Monday, November 30, 2020

What Do You Need?

From p. 6-7 of 4th Edition's chapter, How to be a DM

What do you need to play D&D?

A Place to Play: The bare minimum of space you need to play D&D is room for everyone in your group to sit. Most likely, you also want a table for everyone to sit around. A table holds your battle grid and miniature figures, gives you a place to roll dice and write on character sheets, and holds piles of books and papers.  You can pull chairs around a dining table or sit in recliners and easy chairs around a coffee table within reach. It’s possible to run a game without a table for the battle grid, but combat runs more easily if everyone can see where everything is.

Rating: true

With this post, I will be discussing p.7 one paragraph at a time.  I'd like to be as positive as possible, but it can be seen with the above that there is plenty of room for facetiousness and sarcasm.  [really?  chairs can be pulled up to a dining table?  I had no idea]  The temptation is very strong.  But then again, its arguable the writing here is on a child's level, that being the company's marketing agenda.

The experience with playing on soft cushy chairs around a coffee table has not been a good one.  It may suit the description-heavy designs of some DMs, but it's difficult to achieve tension in situations of comfort.  Sitting up in a chair encourages improved focus, greater activity and direct face-to-face communication.  Sitting around a table enhances interactivity out of closeness to comrades, as opposed to people separated by thick padded chair arms, who loll outstretched and have less reason to move.  It is easier to get up from a straight-backed chair and move around the room; the position keeps us engaged.  A table with chairs is better than a living room with recliners.

Desirably, the dining table should include a 2-3 foot space completely around the players.  Often, this isn't possible.  A two-bedroom apartment often has a small living room that is already full of furniture and TV, leaving one tiny dining area for a table jammed between walls and the kitchen.  Unfortunately, this condition makes role-playing a sanctified upper middle class white person activity -- it is hard to find good space in a one-room apartment in a depressed area -- whereas the children of white parents grow up in houses with large dining rooms and developed basements, often with large gaming areas expressly available for large get-togethers.  The writers of 4e were probably not conscious that they're preaching to a social class that can afford expansive dining tables and recliner chairs.

Naturally, pointing this out is something that makes white people feel persecuted for liking something.

Rulebooks: As DM, you need a copy of all the rulebooks you’re going to use to play. At a minimum, that should be a copy of the Player’s Handbook, the Dungeon Master’s Guide, and the Monster Manual. Your players each need the Player’s Handbook, since every character’s broad assortment of powers, feats, and items means the game runs more smoothly if all the players bring their own copies of the Player’s Handbook to the table.

Rating: mostly true 

There's a little selling going on here.  I've never played a campaign in my life that had more than two Player Handbooks, and for the first ten years, there was never more than one.  Players can share.  People do not need to look at the book more than once to make copies of their powers, feats and items.  Of course, today we can take a picture of pages, while rule books can be located online and searched through in seconds, as opposed to flipping through pages to find what's wanted.  This gets the books off the table, making more room for everyone.

I do agree that the DM needs the rulebooks.  I'll add that the DM needs to read the rulebooks and know which pages on which the rules within are written, or at the very least about how deep in the book the rule is.  I read the original DMG about ten times between 1979 and 1985; and certain sections, such as the passage on handling troublesome players (p.110) many more times.  Even looking just now, it took me about 30 seconds to find it, after not actually opening the DMG for about six months (I hardly ever use the original book any more).  In the day, I would have found the page in less than 5 seconds, partly because the pages were stiffer; today, the pages are so fragile I turn them carefully, so as not to rip them.

Reading the books constantly means they need to be used less often during a game.  In 1984, I would guess I referred to both the DMG and Player's Handbook together a total of about twice per hour; at 5-20 seconds to find a page in each case, and half a minute to read the book out loud to the players -- which keeps them actively engaged and therefore not bored -- my game's momentum was not especially marred by having to "look up rules," a complaint I hear often.

Dice: You need a full assortment of dice. It’s helpful to have at least three of each kind. (That might seem to be a lot, but when you have to roll 4d12 + 10 fire damage for the ancient red dragon’s breath weapon, you’ll be glad you have more than one d12.) A lot of powers use multiple d6s, d8s, and d10s. Each player at the table should also have a set of polyhedral dice, since most players get very attached to their dice.

