Tuesday, June 30, 2020

The House that P.F. Built

"A few things that frustrate me as a player and as a DM is when people are hypocritical about it [the rules] or pretend to forget a penalty, or arguing specifically to get some kind of advantage on the table.  When you think about a lawyer, when people complain about lawyers, they are just saying whatever they have to say to get the thing that they want.  They don't actually care about the rules at all.  If, let's say, someone wanted to make 12 attacks on their turn ... if there's some home brew rules that lets them do that, those are the ones they're going to be using.  If it's the 'rule of cool,' that's what they're using.  I've even seen people argue for rules that would completely break the game just to get some bonuses.  And that's a big part of the reason why people get frustrated with home brew rules.  Which I love, but you got to be very careful about it, because you can lead to this spotty, sometimes-we're-doing-it-this-way, sometimes-we're-doing-it-another-way, where players have to ask permission before everything.  Or they have to ask, 'How are we doing it this time?'  It's confusing.  They don't know.  So they have to ask.
"What you have to understand is that any time you as a player are asking for some exception to the rules, you're giving the DM more work to do, because now he has to think about the long-term ramifications of the 'new system.'  Which most DMs are happy to do, because we like having new things that the players are creating and introducing it into the system.  But then, you also get into rules haggling, where the DM thinks that your flaming hands should really be five extra damage and the player thinks they should be 50, and we have to slowly haggle our way down to 25, and that now the DM realizes that he's made a horrendous mid-game call, 'What was I thinking!'  ~ and wants to retcon it, but the player's pissed off because he's managed to finagle out of the DM this broken ability, and it gets taken away from him.  It's like reversed Christmas, and now he's not happy, the DMs not happy; now everyone's not happy.
"There's other debates that come up when it comes to mistakes.  How do you fix problems when they come up?  Do you fix problems?  Let's say that someone rolls an attack, and they miss.  Then ... just after they attack, they see that they had Advantage.  Some players will see that it's a miss, and then pick up their dice and then roll again, therefore getting three rolls, when really if it was a Reversed, if they had hit, and it was an Advantage, they just keep the hit.  Something like that is really hard to catch, because you as the DM have to be really observant at keeping an eye on the players, and you already got a lot of stuff that you're doing to keep track of!  You don't want to be watching the players dice rolls!
"Or let's say, I'm the DM, I roll an attack.  It's a hit, does damage.  Three turns later, the player sees that I had Disadvantage on the roll.  Do we retcon that hit three turns ago, re-rolling it, or do we play it as is?  Whatever you decide is fine, the issue comes in when there's hypocrisy ~ where if the situation were reversed, the player wouldn't want to re-roll all the hits.  It can be really frustrating when the player rolls, it's wrong, you correct them, and they just shrug and go, "Oh well, maybe next time."  And it's literally their turn.  Okay, you can fix it right now!  It's hard to catch exactly because it's inconsistency that's the issue, and it doesn't come from one encounter.  It comes from multiple encounters, and the discrepancies between them.  And it sucks, because you as the DM find one problem, and you fix it and then nine others crop ... and it's ... it's tiring to keep on top of it.
"I came here on a Friday night to roll dice and have fun.  I didn't sign up to be 'The Dad.'  And a solution, if its really bad, is sadly, 'Maybe not play with that group?'  Because if you correct them and it just gets worse, it's impossible to keep up with it.  You can never compete with that.  It can get pretty bad at times.  There was another group I had where they wouldn't tell me stuff, like if their character was poisoned, or if an effect had ended, and we'd find out, and they don't want to retcon that stuff because they didn't want to get hurt, or they didn't want to have some kind of a penalty, and sometimes, there would even be people who would blame the DM as well, in order to kind of get out of trouble, and be like, 'You're supposed to be keeping track of my h.p. and spell slots and stuff as well!'
"Sometimes it's an honest mistake.  You know.  It's tough.  I get it.  You got a lot of stuff going on.  Plus there's inconsistency between the player and DM.  That can be a nightmare, like with the 'rule of cool.'  The player wants to jump up 500 feet in the air and punch the dragon in the balls three times before ripping his head off.  Okay, fine.  But if the DM wants to have an enemy jump over to him?  Oh, no!  Suddenly, we're rules-as-written and we gotta stop the game to look up long jump and high jump limits for this bugbear ~ and what about the ceiling?  You can't long jump if the ceiling's short ..."
Puffin Forrest, D&D Discussion: Rules Lawyering Video, 02:12 to 06:45


Feel free to carp at my decision to copy out all this.  I really felt the thing needed to be viewed as a whole.  As a monolith, if you will.

My first thought was to write this out, then write a paragraph pretending to quit D&D, publish the post and not say anything for a day.

My second was to put a number (*) next to everything that I find toxic in the rant, and then deal with those things one by one.  But I could write a thousand word post on about 40 things here ... so I won't do that, either.

Gawd.  Just look at this.  The video, published in Mar 2020, has 459,447 views as I write this.  It has 3,234 comments, most of them positive and liking the video.  There are 27K likes.  There are 251 dislikes.

This is the state of D&D.

People (including readers here) like the above because they identify with it.  As they listen to the video, or read the above, they're thinking, "Shit, I hate when that happens," and "Oh yeah, oh yeah, that's a thing."  And they relate to Puffin when he sounds tired and exhausted with it all, and expresses his empathy, since he and the readers have All Been There and there's a powerful sentiment of "Hey, what are you going to do?  That's what it's like."

On the other hand ...

I relate to none of it.  None.  My players don't act like this, my rules don't work like this, none of these issues ever arise in my game (except, maybe once every three or four sessions, the retcon thing, but it's a two-second fix and no one cares).  I experience none of this angst, frustration, feelings of something being impossible or even hard.  And watching/reading the above, I feel like a particle physicist in a room with 4th graders heatedly arguing the structure of the atom to where they're coming to blows ... and I'm thinking, "Don't say anything.  Don't say anything.  Don't bother.  They'll get older.  They'll understand later."

Except, in this case, they won't.  These are adults.

Think about it a moment.  Suppose you could make All of the above just "go away."  Fingersnap.  Gone.  What would your game be like then?

I stopped watching P.F.'s videos a couple of years ago from exhaustion.  In tone, voice, choice of words, apparent empathy, he seems like a somewhat nice fellow.  In terms of D&D, he is a complete fucking idiot.  As are the people who subscribe to his videos and approve of his content ... solely because they have bought into a premise that D&D works according to the dictates and structure presented in P.F.'s videos ~ which are a reflection of tens of thousands of gaming tables, influenced by an equal number of dictates, sentimentalities, creative decisions and corporate interventions that have been ongoing for 40+ years.  People, by and large, truly believe that the maelstrom described by P.F. is impossible to avoid.  Rules always suck, management of the rules is always beyond the DM, players are cats and can never be herded, etcetera.  You just have to suck it up, put up with all the shit, deal with it as best you can, get a hug when you need it and ~ when the time comes and you're ready ~ you'll just put it down, turn your back on it and probably never play the game again.

My frustration is that all of that is bullshit.  P.F.'s struggles are the results of bad choices, enabling, incompetence, cognitive bias, egregious organizational design, a resistance to processes and a host of personal failings related to poor self-esteem and an unwillingness to accept responsibility over and for other people.  These are deeper problems than the game.  P.F. lives in the house that P.F. built ~ and instead of looking at the disastrous catastrophe of a living space that it is, his guiding principle is to rant and rave that this is the only kind of house that can be built.  So says the numbers-popular youtube expert, talking to other people with the same basic problems.  Jeebus ... this post ought to be called the Pied Piper.

Rather than holding up examples of shitty, shitty gameplay and seeking counselling from the mob on all the personal problems associated with bad rules, bad design, bad running, bad players and bad thinking, I'd far rather see an example of something to strive towards.  Gawd knows I've tried.  But I'm just a miserable curmudgeon arguing my "one true way" in a swamp of people who don't hesitate to tell me how they "know better," as they defend people on the internet who cry in their beer about how sad and difficult and trialsome it is to be an unappreciated DM in an unappreciated game.

