Friday, October 30, 2020

Why I Stopped Reading Sci-fi

Throughout the last century, I obsessively read science fiction ... what would now be thought of as classic sci-fi but which was then the mainstream.  For me, authors like Asimov, Heinlein, Zelazny and Bradbury defined bad science fiction in a way that ruined me for the sort of dreck being written today.  I've tried a few authors over the years; I've even slogged my way to the end of several novels, but without much pleasure.

For the most part, the writing in modern sci-fi is juvenile; the plot development as well.  No substantial risks are ever taken with the book's theme.  Usually it boils down to pap like, "racism is bad" or "cooperation is necessary."  These are themes that might be news to a 12-y.o., but thank you, I've digested these gems of wisdom already.  It's even worse when the plot, characters and general context of the novel resembles taking a modern day story and crossing out "car" and writing in "spaceship."

But the quintessential sort of bad science fiction -- and eternally the most popular form of sci-fi -- is any story in which a technology that is built turns on its master so that everything goes disastrously wrong.  For my money, 2001: a Space Odyssey is the supreme example of absolute garbage ever written and slapped onto film.  Of course it's popular.  It preaches the endlessly popular theme, "science is bad."  The theme that is at the center of climate-change-isn't-real, covid-isn't-real, too much computer use is toxic, cellphones are toxic, power lines are toxic, the world is flat, everything is a conspiracy and so on.  What is Hal?  A machine.  And what does Hal do?  Turns on mankind.  And oh, wow, so deep!  See, humans invented tools, and tools create misery, aha!  If only we had never created tools, we'd all be so happy now!  Thank you, Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

I'm certain that most readers here fall into two categories: those of you who have no idea who Rousseau was, and those of you who love him to death.  There might be a very, very tiny fraction of you who have read him, are familiar with him and recognize what a miserable, ignorant prat he was.  But I doubt it.  Voltaire thought him a prat.  Voltaire and I would have gotten along.

This is not, however, a post about Rousseau.  I learned a long, long time ago that people who love Rousseau are far past having any rational comprehension about the man's writing, while people who have no idea about Rousseau just don't give a shit.  If you're the former, fuck you.  If you're the latter, look up Rousseau on wikipedia and believe whatever you like.  If you're older than 25, and you haven't read Rousseau yet, you're sure to find him so unconscionably boring that I have little doubt you won't get far.  I read Rousseau's Confessions sometime when I was about 17, in high school.  Then I read a smattering of works by him in university, in my late 20s.  What a prat.

Rousseau died in 1778, well before the French Revolution that seized on his writings and used them to build guillotines and commit all sorts of atrocities in the name of "natural law" and "justice."  We can be quite sure that Mary Shelley, born in 1797, the future writer of Frankenstein, was fed a steady diet of both Voltaire and Rousseau.  I don't know who here has ever read Frankenstein.  I imagine most of you have seen one or more versions of the book committed to film, but let me rush to say that those are all way, way off the message in the book.  Usually, it's presumed that Frankenstein, the scientist, builds the monster, who turns on the scientist and then, as a monster, rampages throughout the countryside until he's destroyed.

Um, no.  For one thing, at the end of the book, both the scientist and the "monster" are alive (for one thing, the book is written by Frankenstein in 1st person; though I vaguely remember some postscript by the ship captain that might have said that Frankenstein was dead; it's been some years; maybe it's time to read it again).

Rousseau argued vehemently in his writings that human beings are naturally peaceful and kind, but that society makes them into monsters.  It is the famous and hopelessly wrong notion of "the noble savage," a concept that is still pitched today but has been proved wrong for only two centuries and a bit more.  Frankenstein is a novel about how a perfectly empty vessel of a creation is made into a monster by the truly awful way that it's treated.  Which then, faced with such ruthless injustice, acts as it is taught to act.  For those who haven't read the book, or who have read an expurgated version of it, the distinction might seem subtle.  For the remainder of my audience, the difference is staggering.

Frankenstein's monster is taught to be a monster, and so it sets out to wreak vengeance.  Hal is built to be a computer; it is in no way taught to be a monster, but it becomes one anyway, because ... well, because the author thought it would play better that way.  And it certainly did.  It played great.  It is really popular and really beloved ... none of which exempts the ridiculousness of the premise.

Nor does it excuse the decades of science fiction that is so, so anxious to get in on that sweet, sweet fear-mongering gravy that 2001 has made over the decades.  Fear sells.  And the irrational fear that we will build machines that will ultimately bring about our destruction sells best of all.  We can't open a science website anywhere on the internet without hearing shrill, terrified cries that A.I. is destined to dig our graves.  Of course, this stuff works best with ignorant, panicky people who haven't any personal experience with either science or technology ... which is most of the world ... and even scientists have a tendency to buy in because there is no such discipline as "science."  People in physics freak out about studies in neurology, while neurologists freak out about space; the astronomers sweat bullets about psychology while the psychologists lie awake at night worrying about contagious diseases.  Everyone in their own field is ignorant about every other, and so they're all ready to be sold on the science fiction horror scenario that's based on some flimsy concept not in their bailywick.  And thankfully, we have the internet to make sure we promote every terror every day.

Personally, I find it hard to convince readers that even a scientist, especially one that has a name popular enough that they will be encouraged to speak "candidly" on Big Think, is more likely to be promoting themselves in order to vie for grants and graft than they are interested in speaking the truth.  I mean, after all, if Max Tegmark is actually FULL OF SHIT when he talks about the terror-horror of A.I., what consequence does he face?  I can't think of a "leading scientist" today that hasn't shrugged his shoulders at some point and said, "Well, we can't predict the future."  Fair enough.  But why, then, do they spend so much time predicting the future whenever someone turns a camera in their direction?

In good science fiction, all the technology that's built works exactly like it is supposed to work.  The computers all function like machines, the robots perform the labours they're built to perform, the algorithms and formulas produce the results they were intended to produce.  It's the humans that fuck up and commit atrocities, not the machines and not the science.  It is made perfectly clear that Rousseau had his head up his ass and that technology and advancement have served to make our lives vastly better every step along the way ... and would have done even more if the dumb-ass, doom-crying dead-brained shitheeled selfish miserly greedy wrathful pig-ignorant humans might have been taken out of the equation.  In good science fiction, the heroes are those who use their education, intelligence and innovation to make fools out of the ignorant -- just as it actually happens, every day, in real life.  

Every day, trained and experienced doctors are saving lives and doing their level best to manage the terror-horror of this real disease ravaging the population, using every ounce of profoundly complex and effective technical equipment and innovation they can possibly lay their hands on.  The real crisis at present comes in two forms: (1) we don't have ENOUGH equipment, in the form of ICU beds and other innovations, to keep as many people alive as we ought to; and (2) we don't have enough trained, knowledgable persons in the medical field to manage an infectious disease on this scale.

A bad science fiction novel would invent some technological breakthrough that spread the disease and the disaster more quickly, promoting suffering and the deaths of hundreds of millions, feeding what the public fears to hear and wants to hear.

A good science fiction novel would have the experts cure the disease, only to find themselves restrained from saving the people by stupid people in power.  But it's okay, because the experts would then use their knowledge and reason to get around the morons and save the people anyway -- although that would require the writer to actually figure out a way to use knowledge to get around morons.

See, bad science fiction doesn't require any intelligence to write.  But good science fiction ... well, to write good science fiction, you have to actually innovate.  That's why we see so little of it.

Anyway ... I was supposed to be writing a post about why I don't employ the D&D game rule where golems have a percentage of getting out of control and slaughtering their creators.  My personal feeling is that golems ought to do exactly what they're built to do.  Full page here.

Thursday, October 29, 2020

Objectives I

In the first years after Dungeons & Dragons came on the scene, the problem of how to explain what the game is and how it's played proved to be a conundrum. At the time, it was a game unlike any other — and though many tried hard to wrap the concept up in a neat and tidy package, it was clear that D&D in its grand complexity would defy a simple explanation. Over time, efforts to describe the game reliably were replaced with efforts to sell the game to newcomers, regardless of accuracy. An aggregate answer arose that D&D was essentially "make believe," a simplification that was instantly understood by all. Unfortunately, it was also a simplification that was dead wrong. 

Make believe is a form of unstructured participation which seeks to express a child's whims and desires, almost entirely without restraint or any necessity to take problem solving into account. D&D is a staggeringly complex game in which structures and rules are fused delicately together. D&D is full of barriers and stumbling blocks that are deliberately put in place to frustrate a player's desires. 