Rating: true

How could it not be true?  They're dice.  Truth is, you can't keep dice out of the hands of players, and the problem isn't too few, it's too many.  Occasionally, a player will turn up with a sea of dice, which they like to pour out on the table, covering as much as two to three square feet of space.  As a DM, I've never been short of dice; and never had a player deny me the use of a few dice in order to roll 40d12, if need be.

I'm not a fan of dice towers; they're noisy and they take up table space, and for some players they're a sort of mini-game that can't be left alone.  I despise players rolling dice at the table to pass the time, when the dice are not needed; I've also run into, many times, that player who feels the need to "warm up the dice" by rolling them a bunch of times before the roll that "counts."  I don't allow this, because it kills game momentum and encourages players to use the roll that best suits their needs, describing the one that counts as whichever is best for them.  The dice sit still until they're needed; or the player doesn't play with me.

It's funny how making a statement like that encourages online players to believe I must be some kind of tyrant as a DM.  In fact, it's a reaction to die-rollers who freely create distractions both for others and themselves, disrupt the game, break tension, ruin immersion and slow momentum.  This year, 2020, baseball banned spitting, fighting, tobacco chewing and sunflower seeds.  For covid, yes, but these are things baseball has wanted to ban for decades; these habits revolt new spectators and contribute to the agonizingly slow pace of the game, which may have been fine for the 1940s, before television, but are killing baseball today.  Momentum matters; and however tyrannical it sounds, I have better, faster, more fluid games because players are not struggling to concentrate while fetishists needlessly bounce dice on the table.

Paper and Pencils: Everyone should have easy access to a pencil and paper. During every round of combat, you need to keep track of hit points, attack penalties and defense bonuses, use of powers, spent action points, the consequences of conditions, and other information. You and your players need to take notes about what has happened in the adventure, and players need to make note of experience points (XP) and treasure their characters acquire.

Rating: true 

Laptop computers and tablets can easily replace paper, produce less mess, allow for a constant updating of character sheets, reduce the presence of the player spending an entire session "rewriting their character" ... but computers can also serve as a temptation for players to muck around with computer games while the game is on.  It's interesting how this can reveal players who play because they really like D&D and those who consider it a "social activity" -- the latter will find ways to keep themselves busy during the boring bits, as they haven't the motivation or the wherewithal to problem solve or address the metaphysical parts of the adventure.  On the one hand, I want these players not to waste my time playing solitaire while I'm laying on the game; on the other, in substance these players are the "cannon fodder" of the party.  They don't contribute much to the intellectual game, but they're warm bodies who can give and take damage, throw spells and occasionally perform a skill when its needed, being the only character possessing that skill.

Going back to the beginning, I always had players who would sketch or doodle while the game was on.  I didn't mind that so much, so I don't mind the player engaging in solitaire or any other video game -- so long as we're not waiting for them to complete some level before they can give their full attention.  Video games are quieter than spontaneous die rolling, but they can be distracting for the player sitting next to the gamer.  And while I'm on the subject of distractions, if the player's phone rings, they can take it out of the room; I have even made them take it out of the apartment altogether, onto the balcony in summer or the building stairwell in winter.

Too many phone calls and the player and I are going to have a talk about whether or not if they really want to spend their evenings playing D&D.

Battle Grid: A battle grid is very important for running combat encounters, for reasons outlined in the Player’s Handbook. D&D Dungeon Tiles, a vinyl wet-erase mat with a printed grid, a gridded whiteboard, a cutting mat, or large sheets of gridded paper—any of these can serve as a battle grid. The grid should be marked in 1-inch squares. Ideally, it should measure at least 8 inches by 10 inches, and preferably 11 inches by 17 inches or larger.

Dungeon Master’s Screen: This accessory puts a lot of important information in one place—right in front of you—and also provides you with a way to keep players from seeing the dice rolls you make and the notes you refer to during play.

Rating: mostly true

Battle grids also make the company money, so there's that.  Serious battles require a much larger playing space than 11 by 17 inches, but as I understand most combats promoted by later editions are typically just a few enemies, that size is sufficient.  A typically 6th level party in my game will occasionally feature 6 player characters, 6 henchmen and anywhere from 3-12 followers, trained animal combatants and magically generated participants, against 30-50 enemies -- a battle that I can usually manage inside one session or less; from their engagement and after-comments, my players find these battles exciting and satisfying.  They're managed on a computer generated game map, that has no dimensions; though a very large battle can seriously challenge the ram on my computer.

