Friday, January 24, 2020

The Problem

Occasionally I read StackExchange to see what questions D&D players are asking ... and commonly I find queries like this:
"How can I avoid problems that arise from rolling ability scores?
"Rolling ability scores is a time-honored tradition across many editions of D&D. However, it can sometimes cause problems for players and/or the DM. For example, one player character may end up much weaker or much stronger than the rest of the party, which can result in a poor experience for some of the players. In other cases, a player may have their characters repeatedly commit suicide-by-monster so they can try to reroll for higher stats, which can be quite frustrating for the GM and other players.
"What approaches are available to mitigate these problems?
"Note: Answers should ideally be able to prevent both the "Joe rolled all 7s, and his character is useless" problem and the "Karen rolled all 18s and her character makes everyone else's character useless" problem. That is, an answer that only avoids very low average/total scores is not as good as one that avoids both very low and very high average/total scores."

I don't answer these questions on the site, any more than I normally answer questions on Reddit or any bulletin board ~ because these discussions invariably devolve into baiting questions or whataboutisms.  There is an answer to the above question; and it begins with first understanding what's being described.

The "problem" is that the DM, the game as it is played, the usual expectations created by company modules and contest events, perceive that a character with very high ability stats is a "superior" character, as compared to those with average stats ~ and that one with very low stats is, predictably, "inferior."  And this is true, (A) if the DM runs a game that includes a high number of success/fail rolls based on the character's ability stats; (B) if the game itself focuses excessively (more than ordinary) upon bonus/penalty modifiers to those stats to determine success; (C) if the modules being played prepare the DM to focus exclusively on both (a) and (b); and (D) if the mass event includes a feature that rewards "play" based upon the party's success in completing the official module being presented.

If you build the game specifically that way, where every decision being made by the player is followed by the DM saying, "roll to see if you succeed," then obviously we should expect that players able to consistently roll against 17s and 18s will perform fantastically better than those who must consistently roll against 12s and 13s.  If I ask you to play craps, where the rules at the table apply to everyone the same except you ~ because, for you, a 3, 6 and 9 are automatic losers ~ then, yeah, you're going to resent how the game is tipped in favour of those who can roll a 6 without losing all their chips.

I should think most of my readers already know that 5th Edition has been nerfed so hard that this problem was managed by getting rid of players rolling for their character stats.  Essentially, the game writers found the imbalance so insurmountable ~ as told by the game's general audience, who were asked for their input ~ that their only "for sure" correction had to be that every character's stats had to be perfectly balanced with every other player.  After all, equality is the highest virtue.  We need equality to settle, once and for all, the right of every player to feel effective and useful when the game is played.

Those of you playing 5th Edition:  experiencing a lot of equality at the game table?

All that's happened, of course, is that ability stats have become less of a go-to excuse to complain about the lack of fairness that persons feel when something (like the die) goes against them.  But as humans, we don't need ability stats.  We can always find something.

That is because, as humans, we are not equals.  Most of us expect this, accept it and, by the time we cease to be children, move past it.  I'll prove it.  I think it's safe to say that if Ken Griffey Jr. showed up at our company softball game, we'd be glad to meet him, to shake his hand and to let him play.  Obviously, we'd want him on our team ... but we'd also realize that if he were playing, the score on either side wouldn't mean much, as it would depend mostly on how seriously Griffey played.  But here's the thing: in D&D, there is no other team.  There is ONLY our team.  The DM isn't a "team."  If we sat down to play with the "Ken Griffey of D&D," it ought to be pretty obvious from the start that it wouldn't matter what character class he played or what his stats were ... and it wouldn't matter if our stats were higher than his.  He's going to out-think us, out-innovate us, be six jumps ahead of the DM ~ and he'll be funny, clever, charismatic, encouraging, supportive and an all-around helluva guy; because he'll get, like the best players in the game, that while there might be some rivalry between party members, we're not competing against each other to see who "wins."  No one wins.  We all win.  Winning is not what the game is about.  And those who carp and moan about, or lord their lucky rolls over the ability stats of their fellow party members are having bigger problems with their personality than that they need to win at a game without a winning line.

