Reviewing our discussion so far; let’s allow for the reader having settled down
and then recommenced
. Where are we?
Inevitably, we come around to working.
Today, I reworked my trade tables specific to distilled beverages: common spirits, whiskey, gin, brandy, vermouth, liqueurs, that sort of thing. Apart from figuring out the cost of the ingredients and the distilling, I've come around to calculating the cost of the bottle in which the liquid is stored. Ceramics, glass and glassmaking are merely other products, after all; it isn't rational to expect players to carry around 12 ounces of whiskey cupped in their hands, nor is it desirable to allow people into the distillery to scoop up some with a convenient mug, for all sorts of reasons. Spirits were put in bottles and flasks then as well as now ... and the cost of the container is added to the cost of the spirit when it is bought at the market. Often, in the case of very common spirits, the bottle can cost more than the liquid it contains; though most of the time, players fail to realize that "empties" are stacking up in their equipment lists. Or, rather, the empties would stack up if the player didn't scratch out the "flask" part of the oil or the "vial" part of the holy water they've used. I interpret this as players throwing these containers away ... but what's a few coppers or silver pieces from a player's point of view?
I didn't used to take account of baskets, buckets, bottles, flasks, vials, jars, pots and phials. It's something that occurred while I was working the trade system in 2016; was quite a bit of busy work to get it in place, a bother really, for something the players were bound to ignore. But, I get to charge a little more while I wait for some player to realize it (since the empties are all for sale, too, on the same equipment list), and realize also that I'm making other rules, such as bartering
, for what to do with those empties.
Too, it helps set a price at the inn or tavern. There, you don't pay for the bottle. You get the beverage poured into a goblet, so the base price of the liquid is actually lower. Then again, the tavern keeper arbitrarily inflates the price, selling a much smaller quantity so that the buyer doesn't notice so much. All these costs are kept hidden from the player, naturally. There's no reason why they should see something more than the flat price of something.
It's difficult to see the value of this sort of work. What does this add to the game, except that there's a possibility that players will start to carry around bags of empty bottles to unload them when they get back to town. Why not just one price for all liquors? Do players really care if they're drinking whiskey or gin? They can't taste it. Why am I wasting time with this?
The answer requires the perspective of someone that's 35 years on the other side of constant, diligent work at a single project. I'm not rebuilding the combat system; I'm perfectly fine with it. I'm not adding new character classes, since I don't think the game is about what class you play. I'm not adding magical items and spells, since there are enough of these. I'm rewriting spells and monsters, but until these are rewritten, I can run them just fine using my imagination and four decades of experience. Truth is, I'm not working on anything that I really need if I want to make my world run. If I'm working on a map, its always someplace the party isn't, since all those areas have been finished. Or I'm making a more detailed map of somewhere that I can already run without the detailed map. I might be writing descriptions of armour, environments, non-player characters, special attacks, features, classes of animal or whatever for the Authentic wiki, but these things can wait. Everything that can't wait, I've already done. Long ago.
This means I can "waste time" on small things that amuse me or amuse the players. While a player is forced to choose between "the same tired classes" when making their character, "with the same tired spells" or whatever, because I won't add more and more classes or spells so they can be a special snowflake with lots of options to pimp their ride
, they can play in a game world with hundreds and hundreds of tiny little unexpected morsels, hints, extras, hacks and quirks that have been amassed by my spending little bits of my time inserting something as silly as "the empty bottle you're throwing away has value." It's only silly written here, because in this post it stands by itself. Viewed en masse
with its kin, it's astonishing.
My reason for including the empty bottle is not because it is "more real." It is because the reality of empty bottles piling up in a backpack is "more interesting" than handwaving bottles away out of inconvenience. There's gold to be found in vexations of this kind. Little flakes of gold, like one would find panning a stream.
I read of people deciding to make a campaign and deciding to make great sweeping changes, such as crashing the entire combat system or getting rid of magic. I think recently I spoke with someone who had decided to get rid of all the monsters from his D&D campaign, so that all the encounters were with other people. My question about this is always, "How does this improve the game?" This is never the question that's answered.