Dungeon Master screens are evil.  Dice should be rolled in the open, where the players can see the numbers and know what they mean, keeping the DM honest.  Seeing the rolls, the players know when they're really in trouble and game tension multiplies, producing a better overall experience even if occasionally the scene ends in disaster.  In such cases, the DM is not blamed.  Moreover, when the players succeed, they know precisely the odds that were stacked against them, and recognize their triumph as real.  They know for a fact the DM did not fake their success.

The important information that's needed by the DM that the screen provides can also be read if the screens are laid flat on the table.  There is no reason whatsoever why players should not also be able to read combat tables during the game.  Any perceived tension that is created by the mythical fog of war, that DMs will argue for, is trounced by the sheer panic that occurs when actual war is ongoing.

This series continues with More Things We Need

Sunday, November 29, 2020

The Dungeon Master

From p. 6 of 4th Edition's chapter, How to be a DM

One player has a special role in a D&D game. The Dungeon Master controls the pace of the story and referees the action along the way. You can’t play a game of D&D without a DM. 

What Does the DM Do?: The Dungeon Master has many hats to wear in the course of a game session. The DM is the rules moderator, the narrator, a player of many different characters, and the primary creator of the game’s world, the campaign, and the adventure.

Who Should Be the DM?: Who should be the Dungeon Master for your gaming group? Whoever wants to be! The person who has the most drive to pull a group together and start up a game often ends up being the DM by default, but that doesn’t have to be the case. 

Dungeon Masters Can Partner, Trade Off, or Change: The role of Dungeon Master doesn’t have to be a singular, ongoing, campaign-long appointment. Many successful gaming groups switch DMs from time to time. Either they take turns running campaigns, switching DM duty every few months, or they take turns running adventures and switch every few weeks.

Rating: false

I know that for many readers, the above sounds true, but there are plainly false statements that depend on accurate understanding of the metaphor.  A "hat" is a profession or a role.  The DM does not wear many "hats"; there are many different sorts of things a DM does or accounts for, but these are not different roles in themselves.  A doctor examines patients, prescribes medicine, writes reports, manages staff and so on, but these are not different "hats."  "Rules moderator" is not an independent role.  Narrator and acting the parts of NPCs, these are not roles.  These are all part and parcel within the DM's role.  A quibble for some, but factually inaccurate.

Moreover, the passage does not actually describe what the DM does.  It doesn't answer the question.  Example:

In baseball, the pitcher is the player who throws the baseball from the pitcher's mound toward the catcher to begin each play, with the goal of retiring the batter, who attempts to either make contact with the pitched ball or draw a walk.

The answer is not, "The pitcher has many hats to wear in the course of the game.  The DM is a ball thrower, a ball catcher, a player that performs many actions, and is the most important player on the diamond, the team and during the game."

The answer given about the DM above is gobbledygook.

The question, "who should be the DM?" is asked twice, I expect for emphasis.  Imagine if I ask you, who should be the quarterback?  Who should be the last leg in a relay race?  Who should play 1st base?  The answer, whoever wants to be, offers a fair, non-prejudicial answer to the question.  Everyone deserves a chance.  Everyone deserves respect.  No person is better than anyone else.  It's only reasonable that the answer to "who?" should include a disclaimer that encourages everyone to try.

A Little League baseball coach taking charge of a dozen 9-year-olds does not say, "Who wants to play 1st base?"  It is a good way to start fights and it doesn't solve the problem of who should be there.  Acknowledging that parents are a larger problem for which child gets the "honour" of playing which base, it is best understood that the game is not about the needs or wants of any one player.

Let's say Jimmy, Judy and Jane all want to play 1st base.  Putting the question of who is best at it on a shelf, the larger question is, which will contribute the most to the team if they're put in that role?  Not only to the team's potential to win (which builds morale and makes everyone happy), but also towards the team's general feeling that one is really liked in the role while the others are disliked.  Suppose that Judy is obviously the best skilled; but when she is in that role, she swaggers and acts conceited, so much that her general attitude undermines the benefit of having her play 1st base.  Perhaps Jane has skills which could be improved if she gets an opportunity to play the position; which she would not be able to improve if Judy is always there.  Perhaps Jimmy is a terrific morale-booster when he's in the in-field, giving everyone the wherewithal to really dig in when the game gets hard.  Variables have to be weighed.