I want to emphasize that many DMs and the public social culture behind D&D push this winning narrative ~ by pressuring us to laugh at players who experience bad luck, or to stand up and scream at the DM upon rolling a 20, "In your FACE!"  And like behaviour that suggests that other players are a personal threat to our comfort and that the DM is the embodiment of the game's persecution of players.  The player who feels they've "got it made" because they've rolled high ability stats demonstrates that we're emphasizing the wrong things in game play.  D&D isn't craps.  It isn't strictly about rolling dice.  It is about setting oneself and one's party up so that when the dice are rolled, we've prepared for bad luck.  We've thought this through and made contingency plans ... and none of us need high stats to make those plans.  None of us should think that high stats will guarantee that a plan works.  And all of us should know that, inevitably, with experience and more levels, those stats are going to mean less and less compared to the battle ready creativity we can bring to any situation.  We're all going to gather more power as we go, according to our real life efforts, smarts, bravery, good sense and willingness to take bad luck into account.

And yet despite that, despite the personal experience hundreds of thousands of players have had trying to solve puzzles or survive against enemies without the wisdom to run when a TPK threatened ... we still think that ability stats are a "problem" because some people will get more and others will get less.  These same people who should have realized that Karen with all her 18s can't be everywhere, and that obviously she is not a one-person army, and that she is bound to draw the greatest amount of direct attacks once she begins to kick ass in a general melee, so that the rest of us are plainly not "useless."  Not everyone on Ken Griffey's team is Ken Griffey ... he's going to need someone at 1st base to throw to.  Granted, at 50 years of age it's possible he can pitch well enough to stop us from ever getting a hit (he's an outfielder), and we'd probably never get him out, but that's beside the point.  If I do catch hold of a pitch, that ball is going way over his head.  My point is that he can't be everywhere; no one can.  Karen isn't going to solve every puzzle, she needs to be healed occasionally (speaking of editions where healing isn't a stupidly easy nerfed thing), she can't fly, she can't breathe under water, she's only one person.  The rest of us are only "useless" if we choose to view the game as a competitive pissing contest ... which it isn't, because if Karen kills half the enemy, we all move ahead.  Not just Karen.  If Ken Griffey Jr. hits a home run and wins the game, the whole team wins.  Not just him.

If Joe throws all 7s ...

[never seen that, but yeah, could happen; never seen all 18s, either, but using 4d6 to roll stats makes rolling an 18 almost as easy as rolling a 7 ... but I digress]

If Joe throws all 7s, then suicides by monster over and over, the "frustration" should absolutely be addressed.  That is, Joe's frustration, not that of the DM and the other players.  Clearly, if Joe is suiciding by monster, Joe has reason to think that if he doesn't have a character with higher stats, he isn't going to be useful, it is because the game is making Joe with his all 7s feel useless.  I am more apt to believe that this opinion of Joe's is not coming from Joe ~ and I am just as inclined to believe that everyone else INSISTS that it comes from Joe.  In other words, that Joe's dissatisfaction is more likely to be ignored and belittled, and that he is bound to be further humiliated for having the poor taste to roll poor numbers, than that Joe is spoilsport.  Given the emphasis that DMs and players DO put on high numbers, and the game balance described above that forces every player decision to become a success/fail roll, Joe has every right to protest and throw the game in the face of his peers.

Either Joe should have the right to re-roll his character, to obtain an accepted minimum (which I do, partly because I have had Joes in my campaign who have been hurt and cannot reconcile themselves with poor rolls, no matter what my campaign awards), or else Joe needs to feel that his numbers aren't really that important.  This requires that everyone at the table feel the same way.  Including the DM.  But it is ridiculous to create a game where Karen's high stats are viewed as making everyone else feel useless, only to then turn around and disparage Joe for not sucking it up and playing his crappy, extra-useless character.  There is something broken here, and it isn't just the game.

Beyond the structure of roll-heavy game designs (and fracturingly competitive game designs), and beyond the win/mock sentiment of game pissing contests, I put the third blame on game campaigns that demand the one player/one character model in game play.  Why shouldn't Karen also have a second character who does not have all 18s?  And why shouldn't Joe also have a second character who does not have all 7s?  Why can't players manage multiple players all living at the same time, allowing parties the freedom to exchange, mix and match different character combinations to different adventures ... so that in this adventure, Karen's second is standing side-by-side with Joe's prime, and in the next adventure Karen is taking on the roll of protecting Joe, giving Joe a chance to prepare, harass the enemy verbally and most of all survive until those ability stats matter less and less in the face of Joe's other gained abilities?  Must we forever look at this game like children in a bus with square wheels?  Can we never look at what's really going on, and reconcile predictable human behaviour with the way we deliberately design games to be confrontational and abusive?

It is really not that hard to change our positions on these things.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020


Being here is half the game.