Instead, we get something like this: "I don't like monsters; I don't find them believable. I want something more down to earth. More like we encounter in real life. I don't like running monsters. I feel having only humans makes the game more accessible." And so on. We don't benefit from an explanation of how or why it is more accessible, but we do get a strong sense that the DM has an axe to grind and that the players are the stone being used to grind it.
With any change, there ought to be a functional reason, one that can be demonstrated with math and solid research. Prior to the tweaks I made with my combat system in 1986, my players were beginning to express a sense of boredom with the rules as written. After the change, the level of enthusiasm went up, the noise went up, the rush of hand to die so as to roll an attack intensified and overall, players began to deliberately enthuse about combat. When asked, no one wanted to go back or re-examine the old system. On the whole, when I read about someone who feels bent on getting rid of magic spells from their campaign, I'm quite sure that while the players will accept that, I'm equally as sure that the players would go back to magic in a heartbeat. We want designs that are improvements! For all the variety of the Kama Sutra, it is still just fucking. It didn't invent something new.
With my earliest game world, oh so very long ago, when I was green and blind, I worked endlessly on three problems: a) mapping the world, so that I and the players would understand where we were from night to night; b) making lists of things that I wanted to put in my world, especially equipment lists, because there were never enough things for my players to buy, made worse as they got into upper levels and had plenty of money to spend; and c) trying to build random tables that would produce a monster when an encounter came up, or that would be behind a door, or would produce a good amount of imaginative treasure on demand, or coughed up an interesting NPC. I liked making maps, but I didn't really understand what these needed to accomplish to make them useful for game play. I never could find enough things to add to lists, and I hated that prices or sizes or whatever were arbitrarily based on nothing except my gut. And I really, really hated trying to figure out what monster to throw at the party, and really, really wanted an encounter table to solve that problem for me.
Those first maps I made were like anyone's map. Here's a forest, here's a river, here's a town on the river, here's all this whitespace with nothing in it. The forest is just another kind of white space, the river is arbitrary and is just a river, and the town is exactly like every other town. Gah. I had no answer for this, so I started researching into mapmaking, on a level I never had before, which meant turning to the university library because the public library didn't have enough. That led me to cartography, and as it turned out the cartography department at the University of Calgary had thousands of profoundly detailed maps of places all over the world in 1:50,000 scale. That's 1 inch to 1,388 yards; on a map that's four feet by five, that being a common size of the maps kept in the university's cabinets, we're talking about a spectacular amount of detail.
[of course, this is 1983/4, long before Google Maps smashed that level of detail ... and that whole map department is gone, downsized because of Google Maps. But this story happens before the "internet"]
The university map department had a light table. I had never seen or heard of a light table before that. I fell instantly in love. If this isn't something you know, it is a white plastic-topped table with a low-heat light immediately below the surface. If you lay a sheet of paper on top of it, even thick map paper, you can see right through the map; and you can put another sheet of paper on top and trace to your heart's content. Fabulous. Absolutely fabulous.
[and, again, I can do far, far more now with the tools I have, but I would have had to wait 15 years or so to get those tools, so shut up]
One day, I'm cheerfully sitting at a map table, having the time of my life drawing out the hills and castles and borders around Vienna, because there was this really terrific map of Vienna in the archives, when it hit me. What the hell was I doing? I'm copying out this map because there's a wealth of detail, so I can take the tracing home and use it to build out an area of my fantasy map, because the depth it will supply to my make-believe fictional city will do wonders to make it different from the other fictional cities, which I can then make different by getting other maps of other places in Europe and holy shit I'm being a confounded idiot!
Why don't I just use Europe as my game world?
And not just Europe, but the whole world. Look at it. I already have the maps. I can stop mapmaking altogether! I can say the players are in Vienna, and when they want to know where in Vienna, I can buy a $4 tourist map of Vienna (1986 prices) and SHOW THEM. And I can do that for every place on Earth. I can buy two maps and scrawl shit on one of them and the other one can still be used as a clean reference. Why am I wasting time making maps?