The good coach tries each player; and looks to see if others who may not want to play 1st base have the skills for it.  Judy is used against the tougher teams, but Jane gets some real experience now and then, and during practices is given more training in the position.  The coach and Judy discuss her attitude and see if it can be smoothed out.  We find a place for Jimmy somewhere in the infield; possibly at first base if Judy or Jane are injured or miss a game.  We approach the problem flexibly.  EVERYONE is happier if Judy makes a great play or Jane doesn't make an error ... so we don't want just anyone to play that position, because losing games every week is very, very depressing.  No one has fun, and fun is the point, right?

The approach taken by the 4e text misses a real opportunity.  Instead of opting for a political, inclusive argument, crammed into six lines, we could drastically cut down the previous section about how many players ought to be at the game table, widen the margins on the page so that we have a little room to write, and talk about the actual skills the DM would need in order to act the part.

A DM should have control of the language, an ability to express and give details about abstract things, patience with numbers, a cool head, a real interest in rules (how they're made and what purpose they serve) and should be someone with an academic bent towards reading about history, anthropology, games and general science, all subjects which will come up a lot during play.  There's a lot of reading and note-making involved in being a DM, as well as an expectation for keeping the peace and treating everyone at the table equally.  If the game is going to be about "story," some creative ability would be necessary.  A DM takes responsibility for the way the game is played and will often receive pushback for doing so; therefore, the DM may have a temper but ought to be a person who does not hold a grudge.

This is a very tall order for anyone, much less the children that the company normally markets towards.  Putting it in plain English like this -- let's not kid ourselves -- really kicks a lot of would-be dreamers wanting to be a DM in the gut.  We see much advice online arguing that one or another of these things doesn't matter.  A DM doesn't need to read.  A DM doesn't need to be creative, just "imaginative."  Factual history about things is "optional."  We don't need to know "all the rules," or follow them "exactly."  Etcetera.

No matter how we paint it, the DM in the chair learns the truth in short order.  Everyone may want to be the pitcher or play 1st base, but a line-drive at a timid pitcher's head soon ends that fantasy.  The fifth missed throw to first, producing doubles and triples out of what should have been outs, as well as shouts of anger from teammates, very quickly ends the fantasy.  However we wish to paint what a DM does as a "simple" act, an hour as DM gives no leeway.  As the DM, you're expected to act as DM, no matter what sort of fantasies you possess about what's actually required.

This is the joke.  The passage implies that multiple people will want to be DM, where we know from experience that's not generally the case.  In my early days, I was very lucky.  My friends were all social outcasts, because we lived at the library, read books, played wargames and argued about art, history and other intellectual things.  We wanted to be DMs because we had the creative and information-driven skills.  Some were better that others, however, because we also had people and management skills.  It soon became clear that Scott and Irwin could feel the lack of enthusiasm for their games; while Asif, John and I were viewed otherwise.  Asif had to quit when his family decided that D&D wasn't appropriate, when the family business needed attending.  John faded away; he disliked all the prep and after awhile, he was never ready to play.  Scott gave up quickly; Irwin plugged on longer than any of them.  I was the last man standing.

That, however, was a rare situation.  Many, about a third of the DMs I spoke to at game cons in selling my book, did not want to be the DM.  They had been volun-told to be the DM, because their friends wanted to play and it was decided who would run by the group.  These were DMs doing the best they could, not sure how to do it and yet committed to pleasing their friends.

This is why the third part above takes a moment to deal with the idea that you can "trade off" with others, excusing DMs from having to do it all the time.  I grew up with the phrase, "Winners want the ball."  I think it applies here.  DMs want to DM.  They don't really want to play.  Oh,  maybe for a while, because it's more relaxed and there are things we want to try ... but really, with such a dearth of DMs in the world, if you want to, it's usually easy to make it happen.

I've never seen "partners" DM in real life.  I have a fantasy where I'd like a secretary, but a "partner"?  Gah.  I've seen people write books in partnerships; I'd think it's easier with an academic collarboration, where nothing is being made up.  But a partnership would require two persons of the same stripe; happens, obviously, but it is very, very rare.  It appears in the 4e text only because it's an official recognition of "See, you don't have to do this."  I very much doubt that "many successful gaming groups switch DMs" outside the bubble of published D&D writers, brought together through the company, writing this book.  It stinks of not understanding what it is really like out there.