I don't want to disparage the age we're living in.  I rather like it myself, being one who considers the "good old days" to be a time of creaky, backwards technology and social standards.  Often, I think back on memories of the world when I was pre-teen and such, and wonder how we managed with the terrible content on a black-and-white television, the lack of computers and the painstaking agony of having to record everything using pencil and paper.  I guess we had the 1950s to compare it to.  Admittedly, it did seem very modern at the time.

Still, while there's nothing wrong with today's culture, it nevertheless breeds habits that I find myself evaluating.  Right now, as I drag myself away from Oxygen Not Included and my latest downloads, I must confess I'm often a slave to the immediacy of convenient gratification.  Whereas once upon a time, I had to wait a week to see the next episode of something, or make a visit to a store to buy the complete set of, say, Band of Brothers, at any time today I simply have to conceive of the show, remember I haven't seen it in a decade and, there you are, all in my possession and ready to watch.  I call a company like Skip the Dishes to bring me food, I pause my game on Steam, I check my email to see if anyone loves me, then settle in to watch.  It is a nice world.

But while day after day passes with such marvelous comforts, intellectually and otherwise, I am reminded by the end of each day that hedonism such as this has its limitations.  When I will think back upon this year, five or ten years from now, I won't remember the steaming breaded chicken or the time I last watched Nix and Dick undermine David Schwimmer ... I will think about the posts I wrote on blogger or the other work I put together on my world.  I'll remember what I wrote, because this writing can't be served a la carte.  There's no one who can do it for me; which is why it is this particular comfort, this power to reach out and have others read me, that is truly the best part of living in 2020.  It is the things we do ourselves that is most gratifying.

Following yesterday's post, I felt I owed an explanation to you, my Gentle Readers.  Between episodes, and game play, while making dinner, taking a shower, enjoying a walk outside in the -37 C weather we're having today, I've been thinking about why I didn't quit D&D.  It is easy enough to say, "because I loved it," but that's only an evasion.  It doesn't say anything.  It doesn't explain why.  Or why I've given nearly 41 years to this game, instead of to something else.  Why, when I was done with school, and married, and had a daughter, didn't I think that my free time was gone?  Why didn't I put aside childish things?

To see D&D as a childish thing, I would have had to see writing as a childish thing.  Or acting.  Or that the musicians I knew were wasting their time, along with the poets, the artists, the dancers and the other performers I knew in the 80s and 90s.  I saw no difference between capturing a moment in fictional time through the medium of preparing and presenting a gaming session, and doing it in the shape of a novel, or rehearsing to present fiction on the stage.  And since I did those things in the company of people who were unrestrained about giving their lives to those arts, and prepared to die rather than give it up, it didn't seem strange that I had simply chosen another mode of expression.  True, drama offers the possibility of fame and wealth; and so does writing novels ... though not for most.  And those I knew who thought they were doing it to get rich were almost always the first to quit.  The rest of us kept at because, well, because.

That's still an evasion.  It's easier to give one, however, because sometimes with true love, it's difficult to dissect what's there without making an ugly mess of it.  But I'll try.

Of all the things I loved doing most as a kid ~ and here I mean, going back to when I first became conscious of being a person, when I was five or six ~ I would have to say that expressing myself was highest on the list.  I loved to be heard.  I read voraciously, both fiction and non-fiction; I soaked up films from the television whenever possible; and I asked questions of anyone who would give me an answer that wasn't "because."  [see?  I know an evasion when I hear one]  In turn, this gathering of information piled up in my head and ached to flow out on my tongue ... which it was not permitted to do nearly as often as would have pleased me, because I was kid and growing up in the early 70s when adults still said with a straight, un-ironic face that "children were meant to be seen and not heard."  Talk about why the good old days sucked.

By the time I was twelve, the log jam of having things to say broke and I began to write things down, effusively and all the time.  I didn't fall in love with writing because I loved words or because sentences are beautiful, descriptive images, but because I had a ton of shit to communicate and hey, that's why we invented words.  I'm still communicating, constantly, because I still have a great deal to say.  That is why this blog, and the other one, and the wiki, combine together to make such a prodigious pile [sometimes, some would say, a pile that steams ...].  Because I like to express my thoughts; I like to have my thoughts heard and read.  I like others to know what I'm thinking.  And so that I deserve to be heard, I like my thoughts to be things worth hearing.