A curmudgeon with a game that works exceedingly well, with behaved, excited, anxious players who unerringly come around to play and have fun.

What the hell do I know?

Monday, June 29, 2020

Fictional Baggage

A fiction is a belief or statement that cannot be demonstrated as truth, but that is often held to be true because it is expedient to do so.  A typical example of a fiction in D&D would be that "role-playing" is better than "roll-playing," or that alignments or back stories helps players build better characters.

When I began playing D&D, I readily adopted most of the rules that were presented in the books.  I accepted them on faith.  Having faith is the act of giving credence to a fiction, most often on the premise that this is what others believe or because this is the way that something has always been done.  In my youth, before D&D, I was taught to play games through being told what the rules were, and then bending myself, as others did, in order to follow the rules.

D&D was not my first experience with playing a game not by the rules.  My parents believed that if the rules of a board game could be adjusted in a way that made a better game, that was a good thing.  Thus I grew up playing adjusted rules for Monopoly, Stock Ticker, Life, Careers, Payday, Mille Bornes and Masterpiece, among other classic board games that weren't classic at all in 1975.

The decision to start adjusting D&D, when my faith could no longer sustain the rules, came naturally.  In the beginning, however, my efforts to "improve the game" were undeniably new fictions that I invented to replace old fictions.

I learned the difference through the same methodology that enables science and investigation: I watched the players, I took note of their responses, I adjusted my hypotheses to reflect those responses and, steadily, moved towards game systems that did not serve my fictions, but served evidence.

I do not see other DMs doing this.  And I don't know why.  By and large, dungeon masters seem to be forever burdened with their baggage ~ the luggage, travel totes, trunks and bags collected over the years from campaigns they've run, and played in, and other games they've played, in addition to cherished modules, stories, scenes and I suppose over-the-game-arguments that have collected in their thoughts like the eponymous baggage car in their train-of-thought.  It may be that they are seeking a sense of permanence, as though the fiction of permanence itself will provide future game experiences.

I can't tell you how many times I've heard players and DMs, both on and off the internet, swear that they will still be playing D&D in their 80s ... only to see them fall away from the game in less than a decade.  But suppose that we are still playing 30, 50 or 70 years from now.  Why would we create a fiction that it is going to be the same game then that it is now, or was when we started?  The world, and the game with it, has changed profoundly since the late 1970s; the world is going to go on changing, and the people who live in it are going to find amazing things to do in the future, that will dwarf the nostalgic baggage cars of DMs who cannot even now let go of things past.  Permanence is a fiction ... and one that brings pain, because the evidence that nothing is permanent is a loud banging on the door that defies ignoring.  Every minute that DMs cling to the ways of the past, to the ways they used to play, to the patterns of D&D that "should be" a certain way, is a way of disappointment and unhappiness that will not support another 30 years of game play.

I continue to love D&D because I emptied the baggage car long ago and turned it into a lounge.  The fictions that are discussed there take the form of propositions for future designs, rather than dogma.  My game design is fluid, ready to be discarded if it doesn't work, but equally ready to be put implemented and kept if it proves it's worth.  No design that does not carry its own weight is allowed to stay.  Neither I, nor my players, are willing to carry old design ideas as baggage.

It's a shame that others do not see the wisdom in this.

Thursday, June 25, 2020

What You've Missed in June

Here's a list of subject I wrote for The Higher Path and Authentic Adventures Inc. during the month of June 2020, that you haven't seen for want of a $3 or a $10 donation, towards my Patreon.  These posts are all a thousand words or more in length.

The Higher Path ($3/month)

Worldbuilding:  three posts detailing considerations that world builders can take ideas from regarding general science, mathematics, chemistry, geology, medicine and engineering, along with other factors worth examination.

The Setting's Life: examining ways to give the game setting a life of its own, providing depth to the game world experience and adjusting oneself as a DM to see through the eyes of NPCs and monsters.

All Europe, All the Time: a post challenging the Eurocentric view in mapmaking, discussing the drawbacks of Middle Earth, Greyhawk, Faerun and Eberron.

The Field Guide to Bad D&D: beginning a series on problem solving and deconstruction in DM-designed settings, discussing the drawbacks with assigning blame, the "bad apple theory," common fallacies and presumptions about game design, the presence of real skill where it comes to playing D&D and habits that drive us to all out embrace ideals that don't work.

The Sharp and Blunt Ends: an examination into why the DM feels pressured by players and the Internet as well to assume attitudes and techniques that ignore the DM's personal experience and potential success.

Why'd You Have to Go and Make Things So Complicated:  discussing the strategies of simplification vs. complex rule-making in D&D, and the effects each has on the attitudes of players and the manner in which they approach the game.

Understanding the Importance of Procedure: nearly what it says right on the tin, with techniques and tactics I employ to ensure that DMs maintain player focus, game momentum and player awareness of the game's rules.

Robur's Choice: a breakdown of why some players act badly and attack the game system instead of investing themselves into actual game play, asking the question, "Why did Robur the Thief set the bar on fire?"

Authentic Adventures Inc. ($10 a month)

Common Threads: explaining the importance of maintaining common themes and ideas in a game adventure, while laying out the structure of the adventure I'm writing on the blog, The Ruby Cloak.  Introduces my D&D race of Tauregs (npcs) based loosely off existing Earth clans crossed with Star Wars tusken raiders.

Events in Mraier: adventure notes on the caravan outpost of Mraier, located in the semi-desert north edge of the Sahara, featuring clues to the location of the Ruby Cloak, colored by encounters with a feral lion and the presence of dangerous bandits.

Cedrata Part I: describes the journey from Mraier to the deep desert trading town of Wargla, where the Cedrata ruins are encountered along way that serve as a potential side quest, one that does offer additional information about the location of the cloak.  Discusses how to run situations where a secret entrance would be irrational, due to the area being known and well searched for hundreds of years.  Includes the first half of the Cedrata mini-dungeon.

Cedrata Part II: completes Cedrata, introducing an unexpected "big bad" and potential for the party to increase their magic and make a big leap to an adventure that would be otherwise hard to reach.

Wargla Part I: a double-sized post introducing the town of Wargla, persons of importance that serve as contacts for the party, the solving of a puzzle piece in the location of the cloak, knowledge about a hidden order, the White Brotherhood, the obtaining of a map to Wargla's underground aqueduct system and set up for the 14-point underground lair of the hidden order.

Wargla Part II: a map of the lair and its first eight points of interest, featuring a battle with monks and pursuits taking place through several locations.

Wargla Part III: an advanced map of the lair and a set up for getting the party trapped in the lair between a high level npc and a rhinocerous version of the minotaur, a Cernnoth.  Plenty of potential roleplaying between the npc managing the lair and the party.

Wargla Last: how to get the party out of a spot where they've completely gotten themselves locked inside, with a combination of fighting monsters, piecing together a concealed exit and a mystery, and getting at least some treasure.

All of this is available for the price it costs to obtain access to Authentic Adventures Inc.  If you like the posts I'm writing on Tao of D&D, these posts behind the pay wall are less frivolous, designed to help you successfully world build your campaign.  They are filled with inspiration and new concepts that you need to be a better and more progressive DM.
Please support me on Patreon every month.

Wednesday, June 24, 2020


[You can read today's post on The Higher Path here]
[You can read Monday's post on Authentic Adventures Inc. here]

If I write something that discourages you so much that you stop DMing, then good.  You should stop.

I learned as a young man that English teachers intended to do whatever they could to dissuade me from being a writer.  This culminated particularly in a character named Mr. Whitehead, my 11th grade drama teacher, who decided to run me through a little sadistic gauntlet of his own devising.  One day after some rehearsal, he asked if I really was serious about being a writer.  I had put together some scenes for our drama class that we had acted out, and one of those had gone to a city-wide event where it was performed in a large auditorium.  It got a good reception.  I've lost it, but it was about a woman named Darlene who goes to hell, where she meets the Devil; she's terrified, but she's forced to endure the Devil reading off a long list of all the bad things she's done.  When she tries to apologize, the Devil cuts her off, telling her that redemption is the other guy's bit.  Then the Devil offers Darlene a job, telling her that he likes her style and he thinks she's got a real future in front of her.  The scene, all told, lasted about seven minutes.