Who Should Be the DM?  Those who can prove through their actions that they're able to run the game.

This series continues with What Do You Need

The Croupier

From p.6 of 4th Edition's chapter, How to Be a DM

What do you need to play the D&D game? The heart of a gaming group is the players, who role-play their characters in adventures set forth by the Dungeon Master. Every player contributes to the fun of the game and helps bring the fantasy world to life. Beyond players, to play the D&D game you need space to play, rulebooks, and supplies such as dice, paper, pencils, a battle grid, and miniatures. Your game can be as simple as that, or you can add items for your convenience (character sheets, snacks) or to enhance the game with digital components (check out

Players D&D players fill two distinct roles in a D&D game: characters and Dungeon Master. These roles aren’t mutually exclusive, and a player can role-play a character today and run an adventure for the characters tomorrow. Although everyone who plays the game is technically a player, we usually refer to players as those who run the player characters.

D&D is a game of the imagination, all about fantastic worlds and creatures, magic, and adventure. You find a comfortable place where you can spread out your books and maps and dice, and you get together with your friends to experience a group story. It’s like a fantastic action movie, and your characters are the stars. The story unfolds as your characters make decisions and take actions—what happens next is up to you!

Six People in a Group: The rules of the game assume that you’re playing in a group of six people: the DM and five other players.

More or Fewer than Six: Playing with four or six other players is easy with minor adjustments. Groups that are smaller or larger require you to alter some of the rules in this book to account for the difference.

With only two or three characters in a party, you don’t have the different roles covered (see “Covering the Character Roles” on page 10, and “Character Role” on page 15 of the Player’s Handbook), and it’s harder to get through combat encounters even if the encounter is scaled down for your smaller group. With more than six characters, the group gets unwieldy and tends to split into subgroups. We give you some tips and tricks for managing a large group in “Group Size” in Chapter 2 (page 31), but if your group gets too large, you might want to split into two or more groups that play at different times.

Rating: mostly true

My issue with the above acknowledges that what's said is essentially true.  However, what's said doesn't actually "say" anything.  In giving a definition, we don't bother to explain what it means to "role-play" characters; we don't explain what adventures are, or how they're "put forth."  We don't explain how the players are expected to "contribute" or how the fantasy world is "brought to life."  We're told there are two distinct roles, characters and Dungeon Master, and that the roles aren't "mutually exclusive," but without any context for what these statements mean, we're left scratching our heads.

Role-players are used to this.  We know what the phrases mean; We already know how to play.  So we shrug, recognizing empty boiler plate for what it's supposed to do: fill a page with words.  Reading the above, we skip through it, recognize it contains nothing insightful and move on.  No big deal.  Not every paragraph is a gem.

There is a theory in writing that argues that if the words aren't doing anything, they shouldn't be there.  This is the pity.  Here we have this half-a-page of space, just waiting to carry water for the publishers and inform the reader; instead it seems concerned with stirring our anticipation for other pages that we hope will do what this page is not doing: teach us how to be a DM.

Presumably, the physical material the game needs could be in another section, as here it is not explained how they're used. Additionally, how many players we ought to include could also find its way to some other section of the book.  After all, if we knew how to DM, we could decide for ourselves how many players we ought to run.  Personally, I've run as many as 15 people for a space more than a year.  I know of numerous games through online friends and acquaintances who run 10 people or more, including my daughter.  As an experienced DM, there's no question that the number of players that can be run depend on the formulation of the campaign, the DM's ability to maintain order and the maturity of the players (as more mature players have more respect for one another).

I concede that yes, D&D is a game of the imagination.  It incorporates fantastic worlds and yes, in playing the game -- as with any game, we sit at a table and we get together with our friends.

Agreed, sometimes D&D can be like a fantastic action movie ... but since it isn't all the time, and is often very much like a group of people debating in exactly the kind of film that would bore an audience silly, maybe it's not a good idea to belabour that specific angle, and thus cause new players to wonder when the running comes around to the fantastic action movie part.  Additionally, casting the players as the "stars" suggests that they possess some sort of plot armour, or magic writer dust that's going to ensure their success -- and perhaps this is a poor way of addressing the possibility that a bad die will kill a player.  After all, if the story unfolds due to the characters making decisions, there's a chance that the decisions made will be very, very bad ones, like failing to recognize the consequences of failing to buy rope, or deciding a one-on-one contest with the bad guy is a good idea.