When a player comes to believe that all their fantasies are there to be fulfilled by the game, only to discover that they must first problem solve and depend upon the whim of a die, and not their own will, the consequence is that the player is made to feel cheated and misled. Rather than appreciating the game's rules, players learn to hate them. Having been told that D&D is a game of escape, they quickly resent every set-back, every expectation that they should solve problems, every moment in which they are expected to show patience. Being promised that D&D is about acting out their selfish wants, they soon begin to act out selfishly whenever those wants are momentarily denied. 

As a DM, I do not run my game to fulfill the wishes of my players. I approach the game world as a difficult, dangerous, threatening place, which rewards risk and condemns entitlement. This is true regardless of the fantastic locations, strange creatures, magic items and treasures that are found along the way. Many books and pundits will praise D&D because it provides these things, like a smorgasbord just waiting for the player to come along and scoop them out in large heaps upon their plate. I praise D&D because it does not provide these things easily! Fantastic locations are sheer hell to reach and threatening besides. Strange creatures are not arranged like exhibits in a zoo — they are there to kill you if they can. Magic items are infuriatingly hard to find. And treasures ... these are in the hands of persons and beasts who will hold onto them until they are ripped from their cold, dead hands. The game world as a whole is not friendly; it is not a party; and it absolutely is not about players pretending that something is true just because they would have it so. 

Yet that is the message that is sent throughout the game community. The result of that message has been the creation of petulant players who demand more and more of DMs, who feel less and less in control of their games ... and thus, less and less inclined to put up with constant wheedling, ultimatums and clamoring asks from players who expect to do nothing to get their bottle.

Though often argued to the contrary, I hold that player characters are not the protagonists of a story. There is no "story," not as a predetermined narrative. The events that take place in the game are, and ought to be, a collection of moments like we experience in real life: things to do, places to go, problems to solve, ambitions to fulfill, all of it accomplished while traversing a winding, unexpected course to which meaning is assigned afterwards but which, in the moment, seems raw and incomprehensible. D&D ought to be about managing and enjoying the immediate, the here and now, with its hilarity, triumph, panic, desperate chance-taking and hope, peppered with relief and the appeal of something accomplished by one's own hand. A story may be diverting; it may have interesting ups and downs; but it is, essentially, only a story. 

D&D permits the player to confront events as though they were really happening; the events may be fictional, but the emotions attached to those events are not! Players really can know fear and exhaltation. They may not actually die, but they can feel the honest, prickly sensation of loss and remorse when it happens to their character. Much is made of the dangers of D&D being "too serious" ... yet no one suspends professional sports because a team wins and a hundred thousand fans flood out into the streets to light fires, turn over cars, break windows and start fights. D&D deserves to bring as much joy and bitterness as any other beloved activity, no matter what damaged participants might not have the wherewithal to bear the strain of that relationship. 

Therefore, upon creating their characters, players should not expect to be given directions or worksheets as to what is expected of them. They should have precisely what we have in life: a vague understanding of what we are able to do and a clear understanding that if we do not do it for ourselves, we won't survive. And one other thing: an appreciation that, unlike in real life, if our efforts and ambitions, and time spent, explode in our faces and leave us dead and dying on the battle field, it does not mean the end of our gameplay. We can brush ourselves off, value what we've learned, and try again. 

Players must understand that their characters are expected to live. Everything else is up to them.

Monday, October 26, 2020

The Leader First Before Others

This is different.  The organization imposed by the wiki upon my present design approach is causing me to tackle small issues like the below, that would normally be ignored.  I personally liked the original monster manual's reference to leaders, sub-chiefs and chiefs, as three levels of officers in a milieu that exists outside of present-day military labels.  I've never really sat down and tried to detail such persons from a character perspective before.  As I see it, the term "leader" can be used in its ordinary, every day sense, as we use it habitually, but it can also be used to describe a specific class of persons who have nominal authority in primitive clans and other groups.

It doesn't matter to me that others will see the above too limiting and restrictive, for reasons that are mostly gut-level reasoning.  For me, this makes it easy for me to group varying levels of persons, so that "sub-chiefs" are 3-5th level, "chiefs" are 6-8th level and "lords" are 9th level and more.  I'm comfortable with having a sub-chief fulfill a leader's duties, so I don't see the appellation as limiting at all.

Nor am I bound to considering only fighters.  My sage ability system allows a chance for any class to potentially cross-train into another class, so that -- paraphrasing of Chef Gusteau -- while not every member of a different class will be a leader, a leader may come from anywhere.  A mage may therefore lead a military unit without actually having to be a multi-classed fighter ... and I am just fine with that.

The page glimpsed above is intended to be the first in a long list of future pages describing members of varying professions and skill-sets outside the character class.  These will come up occasionally, amidst the considerable number of other pages I intend to write in the next ten years (which will make me only 66).  That I should have chanced to do the "leader" first is only because it is referenced a lot in the humanoid monster pages I've been creating of late.

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

There Is No Try

The extraction of oil from a well depends largely on pressure.  Oil is created by the pressure of rock on carbon deposits that were laid down in past eras when vast parcels of living matter were subsumed beneath the earth's surface; as the mass of rock presses down on this matter, it transforms it from loose organic material into the structure we recognize and drill for.  Historically, the process of drilling would break through the ceiling of rock overlaying a oil reservoir, releasing the pressure and resulting in a "gusher" ... which would then have to be capped off so that the oil under pressure could be directed into a pipe.

Much of this geological principle was misunderstood 100 years ago.  Drilling companies, knowing that one well can only pump the oil so fast, and that the faster the oil could be pumped the more money there was to be made, built hundreds of oil fields directly adjacent to each other upon the same field.  It was understood by the 1940s, after much pushback, that this mass employment of wells had the effect of releasing the pressure on a reservoir so quickly that the oil would stop flowing -- even though as much as 80% of the oil in existence still remained at the bottom of a well that could no longer be induced up the pipe.  No pressure, no oil.  As a result, untold billions of barrels were made inaccessible through the rush of greed and ignorance.

In the early 1980s, I worked as a statistical clerk for an oil company here in Canada, Gulf Oil, about the time it was purchased by Chevron.  I served in a very small department that was on the verge of expanding its importance, because something that had been called "enchanted recovery" was proving its worth.  Officially it was, and is, known as enhanced recovery.  This describes the practice of injecting a variety of materials, most notably gas and water at the time when I was a part of it, to build up pressure inside an oil well so that a larger portion of the reservoir can be obtained.  In the 1970s it was a joke among many long-standing professional petroleum engineers, but when has that not been true when insight employing existing technology overcomes a problem?  We have a tendency to believe that things will change when we invent a new gadget; but, in fact, things change when we think about them differently.

The process of change in this regard is scientific.  Here is the problem: there is a lot of oil at the bottom of the well that won't come up the pipe because the pressure is gone.  Solution, introduce pressure.  If we can pump up, we can pump down.  Pump enough pressure into a well and the oil can be forced up; and we can sort the oil from the material we've pumped in afterwards.  Yes, it's more expensive, but we'll get more product and so long as it's still profitable, it doesn't matter.

It's this last that breeds doubt.  How can something so complicated possibly be profitable?  Ah well, so goes the story.

Science dictates we propose a hypothesis.  Normally, scientific investigation is about learning how the world works.  Scientific engineering, however, is about how the world could work.  So the hypothesis becomes, "We want this thing to happen -- can we make it happen if we do this?"  From there the procedure is the same.  Create an experiment, perform the experiment, draw a conclusion, propose a new hypothesis.  Nor does this stop when we start producing oil profitably.  It keeps going, as new generations of engineers build new models and draw further conclusions.  The whole point of the scientific method is that there is no end goal ... it is an eternally cyclical process.  This is why it has gone on kicking the crap out of belief systems once it was truly embraced by enough people, these past three hundred years.

All this has been to emphasize the relationship we have to problems that result, either naturally or through human behaviour -- in this case, a bit of both.  There's no reason to think humans could have possibly understood the nature of oil-producing geology without first making these mistakes.  We're not gods.

Successively, when meeting problems for hundreds of thousands of years, human beings self-select into those who die from the problem, who cope and manage the problem, and who solve the problem.  This last is a tiny, tiny proportion of the others; and there is a tendency among solvers to see themselves as superior, since when they act as they do, the problem goes away.  Because of this, solvers have a tendency to become a subset of enormously smug, intrinsically awful monsters, encouraging quite a lot of the population to believe that they'd rather have the problem than put up with these misanthropic pigs.  This is, arguably, quite reasonable.

