, or are you great at winging it?"

This is getting awfully specific.  The passage doesn't give me any information as to how either affects the game.  I know how it does, but this is supposed to be a how-to and these two questions are asking the same thing twice.  "Is it tails or is it not heads?"  Instead of asking me why I do it, why don't they take some time and teach instead?  Hm?

Okay, you need to improvise because there's no real way you can prepare for the game ahead of time sufficiently, that you won't also need to come up with something on the fly when the players act unexpectedly.  Mind you, this fact is in no way a "DM style"—every DM has to do this, constantly, regardless of their style.  True, some are not good at it.  But even in a railroaded campaign, players will go left when you expect them to go right, they will randomly set the place on fire, they will decide this is a good time to shout stupidly at the top of their lungs.  You've got to be ready for that shit.

7. "Is the game full of varied D&D elements, or does it center on a specific theme such as a horror?"

Again, this isn't "style."  This is genre.  Do these writers have a dictionary?

8. "Is it for all ages, or does it involve mature themes?"

Well, it's not for 2 year olds.  How mature are we talking about here?  You mean "mature" like the 16 y.o.'s who are buying drugs from the dealer and holding each other's hair when they puke?  Or do you mean "mature" in that the themes are related to 1950s standards of sexism and racism?  Please define mature.

Again, I can't help thinking this is genre-related, or political maybe.  The game is about killing monsters.  That's why we have monsters.  So we can kill them.  As it happens, all the weapons and spells are pretty good for killing men, women and children also, not to mention dogs, cats and cute lil' bunny rabbits.  So, if we're saying the game doesn't have "mature" content, then what the hell are all these weapons for?  Do you get just how horrific a fireball would feel like if you experienced one?  That doesn't seem pretty fucking mature?  Where the hell are these goal posts?

9.  "Are you comfortable with a moral ambiguity, such as allowing the characters to explore if the end justifies the means, or are you happier with straightforward heroic principles, such as justice, sacrifice, and helping the downtrodden?"

Please point to the person who's comfortable with moral ambiguity.  I'll wait.

If the players want to explore "the end justifies the means," how do you propose that I stop them?  Is that the style you're talking about?  How much we quantifiably deny the players' rights to take actions with their character unilaterally, if it steps outside a boundary?

I really like how "justice," "sacrifice" and "helping the downtrodden" are described as OPPOSITE to moral ambiguity.  Will someone please explain how the "heroic" versions of these things are lacking in ambiguity?  Again.  Happy to wait.

Well.  I know a lot more about DM Style than I did before I read this passage.  How 'bout you? 

This series continues with Turned Off

Saturday, December 19, 2020

Keeping the Faith

The image shown is from p. 12 of 4th Edition's DMG, How to be a DM.

Plain speaking here: yes, please, learn ALL the rules you're going to use in your game.  Every one of them.

I could almost think it was enough to say that, but pitifully, it isn't.  I read comments endlessly on reddit, twitter, stack-exchange; I see vlogs; and everywhere, "I want to be a better DM.  What do I do?"  And the answer is never, ever, do you know all the rules by heart?  Often, the answer is the reverse, as though the advisor is saying,

"Are you trying to follow all the rules?  You don't have to do that—D&D is a really simple game.  Whenever you run into some kind of problem, just call things as you see them ... and everything will be all right."

This is such bad advice.  Yet I hear it constantly.  I shudder, thinking what it must be like to run in the games these people run.

The opinions of your players are ... mm ... tricky.  The phrase, "something you don't know how to adjudicate" is like my giving directions to dinner guests by saying, "I live in North America."  Just exactly how is an answer "hashed out"?  Wouldn't that be useful information—rather than saying it's possible?"

Okay.  Let's get into that.  How do you hash out a fair answer, after asking the player's opinion?  Ready?

Understand please that this is how I resolve disputes from the position of knowing what the rules are.  The rules are your friends; they are the gavel you hold in your hand while trying to maintain order.  So long as its understood that everyone is going to follow the rules, the DM included; and so long as cooperation is the agenda, and not personal selfishness; these being the subjects of the last two posts; then the rules are a pathway to legitimacy and cooperation.  Get to know the rules and learn how to apply them.

Your first order of business as a DM in resolving disputes is to do it before they start.  This is done by finding rules in the books that either don't make sense, are biased towards a sort of game play you don't want in your campaign or might be interpreted in a bad way due to the language being used.  Whenever possible, don't throw out the rule's text altogether; the more of the original text you retain, the more any change you make will look like a legitimate adjustment and not an act of arbitrary abuse.  Hm.  An example, yeah?