Forgive me, but there are some issues I have with the technical delivery here.

The "characters" don't actually make any decisions.  The players make decisions, explaining what the characters do.  This player-character dynamic is extremely important to understanding the structure of the game; it is a really good idea if the people explaining the game made very sure they didn't get confused about which do the "role-playing" and which are "role-played."  For someone reading this, trying to get a handle on how to DM, this is probably very important, what with the book being written by experts and all.

In yesterday's passage, and here again in today's, the book states very clearly that the DM is a player.  This philosophy is held dear by the WOTC and by many others; I think perhaps it stems from a desire to evoke inclusiveness, either by equating the players as every bit as important at the DM, or assuring the DM that others appreciate the effort and commitment being offered.  There's just one little problem with this togetherness: the English definition of the word "player," and what specifically that designation describes in a game.

D&D participants do fill two distinct roles: players and DMs.  It's clear that the writers have attempted to twist the language and the distinction between player and character in order to promote this inclusivity.  There are no characters at the D&D table.  The characters are made up.  But it sounds foolish to argue that there are players and DMs, and that DMs are players also, but a different kind of player ... because it's nonsensical.

Let's have this out.  Both players and DMs are participants.  Both players and DMs take part in the game.  However, "success" at the game applies only to the player.  The DM has success at providing an effective game, but does not succeed against "the odds".  The DM does not figure out the game's puzzles, or solve the mystery, or survive, or engage in any other action attributable to the adventure.  The DM makes the adventure.  He or she does not play the adventure.

I notice that this distinction is lost on a great many participants, no doubt owing the this tremendous need for inclusivity, and to emphasize that the DM is not on a pedastal, or is not a demagogue.  The invention of DM, the force and will that enables the game, created quite a problem with an egalitarian-based world-view.  It has been attempted to explain the distinction by pointing out that the referee or the umpire do not play the game, but the fact remains that those roles officiate over the game and do not touch the ball except when it is not in play.  Whereas the DM actively participates in the effect of the game by defining the parameters of what's happening and throwing dice.  This seems distinctive from a referee and leads people to argue that yes, the DM is a player.

I propose we think of the DM as a croupier, rather than a referee.  The croupier manages a gambling table, for example, a roulette table.  In roulette, the croupier takes the bets -- that is, accepts the decisions made by the players as to what they want to do in the game -- and then spins the ball on the wheel and reads off the result.  No other participant interacts with the wheel.  The croupier cannot affect the results of the wheel without acting dishonestly or gaining an unfair advantage for the house.  The wheel's result is absolute.  While the croupier interacts in the game, it is the random chance of the wheel that determines the consequences of the game, not the croupier.

While D&D and other RPGs are vastly more complicated than roulette, the fact remains that it is not the croupier's role to dissuade the players from taking action; it is not the croupier's role to adjust the result of the wheel if someone loses.  It is the croupier's role to run the game -- and in running it, to do the absolute minimum necessary to ensure the game runs.

This would mean that while it is the DM's role to invent the adventure, it is not the DM's role to determine how the adventure plays out, what the players do, whether or not the players succeed, or make allowances for the players failing their intent and thereby dying as the dice dictate.  The DM describes the setting; the DM takes the players' accumulated actions and applies them to the setting, then determines the setting's response by rolling dice or judging that, by and large, the most obvious reaction the setting would provide.  The DM does not "play" dice.  The purpose and results of the dice are pre-determined and the DM lives by their result -- and NOT according to what the players wanted or how hurtful it is that the player's efforts failed to succeed.  Thank you for playing.  Place your bets.

The description in the 4th Edition DMG utterly fails to capture this nuance in its description of how both players and characters function within the game template.  The character is utterly dismissed by the words here.  The character's function is not to make the player feel as though they are controlling a "star."  The character exists to limit what the players are able to do, according to the limitations provided by the character's abilities and resources.  That's it.  How the character acts or what the character is emotionally inside the game is NOT a function of the game.  It is a function of how the character is run by the player.

Almost done.  I have one last observation.