Whitehead asked me to give him some of my stuff, whatever I thought was my best.  I dutifully dumped at least a hundred pages of short stories and poetry that I'd written, this being my habit at the time ... and he took a week to get back to me.  He brought me into his office, a little room behind the stage, and he proceeded for about 15 minutes why I was fooling myself and that I didn't have a chance of ever being a writer.

Didn't work.  I mean, obviously, but I'm saying that it didn't work at the time.  I was furious.  I told him, a teacher, that he was "full of shit" (not sure if those were the exact words but there was swearing) and that he could read the book I was going to publish and choke on it.  I was 16 and I probably sounded hysterical, but I was incensed and I know I didn't cry.  At some point I got done telling him to fuck off in various ways and started to stage my exit, when he stopped me.

He explained that he hadn't meant it.  That he wanted to test me, and see if I really was serious about writing as a craft.  I was flabbergasted.  That scene in a Disney movie, where I grin and appreciate his little play and we become fast friends for life while he helps me become successful ... that didn't happen.

I hated Mr. Whitehead for a long time.

Meh.  He's probably dead now.  Today I think he had the right idea, but he really went about it the wrong way.  He had every right to read me the riot act, if he wanted to spare me a lifetime of banging my head against the wall in a hard business.  But he should have told me what made the business so hard.  He should have explained, in detail, what I would really have to do if I wanted to keep up with this thing.  He shouldn't have pulled any punches doing that.

Instead, he ensured that I'd never ask him for help.  That's not right for a teacher.

So, if I paint DMing as something that's really hard, that needs you to step up and really take a swing at it, and that makes you lose heart, well ... it probably wasn't right for you.  But this is me saying what you need to do to make this challenge.  I won't tell you directly, quit.  And I will help you, if you ask.  I'll give you all the tools that we can find.  I won't pat you on the head and say its going to be all right, no matter what you do, because it won't.  It is damned hard to DM well.  You should know that, up front.

But anyone who wants to, can learn how to do it.

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Moving Past Failure

"To understand failure, we must first understand our reactions to failure."
~ Sidney Dekker, The Field Guide to Human Error

From a young age, we're programmed that if we follow the rules, then everything will be all right.  This applies to things that are fun, such as board games and sports, just as much as it applies to anything else.  We learn, usually, not to cheat at games, because this makes the experience unpleasant for other people.

Most games that teach the process of playing are quite simple.  Virtually any child with motor skills can learn to play checkers.  A five-year old can be taught gin rummy or how to follow the rules at a waterslide.  Baseball as played by little kids just isn't that complicated, though some procedures have to be followed if we don't want children to get hurt.  Even "role-playing," such as pretending to play house and be superheroes has a logical rule set that kids make for themselves ... and all of this is well in place by the time a child is six.

Then along comes D&D.

It's clear that most players of the game recognize that "following the rules" will not ensure a good game, or even enable a bad one.  The reasons for that are clear and we don't need a follow up on this post ... but we should try to understand why our reaction to failure is so frustrating.

Some of that reaction relates to a human tendency to trust our memories.  When we remember how well D&D games seemed to go when we were young, when we were having so much fun, we shape those memories to forget things we don't want to remember.  For example, that we were playing a simplified, clumsy game structured around not knowing what we were doing and not remembering a lot of the rules.  We weren't bothered by that, because we didn't realize we should have been.  We're bothered by it now, because we know better.  We've read the rules more closely.  We're acutely aware of rules that we forget in the moment, and that taints our perception of the games we play, after the fact.  We tell ourselves, "Next time, I'm going to remember that rule" ~ and that mindset makes us feel our DMing is more work than play.

The contrary is no better.  We tell ourselves that we're going to relax, and not be so anal about the rules ... and then a player brings one up and that starts a combination of guilt, resentment and indecision.  Off game, we wind up second-guessing ourselves about where this need to "relax" and not be "anal" starts and ends, sending us on tangents where we swear we're going to play the rules-as-written, only to realize months later that this inflexibility is killing our game and driving away players.

If you're 10 years or more into D&D, you've probably asked yourself, "How is it I still don't know how to play this game?  Why can't I make my mind up about stuff?"  Much of this comes from what you still expect to see, when your group sits down to play:  a bunch of 9-year-olds laughing and jacking around, getting into situations and having a rollicking good time.  You're getting older and smarter, but your vision of the game isn't.

And every time you get smacked in the face with this discrepancy, you're surprised.

Learning from failure is only possible if you can put together why you failed.  If players are not coming to your game, it is not them, it is You.  If the players you have refuse to take things seriously, or if your players are forcing you to play 5e and you hate it, You are enabling that behaviour.  If your campaigns don't last more than a few months, that is because the approach You are taking is subverting your game.

It isn't the game.  It isn't the rules or the conflict between role-playing and roll-playing.  It is the choices that you are taking as a DM, and the behaviour you are enabling.  You can choose to blame the system and your players; or that you haven't yet seen the book that really tells you how to play; but that is just you, saying what other people should have done.  Not what you should be doing.

You still believe that D&D's rules should, or even can, work the same way that rules work for checkers or waterslides.  You still think it's just a matter of ordering everything in a certain way, and then making everyone behave and walk in proper lines, so everything will work out.  It's not your fault.  You were programmed as a child to think this way.

But ... it's never going to happen.  D&D is too complex, it covers too much ground, there are too many variances and elements.  You will never be able to finger-point and error-count your way out of this mess.

If you want to get started playing this game properly in a rational, adult, non-sentimental way, you need to start with a set of rules that you intend to adopt and that you will Never Change, no matter what argument a player makes.  In doing that, don't use your own prejudices as a yardstick.  Be smart.  Choose rules that almost every player will accept ~ and then choke down your grievances and swallow those rules yourself.  Get over your quibbles and your bullshit, and recognize that by playing rules that most people accept, you will encourage a larger choice of players willing to play.  I'm speaking of your choice.  The more universal your rules are, the less dependent you will be on corrupted, troublesome players, enabling you to boot them and fill your table with people ready to play like adults.

In deciding this set of rules, get rid of any rule that requires an argument to justify.  If there is an endless flame war online surrounding that rule, play the way that doesn't need an explanation.  Play the way that gives more to the players, that produces less argument at the table.  Yes, yes, I get that you love that system, that you think it is a really good idea, that you would die on the hill that defends it ... but if you want players, be an adult here.  Burn the rule.  Burn the fucking thing to the ground.

Your preconceived opinions, that you think are based on reason or actual experience, that are not shared by your players or supported by something other than your bias and arbitrary belief, are killing your game.  It doesn't matter if that's how you played as a child.  You're not a child.  Neither are your players.

It doesn't matter what the rules say.  This is D&D.  You're not beholden to the rules.  You're beholden to your players.

Make them happy.

Monday, June 22, 2020

Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Gandalf

Here we go again, writing a post inspired by something JB at BX/Blackrazor said that got under my skin.  The inciting posts are this one and this one.

Getting the rant out of the way ...

I do not understand why this concept of "rememorizing" spells is such a burr in the sides of so many people.  It isn't as if having to learn something all over again isn't ordinary in today's world.  I haven't used integral calculus since High School.  I've forgotten nearly all the Russian, French, Latin and Greek I ever knew, and once upon a time I got Bs in those classes.  And besides, why, why, WHY all this carping about how something that doesn't exist doesn't conform to logic that doesn't exist?  It's magic, people!  If we discovered magic in the real world, and it involved rubbing a monkey against your naked butt and then making balloon animals, we'd do it however ridiculous it was because the magic would fucking work!  An argument that magic in D&D works ridiculously makes as much sense as measuring the ass of an angel to figure out how many can fit on a pin.  Can we not spend our time writing words more efficiently?

I suppose not, because I'm writing this post.