The original text from the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide says this about Gaining Proficiency Levels:

"Experience points are merely an indicator of the character's progress towards greater proficiency in his or her chosen profession.  UPWARD PROGRESS IS NEVER AUTOMATIC.  Just because Nell Nimblefingers, Rogue of the Thieves' Guild has managed to acquire 1,251 experience points does NOT mean that she suddenly becomes Nell Nimblefingers the Footpad."

The caps are Gygax's.  Now, let's say we disagree with the rule at our game table.  Gygax's system was designed to tax player's wealth by forcing them to pay ludicrous sums to be "trained" to be a higher level; but we've decided that we're fine with exactly the opposite of what's said above.

In our list of house rules, we could merely write, "When a player character accumulates enough experience, they automatically go up a level."  Simple, succinct, clear.  But ... if our players are stalwart by the rules people, we can mess with their heads a little by writing out, 

"Experience points are an indicator of the character's greater proficiency in his or her chosen profession.  UPWARD PROGRESS IS AUTOMATIC.  When Nell Nimblefingers, Rogue of the Thieves' Guild manages to acquire 1,251 experience points, it means that she suddenly becomes Nell Nimblefingers the Footpad."

Written that way, even a long-time savvy player whose memorized the books will pause and say, "Wait a minute.  Did Gygax write that?"

"No," we say.  "I adjusted it to fit with my system.  Let's move on."  A, it proves you've read the rule and B, you've already set the standard for how it now works in your world.  The rules lawyer can't argue that this is not what the rule says; we've already demonstrated that and that we don't agree with it.  Quad erat demonstrandum.

This grants power where it comes to arbitrating rules at the table; though, of course, you must know the rule and you must take the time to properly correct it.  Incidentally, I chose the rule at random, by opening my DMG and reading under the first heading on that page (86).

You can make your point even firmer by adding examples of situations where the rule proved its worth, or even specifically when the players agreed to the change.  Dates have remarkable value in these disputes.  Admittedly, I don't do this—but if you read a random text on dispute resolution, such as the one Wikipedia provides—you will find an ironclad template on how to back players (and your own bad habits) back on their heels.  I'm using it as a guideline for this post.

For example, it says on the page, "Talking to other parties is not a mere formality, but an integral part of writing the encyclopedia."  That instantly translates into the DM's guidebook as, "Talking to the PARTY is not a mere formality; it is integral to running the game."  Arguing with the players or using your position as leverage will not gain sympathy for your point of view, will demonstrate your bad faith towards the players and will show that you have no interest in their opinions.  This sort of disrespect will not smooth things out later in your game's play and soon you will find yourself without friends at the table, or any players at all.

Solid advice flat out rewritten from the Wikipedia page.

The key to dispute resolution between you and your players depends on what you believe you're trying to resolve.  The text from 4th Edition gives the impression that the result wanted (suggested by telling us we don't need to know all the rules) is to encourage DMs they don't look like fools if they ask for help, particularly by not worrying about their authority if they give into the player's opinions.  I apologize to those who feel this is a great way to run a game, but it really isn't.

If I know the rules, then I really DO know how to adjudicate something the player does.  This would seem a rational approach.  Know More Than The Player.  Duh.  "Fair" ought to be based on the rules, the believability of the action, the natural laws of the campaign and the manner in which it compromises the spirit of the game.  I've said again and again: if the spirit of the game is, in the minds of the players and the DM, is based on whatever is randomly made up by the players and all the other rules bend to that object, then of course every dispute settlement is going to be arbitrary and unfounded.  On the other hand, if the spirit is to challenge the player to adjust the player's tactics based on hard physical and defined limitations in the character's power, THEN the resolution is based on "Can this be physically done" and "Do the rules state that its possible."  Again, an example.

As a halfling standing in front of a 7 ft. tall orc, having rolled initiative against said orc, I tell you I'm going to climb up the orc's leg and stab the orc in the back.  What do I roll?

If you're trying to think of what feat applies to that situation, this is one of those moments when I wish I could punch people through the internet.

Is it physically possible?  Perhaps, if the orc were a statue, and not actively defending itself, and is unable to kick its leg in the fraction of a second, and if it doesn't jump back as the halfing runs towards him, and if my halfling doesn't actually sacrifice my initiative by abandoning my weapon because I need both hands to climb, well, then, sure ... so long as the game is taking place in fucking fantasy land.

Which is, of course, the argument rendered.  "Hey!  It is fantasy land!"  I have to stop and rub my head a moment.  Yes, if this is toddler fantasy land, or Mickey Mouse fantasy land, sure, why not, fill your boots—but then, why go for such a low bar?  "I pick up the bartender and the stove and slap the orc between them both.  Obviously I hit, because this is fantasy land.  How much damage does the orc take?"