The phrase "D&D is a game of the imagination" is an interesting one.  Recently, I came across a copy of Dungeons & Dragons For Dummies, published in 2005.  In that book, the word "imagination" occurs 27 times.  In every case, the word is used in some manner that describes D&D as an outlet, game of, structure for or means of creating a gaming experience; or how D&D allows one's imagination to create fun or be delighted in.  Every single statement using imagination is a trite, throwaway line intended to build sentimentality.  Not at any time is it explained how imagination does any of these things.  The "how" is taken for granted.

The 4th Edition DMG uses the word "imagination" 14 times.  Let me copy out the other 13 times in the book the word is used:

p.7: "Everyone speeds the game along, heightens the drama, helps set how much roleplaying the group is comfortable with, and brings the game world to life with their imaginations."

p. 22: "The game relies on your descriptions and players' imaginations to set the scene."

p. 22 (again, used twice back-to-back): "Your only limit is your imagination.  Your imagination is the only boundary to your description."

p. 25: "For adventures of your own creation, look for fantasy art that sparks your imagination."

p. 25 (again): "Look for anything that sparks your imagination."

p. 28: "I remembered that this is a game about imagination."

p. 85: "A trap's attack is limited only by the imagination of its creator."

p. 132: "On the flip side, you might first read through the Campaign Guide to find a story line that captures your imagination, then plant the seeds of that story in the very first adventure."

p. 133: "In short, use the Campaign Guide as it's intended -- a springboard for creativity -- and let your imagination run free."

p. 172 (used twice back-to-back): "As the Dungeon Master, you continually exercise your creative imagination to present new challenged to your players.  You're not even limited by the encounter rules in this book or the selection of monsters in the Monster Manual -- only your imagination controls what you can do."

p. 172 (again): "This chapter also offers plenty of advice for giving your imagination free rein without unbalancing your game."

Though imagination is not mentioned again for the rest of the book.

In case you're interested, the 5th Edition DMG uses "imagination" once

p. 27: "Alternately, you can roll on the tables below to randomly generate an event to inspire your imagination.

The recently released Tasha's Cauldron of Everything uses the word twice.  Once in the way described above, and once in a way that breaks all the rules.

p. 90: "Regardless of your skills or social standing, aristocratic patrons with enough foresight and imagination find a use for agents from any background.

Clearly, the word imagination to describe game play has gone out of vogue.  It was constant and deep in the mid-2000s, but it's largely gone now.  The word doesn't mean anything; it doesn't describe how to do anything; it sounds good, but it has no application.

Unfortunately, that is why I say that the quoted passage from 4e is true, it's also empty rhetoric, which fails to meet the agenda of the book's own topic at hand.  How to Be a DM. 

This series continues with The Dungeon Master

Friday, November 27, 2020


Following the enthusiasm expressed in this twitter thread, I recalled having read the pages from 4th edition D&D that are so lauded here.  Alyssa Visscher, the speaker, says, "It's 34 pages, has very little 4th edition specific stuff in it, and fills in some much-needed gaps in the DMG, and other published materials."

Okay, I'm thinking.  Let's draw it out and assess the validity of what she says -- at my speed, of course.  I'm not sure which 34 pages she means; "How to be a DM" starts on page 4 and ends on page 14 (ten pages); while "Running the Game" continues until page 33 (nineteen pages) -- and two of those pages are full-page artwork.  For the necessary 34 pages, we're well into "Combat Encounters."  I'm sure Alyssa just failed to notice the first part started on page 4 and not page 1, and counted page 34 as part of the total.  No big deal; anyone can make a mistake like that on a twitter post.

Shall we begin?

Chapter 1: How to Be a DM

Most games have a winner and a loser, but the Dungeons & Dragons Roleplaying Game is fundamentally a cooperative game. The Dungeon Master (DM) plays the roles of the antagonists in the adventure, but the DM isn’t playing against the player characters (PCs). Although the DM represents all the PCs’ opponents and adversaries—monsters, nonplayer characters (NPCs), traps, and the like—he or she doesn’t want the player characters to fail any more than the other players do. The players all cooperate to achieve success for their characters. The DM’s goal is to make success taste its sweetest by presenting challenges that are just hard enough that the other players have to work to overcome them, but not so hard that they leave all the characters dead. At the table, having fun is the most important goal—more important than the characters’ success in an adventure. It’s just as vital for everyone at the table to cooperate toward making the game fun for everyone as it is for the player characters to cooperate within the adventure.

This chapter includes the following sections.

The Gaming Group: Here you learn what components you need to play the D&D game.