As enhanced recovery was explained to me, so that it was possible for me to do my job, and as I explain it to you, the scientific method at play is called education.  This is a proposal that we don't have to put up with problem solvers feeling so entitled and irreplaceable, if we simply guide more human beings away from self-selection as ignorant and towards purposeful reasoning.  Surprisingly, the push-back against this reasoning is so polluted by such crippling bitterness against people who know things that even wanting to know things is considered reprehensible.  If we want to point at a self-destructive characteristic in the human species, one that is sure to end in the horrible deaths of billions of people, we should point out that education is seen as a terrible, abusive thing.

It doesn't help that much of the advancement in education in the last hundred years has meant the disparagement of experts (you know, those pricks) and their "facts," in favour of organizing schools as a political tool by people who are more concerned with teaching children how to be ignorant than how to solve problems.  But let's shelve that, shall we?

I settle in to educate the reader because I want the reader to solve problems -- though obviously I'm accused of doing it for my aggrandizement.  My particular subject is role-playing games, not oil extraction.  Because of this, the "problems" I describe are considerably more fuzzy, making it much easier to argue that these are not problems at all (thus the quotes I'm using) but are, in fact, miscues of my creation in order that I may use them for my own aggrandizement.  Looking back at the history of this blog, it is this misunderstanding that defines my personal sense of failure.  I have spent a great deal of time attempting to solve the problems I've faced as a DM, and which I see others facing every time I see anyone talking about this game.  Yet I have not remotely succeeded in convincing many people that there are problems ... and that these problems can be solved.

Consider.  There are forty years of oil drilling between the industry arriving at a consensus about the geology underlying the industry and the re-introduction of that pressure.  During that time, considerable advancements were made in oil conservation:  getting rid of the gusher process, so that the well was capped before the pressure was released; less rigs per acre of field; carefully pumping oil so that the pressure of a reservoir would be lost more slowly.  The science underlying petroleum technology made the study of pressure central to the industry -- and it made concepts like enhanced recovery inevitable.  But there were still a lot of people in that industry who turned a blind eye to the idea that the oil industry could and would be something very different from what it had been in the 1940s and 50s.  Even experts have to be dragged along, once they decide to stop educating themselves or letting others do so.

We are 40+ years into the development of role-playing techniques.  Most of those techniques have been unchanged since the 1970s, and have intrinsically been embraced as, "Normal."  The development of video game technology swamped TTRPGs, so much so that we still find ourselves reading articles about the success of the latter as though it's a marvel that anyone even still plays table-top.  Theoretical game-design textbooks largely ignore role-playing.  I could make a career for myself merely by buying design books, like that I lately quoted from Tynan Sylvester, in order to rewrite them solely from a table-top role-playing perspective.  Sylvester spends nearly 80 pages speaking about the relationships between soliciting emotions through games ... without one mention of a DM.  I could simply rewrite that section of the book using my DMing experiences and publish it.  There isn't one word that Sylvester writes that can't be found in standard psychology; he's just taking that psychology and interpreting it for games.  I'd only be doing what he's doing.

As a result of these forty years of doing the same thing, we don't question that the same thing is the "right thing."  As a group, experts in RPGs shrug off most user questions with handwaving, nonsensical advice, that is accepted whole cloth because, well, that's all that's out there.  Have trouble controlling your group?  Relax; don't try to force things; let the game evolve comfortably.  The players don't seem to engage with what you're doing?  Try to make your game more interactive; people want to feel they can relate to what the game represents.  I'm not liking the skill system for this game.  That's okay, we have a different skill system you can use from this other game.  General complaints, general answers.  Around the circle we go.

Therefore, while I sit and propose that character backgrounds, encumbrance tables and trade systems solve "problems," the reasonable response is that these are not problems felt by the general population.  DMs have issues like the player's disinterest; or inability to focus; or their personal sense of not feeling they know how to run the game at all.  When they try to add to their games, as James referenced in this comment, there's resistance.  They struggle with the pace of their stories or their means of refereeing their players' actions.  They don't know what to do when a bad die roll destroys their plans and expectations; they haven't all that much skill at narrating and they aren't able to keep the many elements of the story or the repercussions of the players' choices in their heads at the same time.  They create puzzles, only to watch the players struggle for hours with them, ruining the game's momentum.  They simplify these puzzles and the players blow past them, so that having the puzzle seems trite and pointless.  They find the players won't explore; or they don't get excited when it's expected; or they just don't care.  They hate the character creation process; they hate combat; they hate role-play; or each one hates one of these and so there is always a complaining background drone in every session.  These DMs are at their wits end.  But then they watch other DMs going through the same thing, having the same troubles, feeling the same frustrations, and it convinces them, maybe these really aren't "problems."  Maybe I'm no different from anybody else.  Maybe this is just how the game is.

There are more than enough voices out there to say, "That's right.  This is how the game is."

When enough people argue, "We shouldn't expect to get more than 60-70% of the oil that's in the ground out; that's how the industry works" ... then corporations make their plans, assess their bottom lines, starve out research and development and stultify the industry for decades, all as a matter of course.  The tiny number of voices that complain are shunted aside, silenced or mocked.  In business terms, they're defunded.  Investigation into enhanced recovery went on in Western Canada solely because of the kind of fields that are here.  There is a lot of oil in Alberta; but not in the big, shallow pools it forms in places like Arabia or Texas.  Because of that, R&D found a place here -- not just with regards to methods like enhanced recovery, but because of the tar sands as well.  They drill a lot more oil in Texas than here; but they send everyone here, to learn how to do it better.

Maybe, I'm just another Albertan outlier.

Those issues I described above, about refereeing and bad die rolls, narration and motivating players, I don't have any of those.  Oh, I encounter unmotivated players; and players who make it about them, and players who bitch and moan about stuff.  But these are not problems for me.  I solved such things more than 35 years ago and for that reason, I don't think about them much.  Most of them relate to things like having the wrong sort of people as friends, or being unable to stand up for oneself, or holding politeness and mutual respect as more important than game play.  I can go to any bar and strike up a pool game with all sorts of loathsome characters.  But the better the bar; the better the management of that bar; the more respect I will receive from total strangers I meet there.  It isn't random; it's decency.  The rest, things like puzzles and poor game systems, which don't work out and all, I solved by getting rid of them.  The solution to a drug problem is not a different kind of drug.

I know every one of those problems and I know the solution.  I have expressed those solutions hundreds of times on this blog.  But if the DM hasn't the will or the education to employ those solutions, in part because they haven't learned the game cold or they haven't the nerve to stand up when people act rudely or indecently, then obviously, none of my solutions are going to work.  Supposing I teach you how to run, and how to make good habits, and what those good habits are, along with the bad habits that complement them ... that doesn't do a bit of good if, where the rubber meets the road, you haven't the knowledge, the conversational skill or the raw pluck that it will take to kick out a player who habitually ignores you, monopolizes your game, disregards your house rules or emotionally abuses your other players.

That's very cold and unempathic.  That's just the way it is with us problem solvers; we are all a bunch of smug, self-satisfied entitled shit heads.  Every one of us.  I am a monster.  I am one of the bad people.

My failing as a teacher is that I fail to take account of the fact that not everyone in the world is like me.  I'm not alone there.  But I suppose that people like me often feel that it isn't something intrinsic in who we are or how we were raised, but that we came around to thinking and acting as we do because it seemed necessary at the time.  As such, there's a belief structure at play that says other people can get to the same place we are, if they'll just recognize the steps and accept them as necessary.  We have a bad habit of seeing ourselves in some situation like crossing a river to safety.  Someone throws us the harness, we shuffle into it without a thought, hooking it up at once; and we throw ourselves into the river without wasting time.  Then, safe ashore, we watch the rescuer throw the harness to our companion and hear them cry out plaintively, "I can't do it!"  Encountering that, the rescuer has empathy; the rescuer will say the things that will help the victim get into the harness.  But those like me stand there agog, disbelieving, thinking, "What the fuck?  Don't you want to live?"

That's a failing I have.  I want to be the rescuer.  But I am a lousy rescuer.  I haven't the patience or the wherewithal to handle people who cannot pack up their own shit and carry it out.  That is why I find myself throwing out horrific, misanthropic phrases like, "If you can't do it, quit," or "I'm not your mother."

The rescuer will get the hapless person across the river.  Yet in my philosophy, there's always a part of me that says, it just means the next river will get them.  I can't imagine what motivates an emergency worker to rescue the same drug addict four times from overdosing.  But in that, I see exactly why it's a good thing that more people aren't like me.  I do know what it's like to be so laid up I can't rescue myself.