[well, I found reasons later, but that's another story]
Let me explain how much trouble I had selling this concept to my players, who were used to running in my fictional world, who ran their own fictional worlds ... and were intimately familiar with fictional worlds we could all buy at the game store. None. Zero. They loved the idea. We started the new campaign with the party in Vienna that weekend, about four days after my epiphany, and it went spectacularly. All the streets were clear, there were back alleys, squares, buildings, all the detail that everyone could want ... and as the players had seen movies and bits and pieces about Vienna, they had a clear grounded understanding of what it might be like to be in Vienna. No one wanted to go back to the fantasy game world I had been running before.
I wish I could argue that kind of epiphany for every part of my game, but alas, that is not the way it worked out. Over time, I surrendered. I stopped making lists. I see lists that people put together online all the time, with as few as six options, and sometimes with as many as a hundred. Lists of random events, lists of places, lists of NPCs, lists of equipment, all sorts of lists. I'll be damned if any of them offered a single benefit to any game I ever ran. In truth, I didn't actually need to know an NPC's wisdom, if I already had the needed personality type that the campaign demanded at that moment in my mind. It was a horrific waste of time to sit and dredge up lists of NPCs ... though I did do that and there's a certain pleasure in randomly rolling characters just to see what comes up on the dice. Lists of places were useless when most of the time it was self-evident what sort of building or geographical feature was needed to highlight the adventure. Random events were repetitive and boring; the best sorts of events are those that are carefully chosen to fit a string of previous events, such as the logical after effects of an earthquake knocking down a town and producing thousands of refugees, who ravage the local fields and live jammed together in shelters, producing a disease that ravages the country in turn, causing mass deaths followed by flies and another disease, followed by a flood because it is late spring. These events logically follow one upon another. Random events are just dumb.
I did have an extensive equipment list. Nothing like the one I have now, though. Then, I made stuff up out of my head. My present list wasn't invented. It followed logically upon researching through an encyclopedia. Never would I have thought to invent things like kumis, bird's nest soup or dingjia for my old equipment list.
Knowing things is better than making lists of stuff. Having these things pushed into your head regularly by manipulating them around into practical programmed delivery models is key. Getting the players to understand how they, too, can manipulate these things, so that they can look at the modelled prices and figure out how to build things from the blocks being offered, solves problems in game play I would have never imagined could be solved. They certainly couldn't be solved by producing lists and putting numbers next to each item, for dice rolls.
This, in sequence, killed my interest in random tables, for monsters, for treasure, for dungeon generation, for lots of similar projects that I must have spent a thousand hours failing at. There's still a part of me that wants to make a random table work, because I still hate having to invent a random monster when a monster is needed; but, I do that. Because it works. My pattern recognition skills of what a party can handle, or how to present a super-powerful monster in a way so that it's not that dangerous, is better than a random table would be.
The lesson in all this example-giving is this: I've done a lot of work. A lot of wasted work. I did get skills out of that work, but it is frightening how many hours I spent remaking lists of monsters with die roll numbers beside them, on paper, with pencil, written longhand, only to later try it a different way, then a different way again, then again, then again. Without a computer. Without being able to change the table, but having to write it out again. Only to be disappointed when it was tested, either before or during a game. Time. So much time spent.
I would have preferred a different path, but along the way this always seemed the best course of action. I never thought during those years, "Gee, I wish I wasn't wasting my time." I always felt that the approach I was taking was producing fruit and that it was worthwhile to follow. And, one way or another, it got me here. It taught me what parts of my game I needed to keep and which to abandon. There are, today, so many parts I would never think of changing -- I'm happy with where they are and I'm making no efforts to change them. Those parts have stabilized. This is a good thing. I don't believe that everything in the game is ripe for improvement. There are so many other places for me to put my energy, other things that can be added to the game, that I can pursue.
As a result, the game I play today would be recognizable to the players I ran in the 1980s. If they had their characters with them, and sat down to play, we could sort out the shifts and adjustments in short order. Most of those adjustments would favour the players, giving them more choices, more personal power, more depth. I've not spent a lot of time taking things away from the game. I ditched alignment about two years after I started, sometime in 1981. I got rid of languages in the game soon after, as I felt they added very little and it was the same deja vu with every scene that involved a language problem. The players I had then celebrated both changes; no player I've had since has seriously canvassed me to reinstall either feature.