D&D was a remarkable, unexpected medium that simply materialized one day, like a bomb dropping out of the sky and destroying my cathedral of thoughts.  The manner in which the game was realized, through talk, and bound by fixed limits, which were fuzzy because of the dice, took hold of a particular set of skills that had already infected my consciousness.  I had always been in love with maps and geography, and here was a game that applied that specific knowledge to worldbuilding.  I was quick-witted and creative, able to speak and think fast on my feet, and here was a game that rewarded those skills with role-play.  I was exhaustively and obsessively well-read in literature, science and history, and here was a game that drew on those subjects like a pump drawing water.  It was like I had been training for a decade so that at 15, I'd be ready to play.  I don't need one hand to count the number of times something similar to that has happened.

Once I got myself sorted, and began to understand the deeper aspects of the game, I flourished as a DM.  I loved the expressive power and complexity of imagination the game enabled.  And once I hit that time in my mid to late 20s that I described in the last post, when people began to fade away, there was no way I was giving that up.  No way.  Even then I was surrounded by people who said it was just a game and that it was childish, but I knew they were wrong.  A children's book can be childish, but that doesn't make every book so.  The way that most people played D&D then, and the way that most play it now, the game IS childish.  But not my game.  Not my world.  I don't believe that my D&D design is any more childish than George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire, and frankly I think it is far less so ... and no one out there is saying that Martin should have put childish things aside and quit writing.  Entertainment is one of the most important things that humans do for one another; it is a gift.  Just as Band of Brothers was a gift, from those ready to take the time to write it, adapt it, perform it and make it ready for me to see it.

I don't understand those who cannot understand how essential art is to the health and wellbeing of others ... and how that effort can never be "just" anything.  Through D&D, I can express myself, and illicit emotional response from my players on levels that I can hardly dream of doing through direct writing.  Granted, I try the latter constantly; but with D&D, the shaping of thoughts, tension, elucidation and epiphany are far more profound and esoteric than what I've been able to do with words.  People remember moments in a game for years and years; they remember what they did, they remember what they felt.  They remember the experience as though it happened in their "real" lives ... which, of course, it did.  The monster and the treasure may have been fictional, but the breathless anticipation, the pain of dying or the shouts of joy, those were authentically real.

I will not give up an art form because others are too busy to appreciate art.

Monday, January 13, 2020

Cold Water

With this post, I want to speak only with those people who were born after 1990.  If you were born any time before that, you don't matter.

5th Edition D&D was introduced in late 2014 ... and so those people who began playing the game at the age of 16, are just now coming to the end of their university degree and beginning to wonder whether or not they'll have any time ~ or inclination ~ to play D&D any more.  A great many of those who began playing the "new game" at 16, quit years ago ... but of course, none of them are reading this post.

If you're just inside the boundary I named at the start, you were 24 when the new game was presented ... and since you are still playing D&D and reading about it, I'm willing to make a bet.  Most of the people you personally played with, whether at a game store, or a semi-university club, or just around your dinner table, have quit now.  And among those who haven't quit, almost half are talking about it.  They're telling you, they don't have the time to play, or it doesn't seem important any more ... or the game seems, well, repetitive.

Of those remaining, there's another little bugbear in the room.  They talk about starting campaigns, or picking up their campaign again, or changing genres ... and yet, it never seems to happen.  Or it happens, but after one night of play, nothing.

And then, there's you.  You, reading this blog, and others; you that is still running your campaign; you that remembers the introduction of 5e, and today you still feel about the game exactly the way you did five years and a bit ago.  But all around you, there's a building ennui.  There's that friend who was always there, every Friday night, but now hardly ever shows up.  And when you see the friend, and he or she asks about your game, you can talk about it ... but you always seem to do most of the talking.  Or you have friends that show up for the game sporadically, but when they do, they always want to talk about other things.  They can't seem to focus on the game.  They're not being impolite; and it is great to see them; but still, there's that feeling that they're really there to see you, and not to play.  And they're good friends.  You like it when they come around.  Only, well, you wish it was a bit more like it was in university or college.  Or high school.  Or even, depending on when you were born, like it was in grade six.

For most young people, the window of becoming interested in the game, getting good at the game, tiring of the game and quitting the game all happens in a three or four year window.  This puts us firmly in the second generation of D&Ders ~ except for the reader, of course.  Now, an old sod like me, we slowly gather together a group of long-timers that will die playing this game ... but I remember those early days, when it seemed like every year meant a new crop of players.  And as I got into my 20s, those new players would get younger and younger.  This works out, of course, as being older and older than my players offered me greater respect and attention.  It is far easier to be  26 years old and running early twenty-somethings, than it is to be 16 and running friends your own age.

But there is a very good chance that some readers here, younger than 30 as they are, have lost every player they had.  They watched the players drift away one by one, for numerous reasons, while new players did not materialize.  Today, they love the game; they think about the game; but they don't play the game.  There's no one to play with.