My fantasy role-playing game is based on a more substantive set of rules, which argues that NO, it isn't physically possible for you to climb a self-aware defending orc, no matter how small you are, and NO, there is no feat that allows that because I don't incorporate ridiculous unbelievable nonsense into my game rules.

Oh, wait.  That was me "using my position as leverage," wasn't it?  That's not going to get me sympathy as a DM.  That's going to demonstrate my bad faith towards the player who wants to climb the orc.  That's bad for dispute resolution, isn't it?  Yes, it surely is.

Thing is.

One of the qualifiers for dispute resolution is that the other side comes into the negotiation with a reasonable expectation.  When you approach your boss for a raise, you don't say, "I think I deserve a hundred dollars more an hour.  Let's negotiate."  Now, in your sweet little heart, you may be thinking that 35 cents more is fine with you, and you're just taking a hard bargaining position, but in fact you're being tremendously insulting thinking your boss will find your opening position appropriate.  Even if you think it's a joke, it's STILL inappropriate; money and business are NOT things appropriately joked about.  If I were your boss and you opened a real negotiation this way, I would be thinking, "Why do I keep this idiot on my payroll?"

Player: "Can I climb the orc's leg and stab him in the back?"

Me: "Do you intend to take this game seriously?"

There's our bargaining positions.  I'm pretty damned rock solid on my position, because I've run the game for 40 years and I have an expectation that people will approach the game and my version of it respecting the rules and the hard boundaries they provide.  The player, on the other hand, invented this nonsensical plan about 30 seconds ago; I'm fairly sure the player isn't invested in it, but if I'm wrong, well, then the player isn't intending to take my game seriously.  Seems pretty obvious.  Therefore, I can't say I care to have the player in the game at all.

That's how I maintain my GOOD FAITH with the players who are there to take the game seriously.


This probably didn't help.  It's hard to talk about conflict resolution in text, and harder still without being able to address specific questions being asked by specific people.  Your game world is your business; and the spirit of your game as well.  I like a game where everyone plays the same rules and to which the same standards apply to everyone.  Then, everyone knows what to expect, everyone knows what the limitations are, everyone understanding that getting to do "cool things" requires levelling up and acquiring additional abilities and no one thinks they can skirt the rules with made-up metaphysical unearned self-empowering nonsense.  And the key there is "unearned."  You've got to learn to kill the orc the hard way before you get to kill them easily.

This series continues with What the ...

Friday, December 18, 2020

The Sermon Today Is ...

The image shown is from p. 12 of 4th Edition's DMG, How to be a DM.

At last, a breath of fresh air.

I addressed earlier the matter of the DM being a croupier rather than a referee, so I'll keep my remarks on this subject short.  The referee metaphor has been around for awhile; I've used it myself though I've stepped away from that for the reasons I've given.  What's odd in the text is that the book, earlier, made very clear that D&D is not "competitive"—and yet here we've turned to a metaphor for a competive sport.  Books are huge, unwieldy things, with continuity being a nightmare.  It is the reason we seek editors.  Here, again, continuity is being deliberately ignored (I feel), because the notion of the D&D as "referee" is desirable.  Referees, while chafed against, are respected, even by players who shout in the referee's face.  That is because referees have legitimacy through organizations and clubs who ensure the judgment-giver has been vetted.  Some of that halo effect is being alluded to here, as the company attempts to sell the DM as something more than an arbitrary dictator.

Only, no one vets the DM except the players; who often fail to do so, for the sake of having a DM, even if he or she is a bad one.

I don't take the view that the DM is a mediator between the rules and the players.  A judge is not a mediator between the law and the people; a judge mediates between people according to the law.  It is the decision regarding where the most harm falls that sets a future precedent in the law; but the judge is still bound by the law regarding the decision being made, which is why appeals courts exist.  One judge does not make the law.  Several judges, according to a complex system that enables numerous people to raise up and strike down precedents, decides the law.

D&D's prime weakness is that the DM possesses the right to "define the law," or rules of the game.  The players have no appeal except to the DM's decency or reason; or to abandon the game and seek another.  A good DM recognizes that decisions have consequences, not only on the presence of the players but also upon their willing and cheerful participation in the game.  While the language here tries to establish the DM as a friendly voice, in several ways the language is weak on that regard, for the things it does not say.

In the second paragraph we're asked to imagine two players fighting a battle against each other and needing a referee; then it's admitted that the DM acts as the referee and also controls the monsters.  But the disparity here is never actually addressed.  We are given this information, which is true, but we're not actually told precisely HOW the DM does both these things.  It is skipped over in favour of saying next what the DM does, followed by an example of what the DM does, followed by an admittance that sometimes the DM has to enforce the rules.  But the substance of how we balance acting as "referee" and "competitor" is abandoned—perhaps because it is difficult to explain this in the space allowed; perhaps because the writer hasn't got a good answer; perhaps because it's assumed the players already understand the principle.  As text in a book purporting to describe the Dungeon Master's role, it's unconscionable and lazy to leave the matter out.