Beyond those two things, I can't think of anything else off hand that I've taken away. However, I have refused to make those changes the company pursued. I did not need more of the same thing. A few players have, over the years, offered a small note of disappointment that they couldn't be a particular race or class. I don't know if any one has quit my world on account of that. None have ever said so.
As far as I've been concerned, the company spent its time working in the wrong direction. The classes worked. The races worked. They needed tweaking and a little less arbitrary hurdle jumping (I mean, really, who cares if an elven character has the minimum ability stats?), but the fundamental structure was fine. The company recognized that those things worked. A cow bell works. This does not mean we need more cowbell.
I feel I'm wandering a bit, where I'm edging around the subject of explaining how the reader ought to work on their own campaign. I'm concerned that anything I'd say would be biased and unworkable for another person. The exact details of the campaign, or those things that are important to me in my campaign, are in large part irrelevant. All kinds of arrangements of rule systems and functional designs can work in a campaign; and just because there are some designs I felt were dead ends for me, that does not mean another person cannot produce an encounter table that will get the results they want. I am couching this post in examples because I can't think of a better way to explain my approach to work, without being seen as telling others how to do their work.
Yet, what good is it having experience and the will to write, if that experience isn't shared?
While the reader's campaign could be "series of permutations," as JB argued on my last post, I feel that seeing this "potential" as a positive is a wretched misreading of how design happens. There is a marked difference between "change" and "adjustment." We can rip our kitchen apart yearly and rebuild it, since this is physically possible, insisting on taking out the old cupboards and counters that we put in last year in exchange for new ones ... but is this useful or silly? Is it "creation" or "tail-chasing." What is the point in doing work that we know we're just going to make redundant next year, merely because the rules "can" be changed to better suit my needs. My needs are that the maximum number of rules are distinctly not changed, at all, for decades at a time. My needs are that the players are taught to understand why I made the changes I did, how these things serve the players and why changing them willy-nilly would ignore decades of patient research, consideration and effort in favour of one player who hasn't done anything yet except to show up for the campaign. Rational people who come to a game world as players know this. The recognize that all the work that's been done here was done by the DM. Moreover, if that work is staggering; if it is well-considered and promotional to the players' needs -- then the common response is not to seek subversion but to recognize the work being done and drop jaw in awe. A response I am used to getting from new players.
[sorry, JB, but at this point it is necessary to point out that when you came into my game world, your actions and behaviour were exactly an expectation that the world would bend to your desires, actions and expectations for change -- and you met with a brick wall in that regard; my world does not change for a player. Hell, this late in the game, my world does not change for me. I have too many commitments to present players whom I respect to massively adjust the game world and rid them of their precious achievements through running in it]
Dear Reader, if you are still with me. You should wish to have a world that's as "finished" as mine. I don't work on it because I have to; as it stands right now, I could run the game for a good twenty years without adding a single sage ability or further wiki description. I wouldn't like it, because I enjoy the steady effort of adding to the content, but I'm under no obligation to add more than the gifts already bestowed. Nor do I think failing to do so would seriously undermine a sufficient number of would-be players (I can only run so many, yes?). Show of hands, please. Who here would quit or refuse to run in my campaign if I failed to do a write up of the gnoll monster or the giants? Who here would quit if I never wrote up the exact rules on how to grow, manufacture and embue a wand with power? Anyone? These things are bonuses, they're not the game. The "game" and the "game world" are already finished. If, perchance, someone were to try and sail to America, I obviously don't need to finish the map of it to run the place. I know how to do that without my map. I did that for decades.
There is a certain foolishness that argues that the world's redesign has to meet a certain criteria which denies doing it "on the cheap." I say that a different way: I can simulataneously run my game system using the old rules and the new rules at the same time, because I didn't burn the old game down and build on the ashes. I built the new game amid the old game, and the two of them continue to function just fine, thank you very much. In effect, my game world is in a constant state of "being finished," since its always runable. So, while I said that we may never reach the end product, with the last post I tried to explain that not having finished that product to the degree we might have liked is something we ought to get used to. It is something we should not mind that it is not fully finished. We should not feel regret that there's still a lot to do, or that we haven't time to do it, or that we don't know how to do it. We can get along with what we have, if we're willing and able to get along with it.