This is what "not quitting" looks like.  And for a great many, who can't give up hope, there's a worse bugbear.  They think about how they need to get out there and find players.  And they think about how, before they do that, they're going to have to get their game world in order.  And make up their mind about the system they're going to play.  And what rules in that system they're going to keep.  And so they think.  And think.  And think.

Only, what if they do that work, and remake their game world, and decide on a system, and build an adventure or two, and find the players to run in their game ~ and the players don't stay.  Like before, they hang around for awhile, but in a year or two (or less), they all just drift away.

Is it worth it?  Because, sooner or later, it won't be.  Sooner or later, you're going to be 35.  Or 40.  And still pretending that there are players out there, even if we're talking two or three weekends a year, when you can find the time to attend the nearest game cons.  Or those you can take time off for.  Sooner or later, maybe, you'll have to quit yourself.  Sooner.  Or later.  Because that's what adults do.  They put childish things aside, and admit, yeah, that was fun, but it's time to be an adult now.  It's time to get on with more important things.  Like my marriage.  And my kids.  And my career.  Along with my house payments.  And whatever else I have to do to make sure I don't mess up my retirement.

Maybe you're like me.  Maybe you've got a gang of fanatics.  Or maybe you're like one of these parents who hooks their kids on the game.  I sort of did (and I'll tell that story again, if I'm asked, but it's already somewhere on the blog).  But kids grow up.  They become adults, too.  And awfully fast.  You might get five or ten years with them; but you know, it will never be like when you were kid, and playing with your friends.

I just thought, a dunk in cold water might ... wake you up.  I don't want you to quit.  I want you to play D&D all your life.  But I do want you awake.  Awake, and active.  Because the nice thing about looking straight at something that scares the shit out of you, it reminds you that you're alive.  And that gaming isn't about thinking, and reading, and clumsily deciding what you're "going" to do.

Gaming is about doing.

Sunday, January 5, 2020

Eerie Silences

I want to quote this piece from Pierre Berton's The National Dream, here describing a surveyor, Robert Rylatt, who was given the task of surveying the Howse Pass in 1871.  The pass is some 200 km northwest of Calgary, Alberta ... and at the time, less than half a dozen Europeans had seen it.  For a brief period, it was proposed as a possible route for the Canadian transcontinental railway, but later discarded.

The quote describes Rylatt's initial impression of the land, from Berton's paraphrase of Rylatt's diary:
"On his first Sunday in the mountains, he found himself alone ~ the others were working five miles farther up the pass.  It was his first such experience in the wilderness and he made the most of it.  He watched the sun dropping down behind the glaciers on the mountain tops, tipping the snows with a gold that turned to red while, in the shadowed gorges, the ice could be seen in long streaks of transparent blue.  He watched the glow leave the peaks and the gloom fill up the valleys.  he watched velvet night follow ghostly twilight and saw the pale rays of the aurora compete with the stars to cast [Rylatt's words] 'softening hallows of light around these everlasting snows.'  Suddenly, he began to shiver and a sense of irreconcialable loneliness overcame him.  It was silence ~ the uncanny and overpowering silence of the Canadian wilderness: 'Not a leaf stirred; not the hum of an insect; not even the noise of the water in the creek ~ this being too distant.  I listened for a sound but did not hear even the rustle of a falling leaf ...
"He made a fire, as much to hear the crackling of the wood as for the warmth.  It came to him that no one who had not experienced what he was going through could ever really understand what it was like to be truly alone:
" 'Your sense of being alone in the heart of a city, or even in a village, or within easy distance of fellow beings ... gives you no claim to use the term alone.  You may have the feeline peculiar to being alone ~ that is all.  Listen sometime when you think you are alone.  Can you hear a footfall; a door slam in the distance; a carriage go by?  Or the rumble of one ...?  Can you hear a dog bark?  Have you a cricket on the hearth or even the ticking of a clock ...?
"Rylatt realized that the tiniest of sounds can give a feeling of relief ~ 'the sense of knowing your species are at no great distance' ~ but here, in the solitude of the Rockies, there was only silence."

I've experience that, in those same mountains.  For those who might know, Howse Pass is bounded on the east side by Howse Peak, 10km south of Saskatchewan River Crossing.  There's a lake on the east side of Howse Peak, Chephren Lake, where I've fished and spent the night, some 44 years ago.  There, and dozens of other places in the Rockies, I've heard that self-same eerie silence.

Chephren Lake, with Howse Peak in the background