Okay.  A few caveats.  I don't run spells exactly like it's said in AD&D.  I do require mages and illusionists to rememorize spells; I expect clerics to pray for them; and I expect druids to meditate.  I have redefined "memorization" on my wiki, but that's not important.  The cost to rememorize a spell is 15 minutes per spell level (cantrips count as half a level).  And as a quick answer to some things JB said, a "dagger" is NOT a "knife."  Not remotely.  A spellbook only needs to be large enough to hold the number of spells the character has presently ~ at 1st level, this is just a small book.  At 5th, as the spells need more space and proliferate, the caster buys another blank book and wraps them both together with cloth.  The "big book" of spells relates to the very high mage who has taken the time and trouble to transfer all those old copies onto one massive tome, which sits in the library and does not get dragged across the landscape, because said mage teleports into the situation and teleports home to relearn said spells.

Shut up Alexis.  Stop ranting.

Okay, okay.  The meat & potatoes.

I appreciate the procedure of the spellcaster being temporarily denuded of spells, because it encourages reliance on classes who have relatively less power.  Because the fighter always has a sword, as long as he's awake, it helps mitigate the magnificent power of the spellcaster by giving them a "Dr. Jekyll" persona.  At one moment massively powerful, the next a soft, spongy vulnerable soul with a pointy dirk and not much guts.  The time spent having to regain the spells, refolding them into the spellcaster's mind, extends this Dr. Jekyll period sufficiently to make the caster dependent.  This helps build the party and mitigates the player's feelings that the caster "wins every battle."

An 8th level mage in my world will have between 26 and 30 cantrips, six 1st level spells, three 2nd level spells, three 3rd level spells and two 4th level spells.  Typically during a dungeon day, virtually every spell will be cast and about ten cantrips.  The total time to relearn all these spells = 34 levels = 8.5 hours.  Add to this time the caster must spend healing and resting, during which spells cannot be relearned, and we have a character who will very definitely Not use their spells frivolously.  That is what I want.  I am always speaking about how I have created rules that lower spellcasters to the level of fighters and thieves; relearning spells is a cornerstone of that method.

I was always getting into arguments with people who would explain how magic could accomplish all the world's productivity, as the spells could be cast every day and within a few rounds.  Well, unless caster want to spend all their free time staring at their spellbook, for the sake a few farmers who could bloody well go out and hoe the field themselves, as they have nothing else of importance to do, spellcasters are going to find something better to do with their time.  I like that, too.

Additionally, since a cleric is going to have to wedge nearly two hours into the schedule of praying to their god exclusively to get their resurrection spell back, because the miller's son doesn't know how a waterwheel works, there's going to be a pretty strong pushback against using the spell just because it is there.  It gives good reason for the cleric to ask, "And why should I raise this lout, exactly?"  A cleric high enough level to cast resurrection will have the responsibilities of a bishop or a cardinal.  Every try to get two hours of a bishop's time, just because you have something you want?  Good luck, buddy.

I could give a rat's ass for the logic of whether or not rememorizing "makes sense" from a theoretical "this is how magic works" point of view.  I care about how it works in the game procedures of my setting's design.  Mages, as written in the books, need hamstringing.  This is a perfectly reasonable, comparable, acceptable way to do it and I have never had a character complain.  After all, there has to be some cost to having all that power.

Friday, June 19, 2020


It annoys the hell out of me when I see people bitching about superhero films.  Compared to the wide, deep, incomprehensible stream of garbage movies pouring out of Hollywood in these past ten years, at least superhero films have straightforward stories, applicable narratives and unique characters.  Yes, some are garbage, like the two Ant-man films, but for the most part when I sit down to watch one, I know I'm not going to be bored or pushed to adopt a social political agenda.

Be warned, I'm going to embed a piece of one that I know the gamer-boys hate:

Recently, talking about what skill set a player acquires when playing D&D over several years ~ real D&D, not adventurers league shit ~ a reader proposed that the skills are those related to executive functions.  Wikipedia defines these as attentional control, cognitive inhibition, inhibatory control, working memory and cognitive ability.  In simpler terms, listening, focus, self-control, holding information well and multi-tasking.  I think this is 100% true, but that this is supported by one other thing: the strength to ignore failure and keep going.

Some will take it as trite, but a fundamental narrative beneath all the Marvel films is that these people were capable, intelligent and heroic before they were enhanced with powers.  This narrative seems to get lost in the complaining and bitching that superheroes apparently exist in the universe to solve all our problems.  Yeah.  Who the fuck do you think is solving all your problems right now?  You?  Or some person who has decided to sacrifice their fun and leisure time in Mother's Basement to take on a 75-hour a week job digging the world out of the shitpile it's in?

The writer was careful to write the character of Carol Danvers as someone who had been taking hits and getting up again before she became a superhero ... just like you're free to do, if you've got the resolve and the willingness to overcome pain.

I appreciate the hurt that comes from losing a character, or having your game plans exploded in a few minutes by a bad die roll.  But the people who pretend to be heroes, but cannot be heroic enough to put on a game face when their character dies, or when Jerry gets the +4 sword in the toss and not them, are pathetic.  The game as written is tough, babycakes.  Shut the fuck up and grow a pair.

Thursday, June 18, 2020

Beyond Concrete

[You can read today's post on The Higher Path here]
[You can read today's post on Authentic Adventures Inc. here]

I wonder that people have conversations about whether or not D&D is played to get experience and levels.  It is precisely the sort of distraction that indicates a human inability to express itself where it comes to abstract things.

Of course we don't play to rack up numbers.  Even the people who say they play for that reason don't.  No one plays Monopoly to buy properties; no one would say they play baseball because for the sole reason that they like to catch balls or make base hits.  We don't play chess to take rooks.  We don't play golf to successfully hit out of the rough.  These things matter, obviously; they are part of the game's play.  But we don't play expressly for those reasons, nor does anyone ever think that we do.

The very fact that this conversation about experience comes up often is indicative of our inability to express why we do play.  Barking alien says, "I play to explore an idea, create a personality, and to follow my character's story."  Unquestionably, I sincerely do not discredit this.  These things are, themselves, facets of the game and not the reason itself.  It is an attempt to take something that is essentially inexpressible and put it into some sort of box that we can grasp in our minds.  The same happens when we say we play for fun or for the companionship of our friends, or for problem solving or for any of the things we see people on line writing.

There is a condition within that says that until we explain ourselves, we haven't given others a legitimate reason for our obsession or infatuation with a given thing.  Sometimes, when we're caught up with something that overwhelms us, or which we understand affects us more greatly than other people, we find ourselves looking for phrases as though we're a lawyer explaining our case in front of a judge.  We want others ~ even others like ourselves ~ to understand how deeply we care or think about a thing, and we search around for descriptions that will somehow decode our feelings into hard, concrete evidence.

That's natural.  It is also unnecessary.

The largest things in our lives defy description.  And they should.  We shouldn't ever feel that we need to explain why we do the things we love.  We wouldn't expect to be able to explain why we love our partners; or what the country we live in really means to us.  We can't hope to explain why we've chosen to believe the things we do ... and no one, ever, expects us to.  Unless they have some absurd complex, they're willing to accept these things about us on principle.  You love your husband.  You love your country.  I'm not going to put you through an interrogation asking why.  That would be ridiculous.

All right.  We love D&D.  Who cares why?

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Throwing Shit at a Wall and Hoping for the Best

Following up yesterday's post, I got a comment from JB of BX/Blackrazor, that in turn led to this 2002 article from the WOTC,  the very same year that Ryan Dancey got turfed from the company (taking JB's word on that).

I don't know how much business-talk gibberish you've personally encountered in your life; I've encountered a lot, particularly during the unhappy time I worked for a $30-billion company.  Dancey's pulling a rabbit out of a hat here, hoping that what worked for an industry utterly unlike his own will work for him:
"In about twenty years ago, a guy named Richard Stallman was a grad student at MIT. During his time there, he participated in a community of software developers who shared code between themselves and were at the cutting edge of computer programming. When those people started to leave the university and go into private enterprise, they stopped being willing to share their code, because the standard corporate philosophy is to keep secrets rather than share them.
"Stallman thought that was a mistake. He feels that the best way to get good software is to let everyone see the source code, and be able to make changes to that code if they think the changes necessary. Stallman in fact considers this a "natural right," up there with the right to free speech, the right to assemble, and the right to practice a religion. He's a little on the extreme side, but he has been proven (at least partially) correct."