Without my diving in and explaining it, can the reader clearly define how the DM acts the part of the monster attacking the player AND acting as an impartial mediator between what the player is allowed to do against the monster?  Stop reading and give it a try.

Meanwhile, it was remarked positively earlier today that my discussion of the 4e text requiring so many posts seemed a little excessive (my word not the commenter's), and I suppose it might be.  I'm finding myself that the material is rich in opportunities to discuss a wide variety of subjects that go unnoticed, or which I've failed to cover in many years.  It's beneficial to seek out the gaps in logic that occur, such as the one at hand, since this text has formed the mindset of the modern player to such a degree.  Although 5e may have evolved away from 4e, many of the engendered ideas of the latter found their way into the former through the opinions of players who were asked to contribute their belief systems to the final format of 5th Edition.  Therefore, just as we might seek the causes belli of a historical conflict from the letters and speeches of politicians leading up to the event, it makes sense to pick apart the original founding documents underlying those rules which are so popular in the present.  If I were to do so with 2nd or 3rd edition, I could easily note the trips and stumbles those documents contributed to the illogical mess of a system that 5th edition is today: an edition which, I must point out, stresses that the DM's arbitrary judgement, without acknowledgement of the rules, is considered the absolute norm that DM's ought to practice.  Therefore, not only have we abandoned any idea of an appeal to the judge, we've also abandoned any grounding framework upon which a judgement is given.  This does not merely guarantee that an individual game is inconsistent in the extreme, it ALSO provides for every game run by every DM throughout the game's culture to be so wildly inconsistent that dropping a DM and moving to another campaign is a serious trauma for players.  In unilaterally granting DMs so much power, the company is forced to argue in compensation that the DM must use this excessive unearned power in total obedience and submission to the player.  We read this illogic every day without flinching, largely because we do not look at the perameters of it too closely.  Instead of a referee who decides if the ball is a strike or not, the batter tells the umpire which it is, and the umpire uses the power granted to confirm the player's perception and to quell any opposition that might arise from others in the party—as takes place in player-vs.-player campaigns.  No wonder we find so many DMs lamenting that they've either failed their parties or are unable to control them.

Let's come back to the point.  The DM's management of the monsters in the game world during combat AND the DM's adjudication of the player's actions in the fight rely on two ethical principles: 1) that the DM will hold his or her self to precisely the same standards as the player; and 2) that the DM has no stake whatsoever in either the monsters or the players succeeding in winning the combat.

These two words, "precisely" and "whatsoever" should be treated as though carved in granite.  Any deviation will compromise the game, the DM's integrity and the compact between the players and DM as human beings.  Individuals in the DM's role may choose to ignore these conditions, finding all sorts of ways to abandon their integrity or justify out-and-out cheating, but we have thousands of years of ethical philosophy to fall back on with regards to how acting in this way seriously fucks you up as a person.  Naturally, many people are unethical.  Still, while I'm sure that most readers here have a firm grasp of what it means to be ethical, even if you are not, while I'm at this street corner I ought to knock on a few doors.

While "integrity" is often used to describe honesty, in a larger sense the word derives from the structural coherence of a designed entity.  When we speak of organizations, such as churches, political states, companies and such having integrity, we mean that these institutions are sound, whole and in good operating condition.  When an institution, say, as a random example to choose from, like the United States government, begins to show instability, this comes apart because the integrity of the various structures—the senate, the opposition, the presidency, the justice department, homeland security, what have you—begins to fracture along its weakest points, namely the individuals who fail to maintain their responsibility to their assorted positions.  Each of those individuals, in turn, are a composite of influences and choices that they've made over their lifetime that hold their ethical frameworks together.  Very few individuals suddenly cease to have integrity; most essay to make a change here and there, to step off the straight and narrow, as John Bunyan described, doing so more and more frequently over time.  Eventually, they develop a motto that argues, "Nothing bad has happened yet, so this must be okay too."  Steadily, as the individual drops in ethical freefall, unable to see the ground, they tell themselves, "So good so far."  We've all seen what happens next.