It is this bitterness I see in would-be designers that they hate the combat system or they hate magic, or whatever other thing they want to get rid of from their campaigns, for whatever reasons they give. I don't see these arson-driven world designs as positive or effective; they involve deliberately taking away something from players for the sake of taking them away. There seems to be no compensation for this removal; but perhaps the DM feels as I expressed a little bit ago, that "my world is a brick wall," and the players can learn to lump it. Yes, out of context with everything I've said here, that makes sense. But I have that opinion because I've worked for thirty-five years to ADD things to the game; where as the arsonist has worked for ten minutes to burn it all down. I see that the words being used are the same, but I don't see the motivation for the words as having any similarity at all.
So, please, if we can take advantage of my experience, in setting yourself up at your workbench, start by not burning down parts of the game world you've chosen. Replace them, yes. But while you're replacing them, do so in a way that does not make any part of the world inactive for any period of time. Using the kitchen metaphor, rebuild your kitchen so that the residents can still cook food there. Remember that it is still a living space in the people's home. Make as small a footprint as you can, while you replace the cupboards and bring in the new appliances, or while you lay the floor. Treat your game world as a renovation, not a whole new construction. Realize that much of the system you've chosen is actually pretty good ... and that while sure, you can do better, don't feel you have to do better everywhere and all at once. Pick and choose those parts you most want to fix, then fix them in a smooth, transitional manner that will enable you to continue running your world, while getting feedback from the players before, during and after the change. This is instructional; and applicable, no matter what changes you make.
When I shifted the players from my old fantasy world to Vienna, I did not make them roll up new characters. I did not bother creating a premise for transitioning from one world to the other. I did not want a story arc where the players were not from this new world. I gave them birthplaces, they kept their experience levels, their equipment and everything else. The players and I agreed that the transition did not need to be a "big deal" or any reason for a "launch" of a new campaign. We weren't interested in that. We were interested in playing. So they stepped into Vienna as though they'd been there all their lives and no one minded. On the whole, I think we put too much store in things that don't matter.
This is how I make every change. The player didn't have a particular skill, now they do. Assassins used to have a d6 for hit points, now they have a d8; and some changes are made to the experience table, but they don't affect the player because the necessary alterations to maintain the status quo are made. A rule change is applied that reduces a powerful option the player chose, and the player is given the option of retconning their original choice. My players are fine with the changes; they recognize why the changes were necessary; there was discussion of what was going wrong, play-testing wise, and they happily accept the adjustment. The game moves on.
I don't make changes that radically affect the setting or the present series of events. Why would a rule change mean that the king liked the players, or that an enemy of theirs was still nursing a grudge? Why would a rule change alter the number of bad guys in the dungeon? Or the details of the latest clue, or where a town was located. And even if I did relocate a town, the players would be relocated right along with it, producing not significant change.
Try, with all your might, to fix absolute standards in your world. These people will always feel this way about their culture. This set of rules will always be the gold standard. We will change lots of different rules in lots of different ways, but these rules, specifically because we've vetted them and we like them, won't change. I tell the reader, if you can't decide on a set of rules that you really like and that you're not willing to change, you've got a bitter and unyielding row to hoe. I pity you. Having parts of your campaign that unchangable grants the players reason to trust you. If everything is on the table, because you can't tell what you like or because someone else's idea is so tempting that you can't stand by your own convictions, well ... yeah. Get ready for a rough ride.
Sit down, write out the list of rules that you're absolutely going to keep as it for the foreseeable future. All right, yes, someday you might change them, but let's agree that won't be for a really long time and those are not your priorities in any case. Try to make this list as long as you can. The longer it is, the less work you'll have to do in the short term.