Whereupon Dancey then clumsily tries to apply this logic to the development of D&D, apparently being confident that once open content is released, it will be like a magic spell that rejuvenates the creativity of D&D game design.  I want to stop for a moment and say that yes, open source design definitely works.  It worked for Europe and Western Civilization after the invention of the printing press, which enabled people everywhere to see the work that other people were doing and then build on that.  We certainly don't have to pull up Linus Torvalds and Richard Stallman to prove that.  On some level, I grant that it is an important way of looking at things.

But Torvalds and Stallman didn't just throw doors open.  They had a vision of what they wanted to accomplish.  They understood when to shut that door against cranks and incompetents and they knew what wouldn't add to their vision.  Dancey here has NO vision.  He doesn't know what D&D should be or where it should go ... he's hoping the grass roots will tell him.  His approach to what to publish is scattershot thinking.  They're going to learn something from Palladium, Warhammer, Rolemaster, Diablo and Everquest.  They're going to create a "new" book of creatures, spells and magic items, as if THAT hasn't been done all through the 1990s.  He has No Ideas.  Not of his own.  Dancey is a business manager.  He might as well be selling Lawn Furniture, Bathroom Fixtures or Women's Panty-shields.  Business is business.

In the video I linked yesterday, in the part where Nicholas Means is describing the Skunk Work's design of the U-2, there's an important lesson for every designer (22:22 in).  The CIA knew that what the U-2 could do, spy on Russia, had a window of practicality ~ about 18 to 24 months, before the Russians would figure out how to shoot it down.  So they didn't sit around making a bunch of these planes and resting on their laurels.  They immediately started a new and better design that would replace the U-2 before that practicality ended.

Companies that do not do this go out of business.  And good fucking riddance.

A company as old as TSR/WOTC was in 2002 should not have still been making splat books with creatures, spells and magic items.  They should not have been employing people who brought these ideas to meetings.  They should not have been thinking about what they could learn from companies that had never had the participation level of D&D.  If necessary, Dancey should have laid off everyone not directly connected with revisioning the company, brought in some game experts and spent time determining what future D&D needed to be.  Not more rules, not more junk, not a reinvention of the wheel, not emphasizing that D&D had been a far, far better game in 1979 than it was in 2002 by releasing more material from the past and proving that point to a wide number of their customers.  But he didn't do that.  And he was rightly fired.

What we have now IS a vision for the new D&D.  One that works ... for the company.  A gutted, infantile, simplistic, minimally scaled version that enables 10-year-olds and adults with the mental capacity of 10-year-olds to play the pretend games they liked when they were 10.  And it sells.  It sells great.  It translates well to cheesy low-budget productions that advantage quirky personalities in the late Youtube age, it translates well to brick-and-mortar game stores eager to keep afloat but bringing in customers and selling them candy and energy drinks along with plastic swords, dice and character sheets.  It translates well with DMs who don't want to design and with players who don't care.  And right now it is one of the few departments that is keeping a failing, collapsing Hasbro barely afloat.

What it doesn't have is a future.  Despite every effort, American toy sales aren't going to turn around and Hasbro will go under.  Youtube is changing into something glossy and expensive, and clearly what we're seeing online related to D&D isn't keeping up on viewer numbers.  So don't count on too many more seasons of your favorite D&D web series.  Brick-and-mortar stores are definitely going to die.  Sorry.  There's just so much pop you can sell and Covid is seriously going to execute a lot of them right out of the gate.  This will be a huge part of the WOTC's getting young kids hooked on D&D crack with their parents approval not working as well in 2023 as it did in 2018.

Likewise, we can count on No One at the company working diligently to build the visionary plane that will replace the D&D equivalent of the U-2.  I have no doubt that the company has, thinking it had built something sustainable, begun to realize that it isn't.  And that a few people are starting to sweat at night realizing that time moves on and D&D isn't.

D&D needs a new direction.  And I don't think anyone working there has the slightest idea that it does, much less what a new direction would be.

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Kelly Johnson #1

[You can read today's post on The Higher Path here]

"The Skunk Works" was the name for Lockheed Martin Advanced Development Program, known for developing the U-2, the Blackbird, the Nighthawk, the Raptor and the Lightning II.  A good account of the progress of the company can been seen with this video.  The heart and soul of the skunkworks was Kelly Johnson, certainly one of the most brilliant men in aviation history.  During his tenure, he built up a list of 14 rules and practices, which have since become famous among designers in many fields.  On first glance, these rules may seem to have no application to the design of D&D, but there you would be wrong.  Everything good and everything bad that has ever been applied to RPGs comes from following or ignoring the sentiment behind these rules.

Take number 1:
The Skunk Works® manager must be delegated practically complete control of his program in all aspects. He should report to a division president or higher.

What does that mean?  Well, to start with, the DM is the Skunk Works manager, Not the company that designs D&D.  If this isn't clear, then watch the video linked above and compare the relationship that Kelly Johnson had with Lockheed Martin.  It was absolutely necessary that LM had to back away and leave the Skunk Works to operate freely and on its own, if the team responsible for the design could have the freedom to work hands on.  There is nothing worse than a manager who doesn't know what the hell is going on, who nevertheless feels it is their job to intervene.

Repeatedly, the WOTC has felt that it was its responsibility to solve the game problems that were cropping up with the WOTC's designs.  Those designs were repeated failures at what they were meant to accomplish ... and this is because every design was fundamentally reactive in structure.  Rather than approach the game itself with a pure, focused vision, from the late 1970s on, as D&D grew rapidly in popularity, both the first company (TSR) and the second felt that it was their role to "fix" the problems of its customers, rather than grant the tools to those customers who could then fix the problems themselves.  This resulted in a repeated reinvention of the wheel, which is Still broken and Still needs fixing.  Whereas there are thousands of DMs who have turned their back on the company and set about fixing it themselves, who are now running tight, workable, effective games without any further need of assistance.

I'm saying that the company has tried to lead this design project, when it should be following.  We are the skunk works.  All we really ask is that the company provide us with room and tools that will enable us to work independently.  Rather than trying to turn every game con into a sports olympics, where the participants are encouraged to conform to a single group of pre-designed adventures, a smarter company would set up a venue that would let hundreds of DMs come in and run their own games ... and then have members of the company observe, record and learn from what is happening in those games.

Or, at least, that would have been a good strategy 35 years ago.  Instead, the only participants at a game con are those who have already drunk the kool-aid ... and being poisoned, there is no chance that any of them will ever be able to design or teach anyone anything about this game.

What a resource wasted.

Monday, June 15, 2020

Better than Puzzles

[You can read today's post on Authentic Adventures Inc. here]

I hate puzzles in RPG game play.

These are a beloved part of the traditional game, but I absolutely feel that if anyone wants to improve their game, get rid of them.  They kill momentum; no action can take place until the puzzle is solved, if the puzzle is in the way.  They reward individual, instead of group achievement, as usually they are solved by One person, and usually the same person (one who has a mind that applies to puzzle-solving).  For every player who is fascinated and excited by the puzzle, four other players will be sitting around, silently and politely thinking, "I wish we could just get past this part."

I don't want players in my game thinking they're hating any part of my setting.  I don't need puzzles to gain their attention; I have far better options than puzzles; and fundamentally, people who like puzzles have hundreds of other game sources than can turn to if they want to scratch that itch.  RPGs are not predicated on the inclusion of puzzles.