When the DM decides to put one foot outside "precisely" or "whatsoever," there are no immediate consequences.  This is what makes personal integrity so damned hard for people.  If there were some outside force that backslapped you, hard, when you stepped out of line, you'd happily find your balance and stay there.  But there is no outside force, which makes the next choice you make as a DM to go further out of line more, hm, defensible.  Getting away with it feeds your willingness to get away with it—even where your intentions were always good.  The key is that these are your intentions; not the intentions of the general group and not the openly discussed cooperation of everyone involved.  The very fact that you have to keep your intentions secret, because they are off the line, should be an indicator that your intentions have your head up their butt.  Yes, of course it's secret.  When you fudge the die, do you then immediately tell the player, "Oh, I just fudged the die there.  Actually the monster hit, but I'm judging that it did not.  Shall we continue?"

For many, however, it isn't an indicator, because it lacked a consequence.  As a rule of practice, ethical behaviour is where you practice the rule of law regardless of whether there would be a consequence.  You practice the rule because you agree with the rule.

If you disagreed, you'd argue the rule should be changed, until it became one you'd agree with; but until the change occurred, it would not be in your nature to flout the rule just because you disagreed with it.

It isn't important that we behave like this all the time.  We falter.  We're human.  What matters isn't that we're perfect, what matters is that we correct ourselves and get back on the line, making consequences for ourselves in the form of mental confessions and the decision to repent ... and, in the future, to do it better.

Apart from what the DM does, it matters what the DM believes. While the text is somewhat satisfying for the former, it completely ignores the latter; it takes no steps towards making DMs understand the responsibilities their bear or the need to adhere to fairness or propriety.  I can understand why it doesn't.  Many readers, if they're still here at the end of this post, will have been made VERY uncomfortable by all this discussion of ethics, because ethics are designed to make us uncomfortable.  Business models will argue that the business is ethical, but they won't look too closely at it; and businesses, except for the church, which doesn't have to pay taxes, DON'T preach at their customers.

Without the tax exemption, it's hard to stay in the black.

This series continues with Keeping the Faith

Thursday, December 17, 2020

Oil to my Elbows

The image shown is from p. 11 of 4th Edition's DMG, How to be a DM.

This gets harder.

Each step along the process of re-inventing D&D into this sludge takes us a little further down the road of subverting the DM's control over the game and his or her authority.  Note the choices being made here.  The player's invented background is reframed as "building the campaign world."  The DM needs "help" in creating details about the player's missions.  In the spirit of inclusion, "each" player takes a part in defining the game world; and the DM is encouraged to make sure the player's background is relevant to what happens next.

Yes, there is lip service paid to the DM who wants to "take as much control over it" as they want.  But note that 9/10ths of the text is distinctly written contrary to this idea, and that the language used for how much control the DM takes deliberately presupposes the DM will want to surrender at least some control over the game world to the players.  Expectedly, the DM will be lacking in being able to create the complex setting required: so, we're expressly told the DM should feel free to seek help.  Don't take so much all on your own shoulders.  Share it around.

Then, right at the end, after cajoling the reader into accepting this perspective, the passage slaps us right in the face:  let the player's help, but don't let one of your players help too much.  Spread it around.  The writers know perfectly well that the creative abilities of the players will differ considerably; and that there will certainly be one player with lots and lots of ideas, and others who will complacently bow to that player's will.  The writers will have seen, as we all have, that giving the party more power usually translates into giving ONE PLAYER more power, creating a conflict between two people at the table that pushes the rest out.  Therefore, this warning.  However, the writers don't think its necessary to tell you how this revolving around one player happens, or what to do when it happens. 
"Oh, hey, when this happens, don't let it."  That's all that you, as a DM, get.

Time to warn you again: if 4e is your thing; if the above seems rational and appropriate, stop reading here.

Wednesday, December 16, 2020


Watching the 2009 movie, The Trotsky.  They're talking about making a change through protesting, and the aged law professor is saying,

"Everytime I would try to pull a demonstration together, it was just a disaster.  Unless we had some fascist on the campus that would yell at us, it would turn into this gigantic sock-hop.  The point is, everybody came just to be 'part of the scene.'  Just to be in the club.  No one there realized that it's never real, until it stops being fun."

If you were part of the Black Lives Matter marches this last summer, then you may have seen that; and wondered why nothing came out of it.

Because this is a D&D blog, let me paint an obvious picture.  Any time you run as a DM, there will be a significant number of players who will show up because what you've created is a "club."  People, especially socially awkward people, will do anything to belong to a club, even investing themselves in something they don't care about.  Part of your role as a DM is to figure out who is there to be in the club, and who is there to play D&D. 

The Character is Only a Game Piece

The image shown is from p. 10-11 of 4th Edition's DMG, How to be a DM.

Rating: garbage

If you are a modern D&D player, who feels that players creating a background in order to "flesh out their characters," then realize that much of what's written in this post won't fit with your ideals and perception of the game.  Particularly if you believe that the agenda of D&D is to live out your fantasy life, rather than addresssing your personal ability to succeed against the standards involved with game play.  I strongly suggest that you do not read farther.  This post isn't for you.