Now the second list; those things you have doubts about, but are ready to impose on yourself (grit your teeth and bear it), make a list of those too. You don't have to make these lists if you can keep them straight in your head, but I'm guessing that if you're having trouble managing your game world and building a setting, this doesn't describe you. Mind you, this group you're gritting your teeth over are rules you're going to run as written until you can build up enough free time to take them on without resorting to arson. Once again, the longer this list is, the less work you have to do until later.
Your third list can be things you really hate, that you want to be vocal about, but that you're going to let be right now. These are things you're going to deliberately talk down to the players, but you're not going to do anything about. I strongly recommend you make them small things. Anything large, put it on the second list, moving it up to the front of that second list. You don't want to spend a lot of time disparaging something for two years that you can't fix, so just shut up about those things. Yes, I'm saying that you shouldn't talk about things on the second list. You will, of course you will. But you shouldn't.
Finally, your fourth list. These are the things you're going to start changing now, before the players come next Saturday night. You're not going to finish them before Saturday, but you will let your players know these are on the chopping block and no one should get attached. I recommend that this list has three things or less on it. One is best, since you can only work on one thing at a time, but assuming you'll get stuck fixing the one thing, it's good to have other projects. Tell the players why you're changing it. Tell the players why they want you to change it. If you haven't answered this one yet; and your players don't want it ... um, better shove that onto another list.
Look, you've got to sell the change. If you get draconian about your dislike of something, and you can't figure out an angle to get the players on your side, you're just going to come off as a bitchy sour-mouth with an inability to run well. You want THREE solid reasons why the change needs to be made, and TWO of those reasons have to include things that improve the players' gaming experience. If you can't think of three, you're either not trying, you're not smart enough to make the changes you want or you ARE a bitchy sour-mouth. That's unforgiving and indecent and abusive, but I'm thinking about your players here and not you; I'm not terribly anxious to enable a DM who can't think of good, positive game reasons for making a change, the sort that other people can appreciate.
You can see why, can't you?
We do not make changes because they suit the personal needs of a tin-pot DM. We make changes for the collective good. When the collective good encourages the change, this brings them on as innovators and supporters. When we get stuck, the players are a resource. When the players ask why the change hasn't happened yet, we can gauge their enthusiasm, pumping ourselves up knowing that it's there. We don't worry about the change; we look forward to it. The players look forward to it. This makes it tremendously easy to motivate ourselves to produce the result. Win-win in every direction.
When we impose a change without this support, we get the opposite. Grumbling, no enthusiasm, a lack of encouragement and we hate doing the work; and when we impose it, there is no reward and no sense of comaraderie. So. Get approval. Every time. Or don't make the change.
And if you're changing a system and you have no players? No, no. No.
Talk to the hand.
I don't make rule changes without discussing them with someone. I don't get push-back when I bring the rule in because if there had been a chance of push-back, I'd have known about it long before finishing the work. That chance is addressed, the work is suitably adjusted, or abandoned, and there are constant updates. "This is working fine; thanks for the suggestion," I'll tell my players. "I should have seen it from your perspective," I'll tell my players. Of course, I've still got to do the work; so if, at this stage, I don't like it, there's another conversation and the project is shelved.
This blog is a long, endless account of these sorts of discussions. Notable examples include the I-mech, the decision to expand sage abilities and the character background generator, attempts to bring others onboard the wiki, my failure to do so, and so on. These conversations aren't always pretty; and I am awfully tetchy. It is human for things to be that way.
In describing these four lists that I just know the reader will avidly make (sarcasm), I've emphasized "rules" and not setting. You'll find your players are much relaxed about the setting, so long as it doesn't impose rules regarding player behaviour. As long as they can be themselves, they'll adjust to your setting whatever it is. A better setting will, obviously, be better enjoyed. For this, you'll need to listen closely and shelve a lot of your "ideas" if you find they're not getting traction. Contrary to the belief of 6 out of 7 DMs, players don't actually want a weird, original world setting. They like things that are familiar. I recommend finding something familiar that you like, and going with that. It will make your life much easier.
Okay. I'm sure there are a lot of things I haven't said, but I can't think of them at this hour in the morning; so I'm going to wrap this up. I think this is the last post in this series ... but hell, who knows?