Some DMs gets a facile sort of thrill from inventing puzzles that they do not have to solve; but which, during game play, feeds the DM's ego in that the DM knows the solution.  I cannot see any other motivation for a DM defending the use of puzzles.  I myself don't feel any ego-boost.  When I tried puzzles, in my early games, I despised the time I spent waiting for the players to stumble through a solution ~ which I often had to give in some manner, through clues or outright, because the players would be stuck.  This was double the time wasted: first, 20-40 minutes of the players banging their head against the puzzle, and the fact that the puzzle served no purpose at all, since I had to solve it for them.  Because of this, I ditched puzzles from my game.  I have never had a player say, "Gee Alexis, I wish your game had more puzzles."

Many people misunderstand the structure and function of puzzle-solving in game play, confusing them with mystery solving.  Mysteries and thrillers function on a premise that even if you don't know the solution to the mystery, the narrative can still continue.  If a party is stuck in front of a door, because the puzzle for opening the door hasn't been solved yet, there is no narrative.  This is absolute death for the players.

With mysteries, a wide variety of people enjoy the spectacle of having someone else solve them.  We are happy to listen to Sherlock Holmes or Poirrot walk us through the mechanics of a murder, because solving the mystery ourselves is incidental.  Some may feel the compulsion; but most of us are comfortable as long as the mystery is solved by the end ... and we know it will be solved, because that is the contract implicit in the narrative.

An RPG mystery should work the same way.  So long as the players move through the narrative collecting clues, in whatever order, and achieving whatever pattern, the adventure should be constructed so that the mystery Will achieve its solution with the last piece.  This steals nothing from the player's experience.  Momentum was maintained, they did their part in gathering clues and braving dangers ... and the pleasure of anticipating the solution of the mystery is ultimately rewarded.  Insisting that the players "solve" anything is a waste of effort in design; and no part of the narrative's momentum should ever rely on the players' timeliness in this regard.  We need to get out of the headspace that the players are expected to be police detectives.

They may be detectives if they so wish ... but it is critically important that they don't have to be.  They should, so long as they act the part of Dr. Watson, enjoy the revelation Watson enjoyed without having to be the source of it.  After all, Arthur Conan Doyle understood clearly that his readers would not identify with the detective, but they Would identify with the doctor.

Take wisdom from that.

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Cancellation Jun 11th

I just want to drop a quick note; Tamara, my partner, had her first eye surgery today, for cataracts.  There were complications.  They were not able to complete the surgery.  We were scheduled for August, but we were able to get an earlier time due to a cancellation, with only two days warning.  That was Monday.  We saw the doctor yesterday, she had her surgery today and we are now seeing the doctor again tomorrow, to talk about the complications.  They were able to remove the cataract, but it was very large and they were not able to replace the lens in her eye.  She will need to heal first, before the second half of the surgery can be completed.

Because of these complications, I am sorry, but I will have to cancel the three posts that my schedule has listed for tomorrow.  This is simply realistic.  It was, unfortunately a heavy day of writing, that I had hoped to fit in today, to have it ready, but circumstances are now past dire.  Tamara needs my full attention today and tomorrow.  I will resume my schedule on the 15th.

I don't want to make a habit of this; but hell, even Katy Perry cancels a concert now and then.

Take care.  We will too.

The Rolling Carpet

If I were to start a new world today, from scratch, knowing what I know now, and for some reason deciding I didn't want to run the Earth any more (though I can't imagine that), then I wouldn't start with a map.  Oh, I'd get to a map by-and-by, but I wouldn't start there.

I would start with a climate.  Of all the things that define a setting, I think the elements are the most powerful emotional consideration.  I would pick a climate and a specific season in that climate, knowing that I was going to run that season for at least two months of game time.  Thinking that, my mind goes to the setting scenes in films, with snow blasting across the landscape; the branches of trees as soaking rain drips under a dark, leaden sky; the raw, blazing sun cutting through a jungle canopy, so hot that steam rises from the surrounding waters.  I'd decide for myself, what sort of introduction do I want to give the players ... and then I'd build a settlement, or some obscure place, that matched the season.  A place on the edge of an enormous ocean, with the party waking up to find their ship's boat is floating in a lagoon; that the storm has subsided and the ship they had taken passage on is gone ~ sunk or lost over the horizon.  They don't know what this is; a beach covered with dead trunks and fronds, a forest of sago palms, the crystal blue water of the lagoon and nothing in their possession but a few trinkets hanging about their necks.

Is this an atoll?  A continent?  Should they wait to be rescued?  The sun is short of zenith; it's morning, and yet the air is so thickly humid that it suffocates.

I don't need more than this.  I don't need more story.  The tale of shipwrecked peoples, forced to explore their surroundings, survive, make their own technology and wrest themselves from their struggles is as old as time.  There are still beasts to fight, still peoples that can be met; there are still tales of Conan to be played from this beginning, or Tarzan or the Swiss Family Robinson.  The scenes and strangeness of the land beyond the palms could rival Mars, with the party playing the part of John Carter, adapting themselves to the rules of culture and mystery they discover.  As they cut their way further and further into the wilderness, looking for emancipation and a return to civilization, they meet more and different peoples, some friendly, some not.  The party collects weapons, riches, allies, greater skills and mastery of their character classes ... while I design the world like a rolling carpet in front of them.

I have been asking folks, what is the purpose of the setting?  What function does it serve?  And the answer I receive is a mixed understanding that the setting feeds itself, it develops a life of its own ... and it serves as a place where adventures happen.

I don't believe the setting provides a place for adventures.  I believe the setting is the adventure.  And that it has to be designed that way in order to achieve its full functionality as a game structure.

Monday, June 8, 2020

"Yes, Billy. The d20."

[ You can read today's post on The Higher Path here]

Since I've had this in every campaign I've run since dinosaurs walked the earth, I'll bet you have it too.  There will always be players who can't remember which die to roll, including the "to hit" die; or what die they use for a short sword; or what armor they're wearing, without having to check it every time; or what their spells are; or any of a hundred other things, that are sure to drive you crazy as a DM.

Here's what I've learned to do about it.

You can't change people.  You just can't.  And therefore, there's no point in getting mad at them, or demanding that they remember things, because they won't.  They will say that they're sorry and they will promise to do better, but they won't.  The first rule, then, is to accept that whatever happens, you're not going to get this player on board with your plan to teach them, once and for all, what die to roll.

Accepting this will bring you serenity.

In general, I've chosen to memorize as much as I can about everyone's player character: what level they are, their proficiencies, all their stats, their spells and their equipment.  Yes, there will be gaps; but I believe, between them and I, at least we're closer to having the whole picture than just relying on them.

I encourage them to ask me.  It is annoying to watch the player stare at a pile of dice, trying to remember to select the d8, or even what a d8 looks like (many players cannot distinguish a d8, apparently).  Better to let them ask me, at least twice a combat, "Which die do I roll?"  It saves time.  If possible, I encourage these players to sit next to a player that knows what a d8 looks like, so they can pick the die out of the pile and say, "Roll this."  Politely, obviously.  Everyone should be polite.

In my time as a DM, I have probably answered the question, "What armor class am I with chain mail and shield?" something like 2,000 times.  I talk in my sleep, and my partner will assert that, yes, I have been known to wake up in a frenzy, shouting, "Four!"  This may be the reason.

It is my job, I believe, to answer every question the players ask, no matter how many times they ask it.  I do it politely because this saves time.  Were I to shout, "Remove fear!  Your other goddamn spell is remove fear!  Why the fuck can't you remember that?" over and over, it would just be a very large effort on my part.  That's 16 words.  Instead, I can say only two words, "remove fear," the eight times I'll need to say it over three runnings, with the same amount of effort.  Efficiency.

Honestly.  If you allow yourself to expect too much from your players, you're just making the task of DMing much harder on yourself.  Don't do it.  If you answer their constant questions coolly, gently and as often as they are asked, as though you've not heard these questions asked two or three hundred times already, you'll seem like the considerate, parental DM you really want to be.

And you'll amaze them with your memory.

A Different Start

[You can read Sunday's post on The Higher Path here]
[You can read today's post on Authentic Adventures Inc. here]

Recently I've been considering ways to break the usual script of the first game session: namely, the players gather themselves together at a tavern, strike a bargain with a stranger and head off for an adventure.  Suppose I asked a group of players to approach the opening game differently.