The Typical Party & the Typical DM

The first image shown is from p. 10 of 4th Edition's DMG, How to be a DM.  The second image, below, is from p. 15 of 4th Edition's Players Handbook.

Rating: mostly true

I might have divided this section up into two or more posts, but I believe that would have been frightfully dull and overthinking the issue.  The second image indicates what you'll find if you search page 15 of the player's handbook.  A complete description of the four types covers all of page 16; I felt that was a bit much.  In short hand, controllers are wizards; defenders are fighters & paladins; leaders are clerics & warlords; and strikers are rangers, rogues & warlocks.  Most readers, I'm sure, can work out the relationship between label and class easily.

We can see here an attempt by the publishers to formalize what we commonly see as the chief combat structure that D&D players employ.  I think the content is self-explanatory and doesn't need repeating.  Accepting this structure is, I've found, fairly universal in the experience of most participants, though I can't say that I've seen it in action since I played in a club at the University of Calgary in the late 1980s.

I played 4th edition for about three months in 2015/6; that association led to a disturbing confrontation with the 4th and 5th edition game culture at the gaming store where we played.  Returning to that post is my only way of positively identifying when I played.  I have no other associations with that brief period, and gained no acquaintences from it.

As I remember, while lip-service was paid to the theory described here, what I remember were blocks of player characters fighting blocks of monsters, jammed together without much sense, pouring damage back and forth until one block evaporated.  I don't doubt that some people do strategize as indicated, but many players have no concept of strategy—and therefore, we may argue they need a passage like the one shown.

I see two general discussions worth having from the material.  The first is the idea that the strategy employed here is correct and effective; the second relates to the need to have these four character roles in a party.

I cannot, alas, speak properly to 4th edition with regards to these things.  Frankly, I don't think the character role labels worked.  I read a lot of D&D description and argument, and I can't recall people making use of these terms.  Unquestionably, the roles played by a wizard or a fighter in a fight match up to "controller" and "defender"—it's only that when I see people talk about it, they say "wizard" and "fighter."  Not the terms here.  Like "fetch," these terms didn't happen.

As such, I'm not going to use these terms; nor am I going to discuss 4th edition classes.  4th edition fairly tanked as a system, though for many it was their first system and of course there are many who still play it.  But after 12 years of talking about AD&D, original D&D or my Frankenstein's version of D&D, I doubt anyone here will be heartbroken if I don't talk about the fantastic striking abilities of rogues.  This notion that fighters stand in front, wizards stand in the back, thieves go around and clerics heal has been around for a long, long time; I can't recall settling in to write about it, so this is a good excuse.

Part 1: Strategy

Taking from the 4e text, we're told that without a fighter, a party is vulnerable; that the lack of a cleric seriously compromises the party's ability to heal; that without a thief to backstab or a ranger to fire multiple arrows into a target, it's hard to do enough damage to kill monsters; and that without a wizard, the monsters can't be wiped out in groups.  Well, true enough.

This being a post for going back in time, I remember I got into some big trouble when I ran at game cons in the mid-80s.  Those were my first experiences running players who I didn't know, and didn't know me.  I saw them use the tactics I've just described: fighters in front, wizard in back, etc.  And, having played years of Avalon Hill wargames as a kid, as well as plenty of practical experience with capture the flag (which used to be a fanatical pursuit among cub and scout trips in the mountains, training us for the day when we'd join the army, as para-military propagandistic organizations did in the 1970s), it was awfully simple to break the player's strategy.  In a word, as a strategy goes, it sucks.

Think about it.  "Fighters in front, wizards in the back" works if you're fighting in a hallway that definitely has a safe rear.  Why would a monster building a lair ever design it with a rear that was safe for an invader?  But more to the point, I'm Russian.  The way you kill an invader is not to rush forward and fight them on the ground they choose.   No, no, no!  You back away, let the invader grab worthless territory, and then, when they're good and deep into your territory, you encircle them and let them die in their own juices.  That's pretty obvious.

If you're outside, fighting in the wilderness, it's worse.  Where's the "front"?  What side of the wizard do you stand on?  If I do attack you in the wilderness, I'm sure to have missile weapons, even if its just rocks.  Why would I waste my missiles on a fighter?  Of course, it is always assumed that goblins and orcs are amazingly stupid, and haven't learned the difference between a fighter and a wizard.  In my opinion, since they have language, I'm sure they'd invent a little rhyme* to help out the new soldiers:

Lots of robes and no plating,
That's the one you should be hating.
Shiny armour and metal sword,
Kill them when the wizard's snored.