So.  What's the hypothesis here?  What's the experiment?  Like Jules, do I try real hard to be the shepherd, or do I finally accept that I'm not really about rescuing people, I'm about talking to my own kind and screw the weak?

I'm still working on that one.  Right now, the hypothesis is to stop sitting on the fence and pick one or the other.

Monday, October 19, 2020

Catch is a Bug

Let's talk about catch.

Tynan Sylvester, in his book Designing Games: A Guide to Engineering Experiences, describes the game of catch as an opportunity for two people to participate in a joint activity that keeps them physically busy, while allowing them to talk.  Traditionally, a father and his son participate in throwing a baseball back and forth, because it gives them something to focus on when the conversation becomes awkward.  Sylvester adds, "The fact that the game of catch is simple and thoughtless is not a bug; it's a feature.  More complexity would just get in the way of the conversation."

Of course, as children grow up, complexity becomes the feature, since as adults we move adroitly towards more complex games.  Following up on this (because game design books never explain how their premises apply to table-top role-playing, only video role-playing), we can argue that the excessive complexity of something like D&D seriously threatens the sociability of game-play, because it has the potential for obliterating any need to have a conversation at all, since the game is so engrossing.

Hence, we might consider two threads worth discussion.  First, that a role-playing game to be played well requires the minimization of conversation, because it is conversation that gets in the way of the complexity.  Second, we have a clear, concise explanation for why some people rail so vehemently at the complexity of RPGs ... because if the game isn't simple enough, they find their accessibility to conversation compromised.

Consider the motive, then, for the players:  when we sit down to participate, do we want to play, and say fuck conversation, or do we want to talk, and fuck playing?  This need not be a black-and-white thing.  The mix might be 3 parts talk and 5 parts play; or 7 parts talk and 1 part play.  Finding the right group means finding the right composite between talking and playing that fits your personal expectation.

We might, then, though we're sure to be called out on it for creating a straw man, that those who bark so much about simplifying their games really just wish they could talk more and adjudicate less.

So let's not go down either road.

Let's go back to catch.

Thinking on good memories I had with my father, catch is certainly one of them.  We would play frisbee in knee-deep water off the beach at Sylvan Lake, in about fifty different spots contained within this picture over the space of 30 years.  It was pleasant and friendly, exactly the sort of experience that Sylvester describes, as the frisbee-playing, the beach, the sun, the scenes of other people all around us, each provided for enough distraction so that twenty minutes spent doing something together meant that we were certain to have a good talk and a good time.

This does not, however, describe the manner in which talking was celebrated in my family.  While games did figure into some nights, as did sitting around campfires, fishing off docks and hiking through the nearby mountains, my parents encouraged their children to sit in chairs, respectably, drinking lemonade as kids, and later coffee, and finally wine and spirits, without any game play whatsoever.  Many a time I sat for hours with my father, doing nothing else but gently imbibing in coffee or spirits, talking.  My mother came from alcoholics, and my father knew many as well, so neither ever drank to excess.  I never saw either of them drunk, but there was always liquor in the house and when I reached eighteen, I was entitled access to it.  I don't get drunk either.

Those conversations weren't always good.  In fact, more often than not, especially as I got into my thirties and forties, they got downright awful.  But they instilled an appreciation for human beings to sit and engage on a wide variety of subjects for lengthy periods of time.  About 19 times out of 20, apart from D&D, I don't get together with my friends to work-out, kayak, fish, see a football game or any of the other things that virtually everyone else does.  I prefer to get together with people and talk.  With my friends, it is easy to do this for 6-10 hours at a stretch.  With my daughter, I can do it for six days straight, as we demonstrated to ourselves when we went to Toronto together in 2014.

These are the people I play D&D with ... my friends, my daughter and son-in-law, my partner Tamara.  We get together, we talk for an hour; we finish playing, and we can talk into the wee hours of the morning, if there's nothing special to do the next day (though I'm sure that, post-covid, the grandchild has nixed that experience for awhile).  And so, when we play D&D, there isn't any reason to talk ... except about D&D.  Perhaps that is one reason why I'm able to play such an intensely complex game, with people who want it that way.

One theme that has run through our culture, going right back to before I was born, has been a lamentation that the art of conversation is dead.  I tend to agree.  I only have a few friends; those who cannot talk on a level that interests me bore me to tears and I do not waste my time with them.  I stopped going to parties a decade ago because I cannot abide being in a room with twenty people who are playing board games because they can't bear each other's company well enough to just talk (or they haven't remotely enough to say to fill five minutes, without talking about their jobs or their miseries).  When I was a teenager, and we were all dumb as socks, we could sit in a room and talk about the humanities and the arts until the sun came up.  I can still do that; but the people I did it with have grown up into poor souls who can only talk about grouting their bathrooms or the principles underlying actuarial tables.  God damn, but the world of adult people grew awfully myopic and banal ... a banality I see reflected in thousands of youtube videos and blog pages.  It's a good thing that there is enough beer in the world to render a substantial portion of the population dumb.  It's not like they've got anything to say.

Gab is not a gift.  It's a means of conveying passion.  People that are full of passion cannot shut up about it.  People who are dead inside need catch to prove they're still animated.  Catch, and the dependency on it as a crutch, is absolutely a bug.  Sylvester and others can herald its success as a great social generator, but if the brain is so on the fritz that it can do no better than to produce smoke and stench, well then fuck it.  If you want to know if the DM you want to play with has any chance of running an interesting game, then prode and poke that lump atop those shoulders to see if it can function without a pull-cord.  If it can, check first to see if what comes out is just the same choking sound repeatedly without surcease, or if it's able to hum more than one droning tune.  If it can; and if it demonstrates that there's enough passion rolling around that it doesn't need a starter to run perpetually, then make sure you play in its game.

If you're a DM, and you don't know how to talk, here's advice for you.  Quit DMing. 

Thursday, October 15, 2020

Teaching & Learning

I had an argument about D&D on twitter today, that went about as well as arguments on twitter go.  I don't tell people I have a blog or a book, or even a patreon; I don't tell them I've been playing or running for 40 years ... so they naturally assume I'm just another punk on the internet, whose name they don't recognize and whose credibility is zero.  No one ever googles my name to find out if I know anything.

It always starts the same way.  I field a question like, "If your players do not go through one of the doors in your dungeon, do you tell them afterwards what was there?"  I'll answer, "No, they've got to pay the fee if they want the prize."

This sort of blithe, pithy answer gets a like, and if I'm smart, I'll leave it there.  I don't give a shit about likes, I want a real conversation, and sometimes when I'm bored I'll stupidly decide to say more about the subject ... as in, "Every time you reveal something, you train your players to expect you to reveal it -- that dimishes the mystery of what's behind the door, eventually turning your game into garbage, from which it will never recover."

Now, a normal, unimaginative reader will see only one word in that reply: "garbage."  And a common, tetchy twitter-reader will immediately assume, as they ALWAYS do, that I'm speaking specifically of them, calling them 'garbage' to their face ... and they will remind me that I don't know them, that I don't have a right to call them garbage, that they're a perfectly fine DM and anyway, "Such and such a website that tells DMs how to play says that all DMs are different so you don't know what the fuck you're talking about."

Sensitive much?  Oh yeah.  You know: twitter.

My fave is the call-out to authority.  It is never the same authority.  I've had everyone quoted at me at some point ... but the quote is always the same.  On some level, it is a quote that gives every DM, ever, permission to be whatever sort of DM they want to be, because there's no right way or wrong way, period.

Teaching as a profession is going straight into the gutter because of this thinking.  Teaching anyone begins with the assumption, I know how to do something, and you don't, so listen, and I'll tell you.  On the other hand, marketing works on the assumption that the more people you prop up with bullshit, the more followers, likes and money you'll collect, so never, ever, tell people anything except that they already know everything they need to know.

This includes people who come forward and say, "I don't know something; can you please tell me?"  Because this mostly includes only people who are really saying, "My ego needs boosting; can you stroke me?"

Again: twitter.