There are three or four of you, brothers or first cousins, your education paid by a great uncle.  This uncle has done this out of his concern for your fathers and mothers ... and he has sent you back home with a few coppers in your pocket, two days provisions and the shirts on your backs.  You haven't a decent pair of boots, you haven't weapons or armor; the mage in the party is proud he has a spellbook.  And so, with no where else to go, you've come home to the little group of farms that make up your childhood.  There isn't even a village nearby; the nearest one is ten miles away.

And so, for food, for lodging, for the love of your parents, for a month you've accepted this lot in life and you've been working hard to help plant the spring crops.  There's much more to do ... and you recognize that your fathers seem a lot less able and healthy than they were ten years ago when you left.  In fact, there's a good chance that one of them isn't going to make it through the next winter.

Now, I know that most players won't accept that kind of responsibility from a game, but I ask the reader to consider how a game like this might be run.  Suppose you were to accept responsibility for your family: not just your parents, but your sisters and cousins too.  And suppose you found yourself with a little more to handle than a farmer usually would: the unexpected arrival of some large creature, for instance, chasing your little sister along the road as she fled back to the house.  You have nothing but a rake to fight it off.  You shout at your sister to hurry and get cousin Abram, while you back away from the creature and play for time.  Abram has a great spell for this.  Then again, Victor comes out of the woods where he's been picking mushrooms and sees you ... only there's a whole field between you and Victor ... and he hasn't even got a rake.

There are a nest of these creatures, as it turns out.  So you make clubs and prepare as best you can, warning your mother to keep the little ones inside for a few days.  Your father hands you a gourd of mead he made last fall and tells you he's proud of you.  "Come back safe, son," he says, then turns away so you won't see him break down.

If only there could be some sort of treasure, you think.  Then you could hire some men, so your father could stop working and live years longer; and Abram's mother could get the medicine she needs; and maybe cousin Grace could be introduced to a husband, since you could provide her with a dowry.  It's a pity these creatures seem somewhat dense.  But perhaps there is some bigger thing in the wood to be fought off.

You and your friends tighten their belts, pick up their make-shift shields and start off. 

D&D can start anywhere. 

Friday, June 5, 2020

Boils Down to One Argument

[You can read today's post on The Higher Path here]

I can't imagine a worse subject to write about in this time and place than the relationship between race and D&D.  Therefore, obviously, let's do this thing.

I've spent too much time lately on Twitter, mostly because the news and the feel for the American landscape there is far stronger and more vital that what can be found on the news.  While individuals are screaming about a need to end the present regime, the News still thinks the upset is about George Floyd and not the literally hundreds of civil rights abuses going on in as many cities.  If George Floyd was raised from the dead today, and For Whatever Reason chose to claim that the cop had committed manslaughter and not murder, there would still be reason to scream blue bloody murder.  But ... that's not what I want to talk about.

On Twitter, I follow POCGamer, or Graeme Barber, who always has a lot to say about the convergence between race and D&D, regardless of whether or not the race is a real one.  All race relations are, from Barber's perspective, stand-ins for the pervasive entitlement that exists among the majority white players of the game.  The fictional races are cardboard, two-dimensional reflections of the way that whites look at non-whites, and he is quite clear about this:
"... They ascribe half Orcs the negative stereotyped features of POC; they’re brutish, incapable of having or enjoying high culture, and violent by nature. Half Elves are the exotic, sexualized Mulattos of the game, there to be sexually desired and act as diplomats because of their inherent charisma. Both are denied “normal” lives, both are rejected by both sides of their families. Neither reflects what would, in a world with many such hybrids and a long history of it, be a normalized and routine part of any culture where people from different groups mix and mingle. Why? Because D&D worlds are segregated ones."

There's really no way for a white person to walk this argument back from this position ~ and that is the power of the racial argument.  If I dispute the right of the speaker to employ the argument above, then I'm a racist.  If I dispute the premise, then I'm an apologist.  If I ignore the argument, then I'm entitled.  My only option as a "good person" is to agree unreservedly with the argument, whereupon I become "entitled, but woke."

In no way and at no time do I come through this clean.

The argument is ridiculous.  The stereotypical nature of fictional races is due to their not being real, and therefore can never be written about at length by armies of anthropologists.  The "violence by nature" is a narrative trope, intended to satisfy the needs of the game to produce experience; it does not represent a political statement.  All sexual desire stems from these things because a creation of humans, their images as well, and humans naturally have sexual desire for humans and the products of humans, regardless of the political fundamentals of those products.  No one here is denied a life because no life exists.  The reflection is arbitrary and speaks more for the describer of the reflection that for anything in the content.  And no part of human culture from the beginning of its existence has been mixed and mingled to any extent closer than they are today.  This does not argue that we are mixed and mingled, but that we have Never been, and in general, in the past, it has been Way worse.  But "bad" is relative, no one can experience the pain of history, so we write the pain of the present in the largest letters possible because this is the pain that is happening to US.

All of this defines me, in absolutist terms according to Twitter, Facebook and Popular Culture, as an alt-right, fascist, elitist and probably ignorant Nazi stooge.  All because I will not repeat the words of another person, regardless of color, merely because they think I should, and they have the names to call me what they will when I do not obey.

I am not a fascist because I do not act like a fascist.  This is plain to anyone who has seen me function day to day, in person, around other people.  I am not afraid of being called a fascist, because sooner or later, everyone, everywhere, will be called a fascist because this is The insult that cuts most people deep.  Most people do not like to be called a fascist.  It hurts.  People avoid things that hurt.


For all of Barber's anger (as it seems to be) and sense of righteousness (written right there on the page), and likely pain (though I can't know for sure if he is a black man or no), he does not speak for me.  And his opinion of me, and my motivations for running a game world with non-humans in it, or what I feel politically about the world, is of no more importance to me than is the opinion of a man who IS alt-right, a fascist and a Nazi stooge.  I don't listen to anyone who builds a straw man out of me to cut it down ... and I don't care on which side of the political spectrum they stand, or how noble is their cause.  If they choose to create a man of straw in order to find justice in attacking my belief system, then they're wrong.

By definition.

I, a white man, run a racist world.  I do this because the world I know is racist.  Racism is wrong.  So why is my world racist, if that's wrong?  Since I am the supreme deity of my setting, why have I made my setting this way?

The Higher Path of D&D, the one beyond merely killing things and taking away their treasure, is the human experience of pitting Self against that which we do not think should be.  Not my self.  The Player's Self.  The players are entitled to fight for those causes they want to fight for.  I won't tell them how to do that; I won't shame them into fighting for causes I think are right and noble; I won't clear the road for them.  I won't judge them for their choices.  I won't encourage them to believe what I believe and I won't punish them when they don't.

I have no idea what a non-racist world looks like.  I have never lived in one.  Likewise, I've no idea what a non-sexist world looks like, or a world where no one starves, or where people are educated, or where every person acts like someone I'd want to know.  I have fantasies about this fictional, non-existent world ... but my fantasies are not the fantasies of other people.

And if I were to impose my fantasies on those of other people, for the sake of creating an "appropriate, positive political setting," then I would be committing the exact same sin that Barber and thousands of others commit when every political argument runs thusly:
Person A: Do you believe [statement]?
Person B: No.
Person A: Then You're a [label].

This describes at least three quarters of Twitter.  The rest is nice things people say to each other.

It is impossible for humans not to do this to each other.  Because we're human.  And trust is hard for us.  And we're much better at labelling people than we are at understanding them or counting them as complex.

But it's wrong.

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Stumbling Around a Place Called Wargla

[You can read today's post on Authentic Adventure's Inc. here]

If you're interested in finding the best details from history, take the following advice.  When you search the web, specifically search "books."  Set the tools so that you're only searching for those with a preview, and then under "any time," select "19th Century."

I chanced to be looking for information about a place in Algeria called Ouargla, or Wargla, and stumbled across this little gem:

This is from the Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society and Monthly Record ... Vol. 4 ... a real page turner.  It was a pleasant surprise to discover there were convenient ruins inserted right into the description of the town.  I could not find an image, but no doubt the ruins aren't much.  The best images I could find were stock photos from Alamy ... but they're not overly spoiled by the company.