* yes, I just invented this

So, I cheerfully made pincushions out of wizards from goblins behind trees, or had monsters with an intelligence of more than five bulldoze straight for the wizard, specifically when the party stopped to camp or got into an argument about something.  Seems to me, DMs usually perceive that the instant an intelligent monster spots a party, they have an uncontrollable urge to break cover and run straight at the fighter, waving their club around irrepressibly, in mad rage.  Take my word for it: when you don't play monsters this way; and you don't have the intelligent monsters make dungeons that have avenues taking outsiders straight to the treasure vault, players get mighty sore.  As I learned, using a monster to take advantage of the party's poor understanding of strategy is definitely playing outside the rules.  Though, of course, I can give you the page and passage where Gygax says that's exactly what you should do.

These days, I rarely go all out strategically.  It just isn't fair.  As a kid, I ran with players who could spend hours discussing the tactical choices made at Borodino; nowadays, I rarely find people who have heard of Borodino (yes, yes, I know, you all have, but ask around; the readers here are rare, don't you know that?).  Today, I reserve all out tactics for really smart monsters, high intelligence and up.  But I still target wizards.

I have sat with my mouth hanging open when a DM says, "Sure you can run around and attack the monster from behind."  Says right in the original books that you can't do that.  I have had online players in the last year ask if they can move around an enemy and attack them from behind.  I try to explain, over and over, that even if it is turn-based combat, everything in game-reality is still happening simultaneously, which means, if you run around the enemy, the enemy would have time to turn and face you.  But I still get asked—because, well, players are always doing their best to improve their odds of winning a fight.  I can't blame them for that, but surely we can understand the game is not intended to enable characters to break believable reality.  A defender in the center of the circle you're making to get around to his or her rear has to move far, far less than you do in order to maintain their facing.  It therefore takes less time to turn right, then run around to your left.  We can think this through, right?  It is pretty obvious.

Yet, there's the thief, running around and doing it "in shadows," like I can't see you moving or hear you tramping your feet at a full run.  Says right in the original books, you can't surprise me if I know you're there.  Also says, you can't hide in shadows or move silently when you're under observation.  But people don't read the books, they don't like the books, and hey, "fun."  Uh huh.

Strictly speaking, the standard tactics as described are garbage.  In general, the tactics employed by many players in my online D&D game are a mystery to me.  Usually, off-line, my players will keep tight, guard each other's flanks, stand back to back and try to keep the mage more or less in the center.  When the fight is full on, the mage fights, like everyone else.  It is impossible to maintain concentration when the fighter can get stunned and be forced to stumble backward.  Human beings are not walls.  When they're hit, they falter.

Online (thinking over games I've played all the way back to 2009), especially in outdoor fights, players choose to run in three different directions, splitting themselves up.  Instead of a mage running away from the combat, taking advantage of their spell range, they stand in easy reach and begin casting—even though they know I have a rule that it will take them one full round to cast their spell.  Anything will throw them off balance: a boot, a rock, a dagger, a flying tackle ... but still, they insist on doing it, with faith that the enemy will rush to attack the fighter and certainly not the mage.  I don't get it.  I have to assume they've learned certain tactics in the presence of other DMs, who have allowed them to get away with stuff that is a disaster when running in my game world.  It is much like those games I played with strangers in the 80s.

What's weirdest is that the players don't seem to learn from one fight to the next.  A new fight and once again, they take up the same old tactics.

Part 2: Covering

I need to be clear.  Given the way most campaigns are built; and the habits developed by most players in those campaigns; the expectation that there needs to be a fighter, a cleric, a mage and a thief of some kind is pretty near a necessity.  Most modules are designed with the presupposition that the players will have one of each of these character classes (or modern equivalents), and therefore the party will not be able to solve many of the problems or compete effectively in the combats without a full covering.  This is why many genre-savvy players will, upon entering my world, ask immediately, "which kind of character does the party need?"

I dislike this question.  As I say, it comes from the above structure that most players are used to playing, or designing adventures for.  It demonstrates a fundamentally flawed thinking in the game's design, however—one that is largely ignored.  Or which, perhaps, people simply can't see for the trees.

Let me give an example.  My present online party consists of two fighters, an assassin and an illusionist.  The players were in a good-sized town.  They proceeded on their own volition to a tiny village, and from thence into the wilderness, to explore.  Every reader here will have already noted that there's no cleric in the party.  Many will wonder, "What sort of healing did you give them, Alexis?"  Well, there was healing available in the large town, but it is very expensive and two members of the party did not think to purchase it.  One of the players has a bottle that will dispense a salve that heals 1-4 hit points per day.