I met my grandson yesterday for the first time.  Three weeks old, born a month ahead of schedule and of course there are covid concerns and such, because the boy is still vulnerable.  I'm the sort of personality that lives in the future rather than the present or the past; my daughter also and my partner, because I can barely stand people who think otherwise.  Today is okay, but the purpose of today is to be doing something that will make tomorrow better.  As such, much of the conversation about my grandson is about deciding how to set things up so that the boy will be in a good position to choose what he wants to do, when he decides that.  Some parents and grandparents who talk about the future will talk about getting them into a good school and how they're going to be educated; but our conversation was more along the lines of how we'll support him if he wants to do this, or that, or this other thing.  We have absolutely no idea what that will be, but its possible to speak in large swaths of human experience: maybe he'll get interested in athletics, art, politics, the military, NASCAR, science ... who the hell knows, really.  We don't and we're not exactly playing for favorites.  Yes, some of those will be harder than others, but the main point is that so long as its not illegal or self-destructive, we will bend before we ask the boy to do so.

That's pretty alien to some folks.  This is not my first rodeo: it is how I approached my daughter's upbringing and it worked out just fine: I educated the living shit out of her and she is a terrifyingly assertive, responsible, no-nonsense force of nature and believe you me, you better think it over four times before you tell her she can't do something.

She's ready to do it my way and I am far more certain about the approach this time that I was last time.  What's more, honesty, it isn't in my hands.  I'm just the back-up here as a grandparent; I'm here to give perspective, explain the boy's mother and father to him when he asks me someday and not to be the blasted asshole my grandfather was when I was a boy.

[part of the reason why I'm so comfortable being an asshole is because I was raised by so many of them]

The first half and the second half of this post come together thusly.  One day, my grandson is going to get interested in something.  Really, really interested.  So interested, that he'll spend every waking minute they can reading and studying that thing.  And one day, he'll know more about it than I do, or his parents do, or his friends at school do or pretty much anyone in his life, because it will matter so much to him that he'll want to be an expert.

When he reaches that stage, he'll want to talk about it.  And because he'll be the expert, so that any of us will be able to follow along, he'll have to teach us what he knows.

This is the critical moment.  This is the moment in every child's life that determines what sort of person they'll grow up to be.  Problem is, there are too many parents in the world who, met with an 8 year old who thinks he knows everything, and wants to talk about it, don't care and won't listen.  Most of us should know exactly what that's like, because there came a time when we tried to explain to our parents how an RPG worked ... and oh, did it go badly.

As a result, a great many of us failed to learn how to teach something to someone.  Arguably, the most important student that any child will have should be their parents: who, recognizing how much this thing matters, should supportively and interestingly listen and learn what it is that has their child passionately fired up.  Even if that thing doesn't make sense, and even if that thing seems "wrong" somehow.  We can literally point at people around us all day long who didn't receive that.  Who got interested, got rebuffed -- were even told they weren't allowed to continue doing that thing -- and have since become people so desperate for approval that they only thing they can do is wander onto twitter with sad faces begging for approval from total strangers.

And so, rather than being able to learn from others, they are so sensitive to the disapproval inposed by their parents, they displace that disapproval on every person -- even on the internet -- that doesn't immediately pat them on the head and give them a doggie treat.

When marketers see this, they know just how to make a sale.  Give that punk a doggie treat and watch him wag his tail.  Watch him repeat our bullshit verbatim as though the words, "Everyone DMs their own way" actually means a blessed thing.

It is my role as a grandfather to let my grandson teach me what he cares about.  And then it is my role to care about that thing enough that I'll add to his store of knowledge in a way that matters to him.  In that way, I'll build up a symbiosis that lets my grandson teach me, and lets me teach him, and we'll BOTH get smarter.

We can point out these kids, too.  That one there is Kamala Harris.  And that one there is Anthony Fauci.  People who became experts because the adults behind them listened.  Because the adults behind them learned.

People who need us to be "polite and decent" because it makes the world a friendlier place are walking around with a big sign on their backs that says, "Fuck me over, because I want to trust people so bad that if you're nice to me, I'll open my wallet."  The absolute worst people in the world know just how to be so nice that butter wouldn't melt in their mouths. 

Give me readers and listeners who don't care if I'm a nice, decent guy or not.  Give me readers who care about what I have to say, not how nicely I say it.  Give me readers that want to teach me what they know, and are rude enough to get in my face and make me learn it.

There are not enough readers like that in the world.

Friday, October 9, 2020

When It Happens to You, It's Just a Bummer

Every now and then I feel a compulsion to discuss a thing.  The passage here (I think) is from Sid Meier's A Life in Computer Games.   I found it posted on twitter a few days ago.  I recommend reading it more than once; I recommend reading it at least a day or two apart.  It is saying a lot of important things at the same time; and at the same time, it is failing to say other things that need to be added -- but I suspect some of these things have been said on page 114.  I should hope.  Meier's introduction regarding the player's "fighting chance" would suggest that he's going to discuss how an adventure needs to be competitive and not obstructive.

I'm thinking about buying the book; the government here in Canada is paying my bills, so I think I can squeeze out the cost of the book through my patreon resources.  I think this would be a good use for those.  If I do, I'll certainly relay my impressions.

I want to discuss for a moment the sentiment described at the end, culminating in the phrase, "Look at the big brain on me!"  That frame is intended to shame the designer and oh, am I ever certain that it will, for the most part, fall on deaf ears.

For the user, equivalent to the player, design is oh so often a teeth grinding business.  Over the last 18 months, blogger has been steadily forcing a change to its interface that, now, I'm forced to accept.  The interface offers remarkably little compared to the previous interface.  The graphics have been altered from "computer sensible" to "elementary school friendly."  And there are one or two truly aggravating aspects now.  The change, like so many changes like this, has obviously occurred because a bunch of corporate hacks with "big brains" have hired a bunch of servile designers to reinvent the wheel so that new term users will be gleaned from the stubble of the blogging field (there hasn't been a crop in years), while old timers like me can be forced to suck our eggs gratefully at still being allowed a platform.  I used to see this crap all the time when I worked for the telephone utility company TELUS.  It comes from a class of people being paid way too much money to spin on their thumbs, who in turn must make the spinning look truly productive or else they'll lose their cushy, pampered lifestyles and be forced down into the gutters with the rest of us.

D&D is like that.  I shouldn't have to explain that, except to say, "new editions."

I confess, I have felt, and often, the "imagine the look on their faces" moment.  That, however, does not only apply to DMs.  Shakespeare must have chuckled at the transformation of Nick Bottom's head into that of a donkey, and must have positively giggled at writing out the line, "This is to make an ass of me," when Bottom doesn't know he looks like an ass.  You can't tell me David Mamet didn't squirm proudly in his seat when he pulled out the line about steak knives.  Writing and designing is something that is done in solitary, in anticipation that someday, sometime, someone is going to read this and when they do, hoo hoo, they're going to laugh or shit themselves.  If that thought weren't in the minds of every people banking hours today for experiences in the future, none of us would fucking do this.

There's nothing wrong with looking forward to the effect ... but there is something wrong if that looking forward lacks empathy.  That is what Meier is getting at here.  It isn't really that we're not allowed to sit and think, "Damn, I'm a genius."  It isn't that Brian isn't allowed to punch himself proudly in the shoulder at the end of The Breakfast Club, it's that we shouldn't do it if we're so bereft of empathy that we can't step outside ourselves and think, "If this happened to me, I'd be pissed."  Meier is right when he says that a reversal of fortune is fine when it happens to Nick Bottom.  But no one in the audience wants to be an ass.

If we don't want the players to feel like they're "soldiering on," then what do we want?  Meier's answer is that the player is the "star" while the designer is invisible.  On virtually every level, I agree with that.  I have been writing here for 12 years that the DM needs to be gotten "out of the loop."  Urban dictionary defines that as "ignorant of the situation," but it used to mean, out of the decision-making process, which amounts to the same thing.  Whenever possible, I like to build rules that enable to players to know exactly what they're capable of (removing any need for me to make decisions) or that award the decision to a die roll (which, good or bad, is certainly indifferent).  It takes a lot of effort to build rules on those grounds; and DMs who want their finger in the pie positively hate such rules, specifically ignoring them whenever possible in order to increase their decision-making opportunities.  I believe this is core of what Meier means when he says the designer needs to be "invisible."  The DM should not be the judge.  The die should be the judge, or the courtroom dispensed with entirely.  DMs who proudly strut into the DM's chair and declare that they're going to be "arbitrary but fair" are missing the point completely.  We're not looking for "fair" DMs vs. self-righteous ones.  We're looking for the absence of judging DMs altogether.