I find that more than romantic enough to let my imagination wander.  The guns that are carried in the foreground promise this is 19th century; no doubt drawn by a French visitor.  The region was virtually untravelled by Europeans before 1800.  Wargla is in the true desert, 200 miles south of the Atlas Mountain foothills, and through most of the year it was unbearably hot to all but natives: above 120 F on many days.  That water would no doubt be welcome.

Finding information about an obscure place such as this is not an easy task; travellers do not write more than a dozen sentences, and rarely give an in depth account.  Imagination must be used to fill the gaps.  The town is a jumping off point for the desert, so there must be caravans coming and going.  The day is hot, so action must be found in the evening or before dawn.  I read that in the winter, some mornings are so cold that there is frost on the ground ~ which must be at least 50 or 60 degrees below the day temperature ... so when night settles in, it is as unpleasant to move about as it would be on a very hot day.

I conjecture baths, to keep some filth out of the drinking water.  Animals no doubt must drink at assigned places.  Strangers must have to bargain for water to refill their casks; and yet there are opportunities to obtain many strange and unusual luxuries, not to be found elsewhere: ostrich feathers, gold, coffee, sugar, spices, cloth, beads ... and ivory.  These things can be bought cheap and transported north.  Making arrangements with a merchant could also be the making of a lifelong friendship, if the deal is right and the player returns.  There are many opportunities to learn about near and distant places, as the denizens have little to do except lay in the shade and talk.  There is a long storytelling tradition here; and the desert is ever a land of magic.  But as I say, we will not find this in books.  We must insert our imagination.

I find this easy to do; and it is the reason why I fell in love with geography as a boy.  There is so much in the world, and so many ideas to be added to it.  When I chanced across D&D, I realized immediately that it had been made for me.

Tuesday, June 2, 2020

We are the Drifters

[You can read today's post on The Higher Path here]

Is there a point in arguing with stupid?  It's a good question.

At present, yes, I weep for D&D.  I loathe the company that has inspired this rhetoric, this fandom, this nerfed version of the game and the bleating of voices that have seized their opportunity to promote the company's stance for various reasons, most of them having to do with exploiting the game for money.


I maintain that D&D will outlast the company.  One day, the fandom will subside in favor of other, glitzier things.  The wave of young children who lack imagination or intelligence with rush away in favor of some thing that is invented out of 2020s technology.  The company, which has no loyalty or love for the game, will abandon it once it has ceased to serve the bottom line.  Once it does, the products will dry up.  Game stores will dry up.  Game stores are suffering the same extinction as all brick-and-mortar business.  They're all going to die, no matter what happens with D&D.  Yes, that's sad.  I'm 56.  I've seen a lot of things die.  I'm sad about all of them.

The end of game stores and the company will be the end of the Adventurer's League.  That will be the end of children learning to play the game from a business-inclined authority.  Children, thenceforth, will learn direct from people who play the game from appreciation, and not from the pursuit of money.

The end of the Adventurer's League will be the end of corporate sponsorship of Let's Play videos.  I don't expect youtube to survive the 20s anyway.  If it does, it won't look the same as it does now.  Corporate youtube video creation is squeezing out everything that isn't funded already, with content that is just as staid, just as bland and just as politically correct as what youtube replaced in 2005.

If there isn't money in it, there won't be a media for it.

When all the smoke clears, and all the mirrors are broken, it will just be us, still playing the game.  If there still is an internet, people will still find us and read us.

Ever read Fahrenheit 451?  It's our responsibility to withstand the stupidity; we don't have to win against it, because it will die in its own hubris.  But we do have to maintain standards and keep the public aware those standards exist, being true to the game we love, because we're responsible for this game's legacy.  We are responsible.  Because we want to be.

We don't need to argue with stupidity, no.  But we do need to confront it, condemn it and outlast it, if we want to be true to ourselves.

Monday, June 1, 2020

Description Writing

As I settle into writing out adventures officially (I usually just store them in my head for another day, another time), I find myself puzzling over the way that adventure descriptions came to be written.

The style was Gygax's or Arneson's ... and it has stuck with us for decades.  I'll give an example, from 1989's Dungeon Magazine #16, p.7:
White Brick Road.  From the back of the docks, a white marble path zig-zags toward the palace.  The path is perfectly safe to walk on, although the mists that drift upon it make it appear unsafe.  The path is 15' wide, built of white marble bricks.  It is smooth and level, and there are no penalties in combat when fighting upon the road.

In part, the style respects a minimum of space, since this is a print publication and we are limited by the realities of publishing.  This being 1989, most low-stream publishing, including many regional newspapers with runs of tens of thousands, were physically "laid out" on cardboard stock ~ literally pasting text to cardboard sheets, so they could be photographed.  The special camera was mounted so that the sheet was placed underneath and a perfect picture was taken of the whole page, though that might be as large as 24 by 36 inches.  I know, because I worked in just such a shop in 1989, connected to my university paper.  Later, in the 1990s, I spent more time in the business; it was a big deal in the late 1990s, when computers were able to do the lay-out on programs like Adobe and Publisher (this is where I learned my Publisher skills, in journalism, laying out my own newspaper 'Zines).  It revolutionized the print industry.

All publications before the 1990s followed a structure where each "page" in the magazine or newspaper was a double-page on each side, and a quadruple page counting the backside.  These were then cut and folded so they could be stapled together.  To see this clearly in your mind, think of the center page in a porno magazine; the staples could be taken out and this page could be removed and hung up as a poster.  Ultimately, all the pages in the magazine worked this way.  Magazine pages always came in multiples of 4: the Dungeon Magazine quoted above has 68 pages (64 numbered, then 4 more).

If a writer wanted to add a few more lines to a story, this was almost impossible after it had been laid out, unless an advertiser dropped out, someone's story hadn't been turned in or was spiked, or some in-house ad was pulled.  Space was, therefore, at a premium: and adventure features were written specifically to fit in this very narrow, inflexible medium.  [incidentally, to add a little space to the column is probably the reason why the words "white marble" appear three times in the description.

I'm going to print the paragraph above again, only now I'm going to put some of it into italics:
White Brick Road.  From the back of the docks, a white marble path zig-zags toward the palace.  The path is perfectly safe to walk on, although the mists that drift upon it make it appear unsafe.  The path is 15' wide, built of white marble bricks.  It is smooth and level, and there are no penalties in combat when fighting upon the road.

The parts italicized are information intended for the DM; the rest may be read verbatim to the players.  You're expected to understand the difference, though many DMs will just read it all ~ what harm would it do?

The adventure writing style is designed to put words In the DM's mouth, to make it "easier" to run the adventure.  This mouth-stuffing process encourages dependency; it's unlikely the DM will change the paragraph structure or enhance it (though many do, realizing that it's a good idea to further describe the mist or the drop, to build tension).  This instructional style, based on limited space and economical sentence structure, is pervasive throughout the entire industry, even though space is no longer limited.  We still write modules this way.

Except, I'm finding I don't want to.  I'm not interested in putting words in the DM's mouth.  Rather, I want to write To the DM.  I don't want to instruct what to say, but why and how it needs to be said.  Let me give an example:
The players will look around for a way to move beyond the docks; they'll find a safe, white marble path that's about 15 feet wide.  I suggest a mist that drifts over the path; suggest that this gives the impression that the path's surface is uncertain or even dangerous.  Hesitate a moment if a player just boldly walks forward; ask, "Are you sure?"  And if they agree they are, let them go ahead.  You can build up a little more tension with die rolls, but this is cliche; I suggest instead that you ask about whether their order is single-file or abreast, and how fast they're moving.  Once you get someone saying, "We carefully move up the road," you know you've got them.

This leaves the actual description of the road up to the DM's imagination.  This forces the DM to practice the use of their imagination, which makes them a better DM ... while at the same time, the module becomes a teaching tool, instead of something that supplies information by rote.

Sorry I didn't think of this sooner.  I'd have written this post years ago.