"But surely, Alexis, you gave them a healing potion, or more than one.  Surely there was one in the first treasure they found."  Actually, no.  I don't run my game as though it is a series of set-pieces waiting for the party to turn up and get what they need.  The party is told the risks, then they decide what to do.

In my opinion, the party is crazy for deciding to be in the wilderness, with these limitations.  The assassin has been strengthened into a kind of dark fighter, but still, that makes three fighters in the party.  However, the reason why they chose to explore the wilderness is obvious:

This is the game as it is usually explained to the players.

The wilderness features an absence of laws.  Everything they find is theirs.  There's no one telling them what to do or where to go.  There's always treasure in the wilderness; there's always another dungeon.  And the DM's there to protect them, right?

This is how every party learns to play the game from day one.  Virtually every manifestation of the game argues that this is HOW the game is played.  Run a party with four illusionists?  That would be insane.  How would the party survive in a dungeon?

Give me three other players and a twin of myself as a DM, and I'd happily run a game with all of us playing illusionists.  We would not head off into the wilderness.  We would not explore a dungeon.  We'd find a nice large city and carve ourselves out a little safe place in it, and then use our wits and magic to spin the residents like tops—gaining experience through cleaning out shops and houses, or making bargains with local authorities to root out criminals or rebels, thus getting our experience through rewards and thankful gifts.  Or both.  We'd strengthen our lair, hire dupes to fight, associate ourselves with smart followers who would loyally help us protect our stake and steadily build up a tremendous underground network, like Sherlock Holmes, or an empire, like Moriarty.  It would definitely be fun.

What would I do with three grunts and a spellcaster?  That is definitely a town party as well.  We need to be near a large city so we can count on someone to heal us.  We need to make friends with a church mamber, so we need to make a donation and join the congregation.  We need intel, so we either need to lean on an official or a snitch.  The assassin can get us in with the criminal element, though not all at once; the fighters are muscle, so let's use them to either help protect some backstreet where we can set ourselves up, or settle ourselves in with the middle class.  We've got a little money; the illusionist has 1100 g.p. credit, for heaven's sake.  Let's use it.

The DM can set up a few in-town dungeons, build a faction that competes with the party, throw in some frivolous plots and provide one or two "do a side job and I'll pay you" arrangements with NPCs.  A couple more levels and the players will get henchmen, square out their party and THEN try the wilderness.

There are several reasons why a party balks at this.  The first is that a typical DM thinks that "intrigue" needs twists and turns like a Bond-movie; every follower is a turncoat, every NPC is a liar and the money is never, ever paid out as promised.  Second, a typical DM can't envision a city the way they can a dungeon; they don't know how the politics in a city work, they can't frame the motivations of half a dozen factions and a dozen more individuals, except in the cheesy 2D frame of a television show like Breaking Bad.  It just isn't possible for typical DMs to imagine that, in fact, criminals are often deeply loyal, which is why real life cartels and terrorist groups survive for decades.  Leaders do not kill their own followers to make a point and once you're on the inside, you're rewarded if you do good work.  This is not how a typical DM thinks.  A typical DM does not understand that the competitors are the enemy, not your own faction.  TV and films describe a world where that isn't so, and these are accepted at face value.

Third, typical players can't comprehend who the enemy is, or how to make friends.  Running a game in a town, where there are plenty of resources, beds, blankets, a continuous supply of food, equipment that doesn't have to be carefully preserved, and lots of healing, still seems confusing.  How is that player going to make friends with a priest?  Or a guard?  What do I say?  Am I supposed to just walk up and say, "Hey, I want to be your friend?"

[I've had players in games do exactly that—SMH]

Social skills are often a bridge too far; players have been trained to walk up, explain to the DM what they want the NPC to do, and then roll dice to see if the NPC does it.  That doesn't translate well to "Let's be friends."  Rolling dice to see if a coldly approached NPC suddenly becomes the party's friend is ridiculous; and the players feel that it's ridiculous, wrecking any possibility of the game being meaningful.  Players simply do not understand how one person talks to another in the game world without it being a matter of "what I want/what you'll do."

I sincerely HOPE players do not approach real people in the real world with this constant mindset.  But I have had players who only considered NPCs and buttons to be pressed, with the dice determining whether or not something would pop out of the little chute.

There's unquestionably a post to be written about how to communicate believably with the game world, but that's not the goal here.  I only want to highlight that the covering of classes in a party reflects the very narrow sliver of what's considered game-play, according to the way people normally perceive a role-playing game.  So long as what we want to do adheres to the resources a particular group has, there's no such thing as insufficient coverage.  But so long as there's only one adventure scenario structure we're allowed to play, then yes: better have one of each.  It's the best plan.

This series continues with The Character is Only a Game Piece