Most readers who hear that the D&D player is the "star" will leap straight to Indiana Jones or Han Solo: the cocky, able, plot-armoured hero who comes off a bit out of his depth but likeable, able to perform impossible stunts (there are no wires in D&D) and do it all with a grin on his face.  Other players get to be all the supporting roles: the plucky youth, the wise counselor, the tough chick with her chin out -- effectively the whole Firefly gang.  These are the "stars of the show" for most, and given their narrow perspective on what makes a good television show or flick, it's who these guys want to be.  We're being inundated to death with this tiresome gang on Netflix and Hulu constantly, with endless hackneyed redos on rehashed material.

Wanted:  weak angsty teenage or teenage-adjacent girl with slight goth overtones to play apparently useless role in team superhero vehicle, where it is revealed at the end that she is actually more powerful than the rest of the team combined.  Every sallow-faced girl in Hollywood, please apply; we have more roles to fill than we have actors available.

The notion of "star" needs an overhaul.  If we must have a popular icon, I'd rather John McLean or John Wick -- thoroughly capable punching bag with a will to get up off the floor, who perceives "soldiering on" to be a virtue rather than a tiresome ordeal, who can yet find humour in things and be humane when it is appropriate ... but even so, this is still a stock character and it still requires a particular kind of plot armour to be viable.  There is no plot armour in D&D, unless it's the DM's will, and for myself I don't see this being my role.  The player is the star, sure, but in my milieu, anyone can die.

A "star" in D&D is not a highly-paid actor pretending to take part in a tailored universe that only pretends to act as a counterweight to the players.  All the more reason why the word "star" is a very bad word for it.  There is a very bad movie out there, often worshipped as a good movie by people who are acutely tiresome at a party, called Rosencrantz & Gildenstern are Dead.  For those who don't read Shakespeare, and haven't yet googled who Nick Bottom was (*Bottom, like in ass, get it?  Don't tell me Shakespeare didn't chortle), R&G are totally disposable characters who are hired to off Hamlet, who themselves get offed off-stage, with post script.  Tom Stoppard's play depicts the assassins/boyhood friends of Hamlet's as confused, irrelevant interlopers on the edge of scenes they don't understand and cannot fully appreciate.  The subtext of the film is that actors who are forced to endlessly play parts like Rosencrantz and Gildenstern (in Shakespeare, not Stoppard) do so because that the only way they have of feeling alive as artist.  Though inconsequential, they do their part, which helps lend credence to the sad little lives of myopically boring conversationalists at parties who think highly of Stoppard's play.

I hope that wasn't exhaustively confusing.  I didn't like the play.  It only reminds me that most people, even those in theatre, live dreary, desolate lives where they follow the orders of other people until they're shown where the grave, or the ashes bottle, awaits them.  These people are adroit at blowing gas up their bottoms about how important they are to the world, and I've never been an enthusiast for that taint of air.

This post has acquired an unintended theme.

That said, the players to my mind are much more Rosencrantz than Indiana Jones.  When we meet Indy in the first movie, he's already a person of recognition, who's plainly not participating in his first rodeo. We're introduced to a range of characters familiar with exploits we've never seen, instilling an understanding that we're watching a 15th level archeologist, not some punk on his first try at stealing a gold statue.  In the third movie, we're introduced to Indy as a kid ... but it is still evident from his fellow scouts and his father that even this exploit with the cross is not his first kick at the can.  Probably, Spielberg pitched a plotline where a baby Indy crawls out of his stroller at a natural history museum and foils an attempt by three goons to steal the Hope Diamond, but couldn't get the funding.  However, since Spielberg is only able to write one sort of character, there'd probably still be an allusion to sometime in the womb when Indy had already taught his pregnant mother how to read sanskrit.

Because they want Indy and they don't want Rosencrantz, in true Spielbergian fashion DMs skip all the tiresome trouble of learning how to do stuff and developing real character and memories.  They hand the players a fresh, new, 15th level character, expecting their players -- a bunch of non-writer/designers with delusions of being Indiana or Han -- to invent past histories that end up being rehashed versions of Netflix and Hulu episodes.  So spurteth the well, so drinketh the blind.

The trouble becomes, as many DMs have learned to their displeasure, that if you make the players the "star," they become so bloated and full of themselves that next they're staging exactly the sort of things that real stars who are paid 20 mille a flick begin to indulge in.  Stars are absolutely terrible people, particularly early in life, when they don't know how to handle this enormous influence and power that they've been given.  Some of them, even later in life; Judy Garland's propensity for trashing hotel rooms in a single day is legendary.  It seems appropriate at this time to remember that the late Eddie Van Halen's behaviour was something of a legend as well.  It is worse when we consider that a lot of people -- and that number includes some of your D&D players -- feel that if an individual is a god, then everything else is considered acceptable.  And they say Divine Right is dead.

While Meier is right that random obstacles are a miserable bitch, he misses that some events and obstacles serve a purpose:  to keep players humble.  We spoil the little preening ego-bags if we pile excessive boons upon them, too.  The key is not to do either; to keep them uncertain as to just what's going on, to remind them occasionally that they are tiny little fish in an enormous and incomprehensible pond, and to install in them an understanding that if they learn how to behave themselves, someday they'll be more than a puffed up star with a gold-plated trailer and a chance to play the Superbowl.  With time and patience, and having earned their bonuses, they may learn to appreciate that random obstacles can be managed with serenity and not sulking, and that while being a "star" carried a lot of glitz, being "accomplished" is better.

Truth is, not every player wants to "prove their worth," just as not every human being faced with hardships wants to do that, either.  Meier's solution, that we must make the player a star, is based on selling as many games to as many people as possible, knowing that most of these bloated "stars" will be ensconced in their basements next to big pickle jars full of human juice, and not across a gaming table where anyone will need to tolerate them -- and most particularly, not Meier.  The closest Meier will ever get to the "stars" he empowers will be on this side of a ring of large security personnel.  The rest of us, however, who run table-top games, have to manage, face-to-face, the monsters we create with our game designs ... and so, let me explain, that if a player doesn't want to prove their worth as a human being, then I don't especially want that player in my game.

I understand that some DMs can't afford to be picky.  Perhaps that is because a DM must prove their worth as well, and not just by being "willing to DM."  That's as sad an excuse as a player who starts at 15th level.  What did this DM do to earn phenomenal cosmic power?  Riddle me that.

Thursday, October 8, 2020


I'm not very well today; I have a cold or something, with a temperature well below 98.6 F.  I've laid down several times today and I've got a humidifier sitting next to me keeping my sinuses open; I'm covered in sweat, which is a good thing.  I should be sleeping.  Instead, I'm poking at a wiki page I wanted to get finished today; my own take on a master-race of orcs, the haruchai (name stolen from Donaldson's Thomas Covenant series and replacing the Fiend Folio's ogrillon).  Not a friendly people.

Historically, they fill in a huge gap in the record, replacing the Mongols and several Mongol-related peoples, going back further in time and, of course, not being human.  I sometimes wonder what a living Mongolian or Oirotian person would think of my co-opting their ethnic background this way; they probably wouldn't like it and no doubt that makes me a racist, after a fashion.  Personally, being a member of which I consider to have been the worst race on the planet, I don't have much use for white people who think they're better that other people.  I could have made a world where orcs and other races replaced the white people in Europe, but then I'd still be called a racist if I tried to represent history by saying the Mongol humans came out of the east and butchered millions of orcs, goblins and bugbears, then occupied their lands and forced those humanoids to pay tribute for two centuries to keep from being further slaughtered.

Facts are, people have not been nice to people.  My representing the Mongols honestly, or as haruchai, won't change the barbarism perpetrated in the 13th century either way.  Still, I might someday have to answer to someone who steps up to me, angrily, to tell me that he or she was born Mongolian and that I'm a pig.  They will almost certainly be absolutely right.  I'll have to make amends somehow when the time comes.

Mind you, I'm willing to make amends to those people, but I won't to you, if you're not Mongolian.  No matter what race you happen to be, you have a lot of answering to do regarding the practices of your ancestors, just as I have; there isn't a single race on the planet that would be served especially ill by our depicting them as not human, given how we try to define human these days.  Anyone and everyone who tries to defend their people's "perfect innocence" based on their skin colour simply isn't going back far enough in time.  We all have our hands covered in blood.

That said, yes.  For the sins and crimes of my awful people and ancestors, I feel reparations should definitely be paid.  And were I elected to the House of Commons in my country, I'd be ready to get on my feet everyday and fight for that.  I will sign any petition that calls for a standardized tax that will redistribute wealth.

None of that excuses me, naturally.  I'm an entitled white person; always have been, and will always be incapable of being anything else.

But ... I've got to put these haruchai somewhere.  And explain how they got there, and what they did with it.  If it feels better, the reader should just realize that these peoples slaughtered the humans who were meant to live in Mongolia ten thousand years ago, and later in history co-opted the name of Mongol.  I'm not actually saying the Mongols weren't human.

Tuesday, October 6, 2020

A Continuous Source of Light

The little things feel best, like adjusting a spell and give it a little more oomph without fundamentally changing the spell's design.  Things like this add to the overall value of the game without making sweeping changes, that that we maintain the feel of the original game.

The full page is here.

I don't know if there's anything to add. It's a bit of skull-sweat, but I'm enjoying discussing how I would use the spell in game play, or rather how I'd encourage one of my players to use it.  I am equally grateful for the online format, which offers opportunities to assemble a store of such ideas in the future.

The wiki is an abundant source of enlightenment, particularly for me, as I find myself reconsidering numerous strategies that I'd like to employ in the future.

Monday, October 5, 2020

Most Explorers Make Bad Maps

 "The Giant's castle was situated on a mountain, as it ought to have been, and there was also the usual courtyard before it, and the customary moat, which was full of — bones! All I have got to say about these bones is, they were not mutton bones. A great many details of this story must be left to the imagination of the reader; they are too harrowing to relate. A much tenderer regard for the feelings of the audience will be shown in this than in most giant stories; we will even go so far as to state in advance, that the story has a good end, thereby enabling readers to peruse it comfortably without unpleasant suspense.

"The Pumpkin Giant was fonder of little boys and girls than anything else in this world; but he was somewhat fonder of little boys, and more particularly of fat little boys."

 The Pumpkin Giant, by Mary E. Wilkins, 1882

We are affected by the stories we read as children, and the above was always a favorite of mine ... particularly because of the tongue-in-cheek manner with which the writer wrote it.  The sardonic was unquestionably the style of Victorian times, when dealing with peculiarly unpleasant subject materials designed to be read by children.

With D&D, I've always somehow equated the "giant" with an ogre, even though it is clear from the story that the pumpkin giant was probably much larger.  An ogre for me is a somewhat dense, frightening but altogether disorganized figure.  But of course, in D&D it is just another humanoid, with the same cookie-cutter characteristics as smaller figures like orcs and hobgoblins.  I have a different take on it, which can be read in full here.

The above feels like it needs a bit of a rewrite, but I'm going to get some distance on it first.  The invention of "Sarg Griksta" is an attempt to build a logical framework inside the game world, something that you'll see other writers of fantasy literature and game rules doing constantly.  The question is, how far do you go with outlining the backgrounds of such people?  I've seen designers attempt to write out "accounts" from such invented persons and it always rings poorly ... mainly because the designers themselves are not remotely of the writing skill we would expect from a Bede, Abelard or Bacon.  I would be loathe to attempt such a thing myself.  Griksta is better paraphrased than written out word-for-word ... and we must examine the value of using the trope at all.

We are used to quoting a contemporary source from an ancient period.  One can hardly discuss anything about history without quoting someone, as we wouldn't know anything if it hadn't been written down.  Unlike modern scholarship, where only the scholars recognize a writer's name, and most just assume it's reputable because "PhD" is attached to the sobriquet, fellows like Suetonius, Plutarch or Herodotus are famous because for a hundred generations, they were the same and only source for what we know about many events and people.  Three hundred years from now, some present day historian's legacy may have survived; but I would argue that while virtually every respected scholar today disagrees with Gibbon, three hundred years from now the names of all these scholars will be dust and people will still be reading the Decline.

Why?  Well, first and foremost, because surviving historians don't just write facts.  They insert their own personality into what's being written, and most of them were not that concerned with "absolute truth" but with "ethical truth."  Plutarch's Life of Caesar doesn't need to be dead-on accurate to have value; it is an account of a brilliant but flawed, ambitious but inconstant soul whose initiative was the source of his own downfall.  It doesn't matter whether or not Caesar actually said or believed or even did exactly as Plutarch wrote.  The purpose of the material is to convey wisdom, not veracity.  Modern historiography, with its endless compulsion to fact-check and tally every source, has gutted the very premise of history in its obedience to Toynbee's revolution.  As a result, we find ourselves reading "interesting" panegyrics to some faithfully rendered facet of human experience, but the historian is woefully bereft of any responsibility to convey sagacity.  Read an account of Rosa Parks and you will be inundated with the tale of a smart, capable, unfairly downtrodden yet resilient person who rose against the system to become respected and effective, despite her flaws.  You may find some ethical discussion of how her life was important; but you won't find any serious discussion of how to be Rosa Parks or how to recognize other people who, today, are Rosa Parks.  This makes history a sort of celebrity celebrant machine, with people reading about such-and-such and then choosing to believe they ARE such-and-such, when of course that's more delusion than wisdom.

But ... I am off topic.

An ancient writer, like the fictional Sarg Griksta, wouldn't be subject to peer review or the responsibility to quote sources.  Historians cheerfully ripped off one another, often word for word, without a hint that it wasn't their own writing.  There were no panels or commissions to censure them.  There would be no reason to believe that Griksta actually knew what he was talking about, or if he were making it up out of whole cloth.  Postulation, eye-witness accounts and second-hand story telling were often mixed and matched.  We know that Thucydides was alive and well and even acting as a general during parts of the Peloponnesian War -- and for that reason he is often treated as more credibly reliable than later sources.  I don't disagree.  But witnessing how a modern day general describes what is "really happening" in a given warzone, scholars are also right to point out that in many cases, Thucydides is clearly blowing his own horn.  We see that as a bad thing.  Thucydides would have seen it as his personal right.  He didn't see it as "writing history" in the sense that we mean it now.  He was frankly giving his opinion -- it was his truth, even if we don't right now see it as ours.

So if there is a Griksta, and the players were to get hold of his book, and go searching for the Orcrest Gate, somewhere in the East Sayan Mountains, how precisely useful would it be?  There's a very good chance that Griksta had never been to the mountains, or even seen them.  The gate might be a complete fabrication.  The actual source of ogres in my game world might be something unexpected.

It is in this squidgy uncertainty that game adventuring is lifted to the next level.  I see DMs handing out treasure maps that turn out to be perfectly accurate when the time comes; or telling tales to the players that are word-for-word true.  This is not how things actually are.  Most first-time explorers make bad maps.  Then later explorers make better maps, and explorers after that make better maps still.  People imagine mountains on the horizon that aren't there; they imagine rivers that lead to lakes that don't exist.  They create non-existent peoples and made up treasures and fountains of youth.  Writers forge, falsify and fake accounts.  If a party thinks they have all the answers, disabuse them of this idea.  The material research they have accumulated might be close to the truth and it might not; but they have no reason to believe all the facts are known for certain.

Friday, October 2, 2020

We're All Plagarists

Of late, I've been getting the occasional comment asking me to identify the artist of some picture that I've posted with relationship to my wiki.  The signal is to condemn me for attaching an artist to my written work without that artist's permission.

For those who may not know, there are these sites on the internet called Pinterest, Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.  These sites post literally billions of pictures, with new ones appearing every day.  These sites share these pictures with one another, so that any one picture that might appear on one particular pinterest or instagram site, will also appear on thousands of other sites.  The number of pictures that have the artist identified on these sites is less than 1%.  That is because the people who use the internet just don't care.  They find the picture, they share the picture, they download the picture.

When I am looking for a picture for a given page on my wiki -- for example, something about shields -- I go to google search images and I type, "Shield" "Fantasy Art".  This produces scores, sometimes hundreds, sometimes thousands of pictures, depending on the subject matter I've searched.  These pictures rarely, if ever, have any notation as to who the artist is.  Very often, if I don't like the size of the picture, I can right-click the image and select, "search google for this image" ... whereupon, I will find dozens and dozens of source images that are of different sizes.  Again, these images are listed by the website, NOT the artist, and do not make any attempt whatsoever to identify whom the artist may be.

I pick the image I want and I put it on my FREE website, where I keep my pictures, which -- although it isn't Pinterest, Instagram, Facebook or Twitter -- does absolutely nothing to capitalize on these pictures in order to put money in my pocket, any more than do the millions of other sites posting the same pictures with the same desire for clicks, the same desire for attention, the same algorithm that drives every site on the internet.  There is nothing special about my placing of a random picture on my random site that isn't duplicated on billions of other random sites that exist elsewhere.

The notion that 16-year-old Jinny Pandermiss on the internet can download any of these pictures on her Pinterest page because she likes to look at them and write fan fic about the images for her Facebook group, but I can't, for, apparently, "reasons," is laughable.

I am not the gatekeeper of the internet.  I am playing by the same rules everyone else is playing by.  IF an artist does not want their art copied a million times on the internet, then I suggest NOT posting their image on the internet.

The artist is Li Joshua

If the artist wants to come and break my personal balls, threatening legislation or some such against me personally, when I can point to thousands of other sites with the same picture being displayed, then I'm going to explain to them something called mens rea, and further explain that if they want to win against me in court, they're going to have to bring suit against every other person also doing what I'm doing.  Otherwise, why me?  Specifically, why am I being targeted?  If you're targeting me, and not everyone else breaking the same law, then your intention is to persecute an individual, not to right a wrong.

And yet, if the artist wants to talk about it, I'll listen.

On the other hand, if some dumb troll on the net who isn't the artist wants to talk about it, well ... go fight google.  They're the enemy.  Not me.  I'm just the enemy that's tiny enough to make a troll feel like they can win a fight.

I will not be publishing these comments when they occur.

Thursday, October 1, 2020

Bad Historians

 For some fighters, this is the promised land -- though I don't know why.

This is essentially the entire page, though naturally the links are useful to have.  The actual power of this sage ability is minimal at best.  We're merely offering some players, those who choose to specialize in pure combat, the chance to use a second weapon and not forgo the +1 armour class the shield offers.  I found some embittered fights on the stackhouse message boards about how you can't use the shield as a weapon, and that you definitely can't use it as a weapon AND a defense.  So I expect these arguments to bleed over into here, because as I always say, it is impossible on the internet to write anything about armour and weapons without starting a flame war.

That said ...

There is a trope that exists in internet-land that, "If we test something, and we can't make it happen, then it is a myth."  Regarding the use of shields as weapons, I turn now to this page from stackexchange, quote:

"During a reenactment exercise, I was hit with a shield using the flat of it, the sharp edge and the point at the bottom. The shield was accurate in size and weight. It hurt, but not as much as a blow from an axe or sword would, with its leverage and momentum (thankfully, these were less authentic).

"I've also had the privilege of being able to talk to a stunt man who specialises in horse and sword fighting (one of the Devils Horsemen team). He said, "I might push someone back so I can swing with the sword. If they are on top of my shield they deserve it. Swinging out with the shield... I wouldn't, especially if there are a lot of people around." It would create an opportunity for an enemy."

This reminds me of a mythbusters episode, discussing the practicality of a gunman using two pistols, one in each hand, shooting at different targets.  Whereupon the boys try it, mess around with it for their shooting schedule, at most about a week, and decide that "It's useless."

Okay.  This is an immense crock of horseshit.

Let's take an ordinary, every day magic trick.  You want to make a card that is in your hand disappear.  Take note that the linked video here tells you how it is done, but I want you to imagine that there is no teacher in this scenario.  There's no one anywhere that you can call, bring down to your studio or your practice yard, to show you how to make a card disappear.  That knowledge simply isn't available to you.

If you've never seen it done, and you haven't anyone to teach you, can you make a card disappear?  Yes.  Yes you can.  But here's a couple of things you'll want to keep in mind.  1st, you will have to really, really want to perform this illusion, and I mean on levels where you're willing to go without eating or sleeping or doing anything else, and especially not thinking of anything else, because you are going to have to be laser focused on figuring out how the hell you are going to make this happen.

And two, you're going to be at it for a long, long, looooooooooong time.  We are not talking about a week of filming.  We are not talking about messing around for an afternoon.  Even if you watch the video, and see how it is done, you will be at this process for months as you try to strengthen your fingers and your reflexes sufficiently to do a bad job of hiding that card.

So.  I'm curious as to whether or not you can use a shield against me in a fight as a weapon, so I tell you, "Go ahead, give it a try."  We'll call it a "reenactment exercise."  We're not actually reenacting anything, at best we're mocking television and movies, but okay, good enough.  Let me stress, it is a real shield.  And it didn't hurt as much as an axe or a sword.  Let's unpack that a minute.  Is the fellow hitting you with the shield actually trying to kill you?  No.  Has he trained with using an axe and a sword for the last upteen years of his life, because he is really into this stuff?  Yes.  Has he spent that many hours training with a shield?  No.  We know he hasn't, because the narrator here clearly indicates he hasn't ever tried this before.  Does it matter a whit that the sword is "real"?  Would it matter if I said, "I couldn't make this playing card disappear, and mind you, it's a real playing card."

Like the mythbusters, we have proved exactly jack shit.  We have proved that the shield cannot be used as a weapon by people who are not trained, and who are tremendously inexperienced with using the shield as a weapon.  We have proved that people who don't know how to use two guns against two targets are utterly useless in using two guns this way.  Wow.  Bully for us.

You know what?  I can prove, right now, without any trouble at all, that building a bridge is impossible, because I can't do it.

What I really like is when the answer comes back, "Hey, I've been training with weapons for a really long time!"  Or, "I've been shooting guns since I was a child!"  Uh huh.  I've been playing games with cards since I was a child.  Never made one disappear.  The skill here isn't how well you use the weapon.  It is, can you use it in this particular way, which will probably take you about two or three hundred hours of dedicated practice to master?  And that is, if someone shows you how.  If there's no one to show you how, just exactly how would you know what techniques are required?

To which the answer comes back, "Well, maybe, but we know that people didn't actually shoot with two guns in the Old West.  They kept two guns in case one jammed, but they didn't actually shoot with them at the same time."  Or, "If people had used shields as weapons in Olden Times, there'd have been a lot more discussion about it.  The fact that no one ever talked about it proves that it wasn't practical."

These arguments are desperate straw-grabbing, at best.  We don't actually "know" these things.  Bad historians like to pretend that we know this or that about the past, but good historians never forget that it just takes one unearthed book written in the 12th century to blow "what we know" to complete smithereens.  Point in fact, the printing press and the movement from hand weapons to powder weapons happened at just about the same time.  The proliferation of the printing press took about 50 years, to go from "never had one before" to "wow, they're everywhere."  Over those same 50 years, powder weapons went from "gee, that's new," to "what's a mace?"  The period of humans using hand-held weapons and shields in combat coincides with a rather long historical period when most people who knew how to read and write in the West were members of a quiet group of boys who used to mumble verses six times a day while shut away in stone sheds deliberately built far from the rattling mayhem of everyday life.  These boys didn't write hundreds of books about weapons because these boys didn't use weapons ... and most of those who did came from disturbingly broken homes and possessed poor social habits.  Arguing that mercenaries and bandits would have taken time to sit down and write long books with tons of useful pictures describing how to brain an opponent with a shield is a little myopic in polite circles and downright dead-fuck pig-ignorant when speaking accurately.

On the other hand, shooting with two pistols would have happened in the 19th century, when a lot more people could read and write, and there were reporters and such, so if anyone had used two weapons in gunfights, we would have definitely known about that.  People would have written tons of stuff about how amazing it was that ...

Wait a minute.  Hm.  Didn't all those reporters and eye-witnesses in the 19th century go on and on about the prowess that shootists like Wild Bill and Wyatt Earp had?  Gee, I think they did.  Oh but of course, none of that means anything, because when someone writes something that goes against what we can personally prove in the year 2006 or 2014 or 2021, then it's plainly just a load of bullshit.  Things are only true when they're not written about, because then we know that no one's lying.

These arguments that are premised on all this shaky ground are awfully hard to refute, especially as we arbitrarily decide which contemporary sources we're going to accept and which we're not.  Am I saying that Wild Bill Hickok definitely shot six or seven men in a bar fight in the Nebraska territory in 1867?  Hell no.  I wasn't there, or anywhere in 1867, not in Nebraska nor in any of the other places where Hickok purportedly shot multiple folks at the same time, and did so with more than one revolver in his hands.  And neither was anyone else who lived, either then or now, to write absolutely true accounts of such a thing, one way or the other.  Some historian in the present, who says it didn't happen, is making that judgement are exactly the same amount of hearsay that some historian is using that says it did happen.  The difference between bad historians and good historians isn't that good historians use better sources, it's that good historians know that we can't trust any sources.  Not really.  We just do our best, figure out what we can, and wait for somebody to finally reveal that for the past five generations, this one family in Arkansas has been keeping this old leather-covered book, not knowing what it was.  Even then, we'll never really be sure it was written by Hickok.

So when anyone tells you something is true, because we know it from history, you should treat that person like a fellow trying to sell you land in Florida.  That someone, even if they have a television show, is just one big flop-pie of old cow grass.