The Players: Understand your players, help them to assemble as a successful party of player characters, and run a game they want to play.

The Dungeon Master: Understand the role of a DM in the game and what kind of game you want to make.

Table Rules: Consider table rules you should agree on—guidelines for you and the players’ behavior during the game.


Rating: mostly true

Any straight up introduction to D&D and role-playing games has some pitfalls and mis-steps, since the role-playing concept is complex and subject to philosophical interpretation.  I can't disparage the above; in essence, it describes generally the purpose and function of the game, expressing motivations with which most participants can identify.  Once closely inspected, however, there are elements in the choice of language that is bound to raise confusion and pushback between the players and the DM, once the game is in play.  Some of these have no agreed upon answer; some are very old tropes and a lot of the RP gaming world would like to forget the endless hours they've wasted on bulletin boards attacking one perspective or the other.  But as this post (and this beginning series) is intended as an assessment of the content above, it would be a failing on my part not to point out these disparities and discuss them.

Please understand that, for early players, I'd argue the statements made are helpful.  It is only that, for the genre-savvy, taking the above as the equivalent of a legal-precedent is walking into a freaking land mine.  For experts describing the game, the glossing of these concepts is amateurish.

1. the DM's Agenda

It's all very well to say that the DM isn't playing against the players, in the sense that the DM isn't actively or intentionally seeking to destroy, subvert or otherwise act deliberately counter to the player's potential for survival or success.  However, the next sentence, stipulating that the DM represents the adversaries of the players, and that these adversaries are clearly (as antagonists) out to get the players, it is clear that one part of the DM's agenda IS to "play" against the players.

Why is this concept so hard to register?  As with any positivist description, where we attempt to express the DM's role in a favourable light, when it seems pretty obvious to any player that the DM is a tremendous potential threat to the players, what with the god-like powers and all ... we rush into defending the DM as a friend in the first sentence describing what the DM does.  Well, which is it?  Is the DM playing against the players or merely playing the adversaries that play against the players?  How, exactly, is this needle being threaded made clearer by this unravelling?

We can simplify this by getting rid of loaded words like antagonist, against, opponent and adversary, which are all words we habitually equate with competition and winning, even though the opening sentence of the passage says D&D is a cooperative game.

Better: "The DM, by managing the game setting and the fictional characters therein, provides hard boundaries to play that the players must cooperate in order to overcome."

This lacks the thrill of mentioning monsters, traps and non-player characters, but it is more strictly accurate.

2. Balance

The DM's goal IS to make success sweet by presenting challenges -- but it is those five words that are like a thumb banged with a hammer: "that are just hard enough ..."

This philosophy of the WOTC is founded on a reasonable principle that begins in literary writing: the protagonist and antagonist are two sides of a coin, presenting the best stories when both possess believable and obtainable motives, are characterized with depth and are equally intrinsic to the story's resolution -- but, presumedly, as the protagonist is meant to win, the best stories are those when it looks impossible for the protagonist to do so, that the reader may be excited at the end by the protagonist's durability, ingenuity and sheer guts in the face of impossible odds.  Yes, of course we want players to feel that moment when, just when it looks like all the cards are stacked against them, they pull it out in the crunch and win.

Uh huh, exactly.  There's that concept of winning again, even though we've been told the game isn't about winning.  The implication is subtle; it isn't stated in the text.  But that's the thing with land mines.  They're buried.  Even if we don't tell the players that they're meant to win, when we include a philosophical argument that places the onus on the DM to come up with challenges that are "just hard enough," we've thrown out any legitamacy for challenges that are slightly too hard for the players to overcome, plus anything above that.  Worse, given the entanglement of dice, strategy, bad choices and in-player fighting, a DM and players being told that the challenges aren't meant to kill the players, we end up in a blasted warzone of players holding DMs to account because the monsters were "too hard" or the game wasn't "balanced enough" to ensure they had a "fair chance" of winning.  These three concepts written in quotes are spectacularly smudgy and lacking in the remotest definition, but that won't stop players from dying on them as hills.

The players deserve a reasonable impression of what they're getting into.  They deserve to be told that really, really dangerous things can be found beyond this point, and the specificity of that danger should be unilaterally explained in such a manner that the players can't miss the obvious threats just beyond.  That why we use descriptions like, "the things are as big as houses" or "the land was laid waste by a beast that streamed fire from its mouth."

But the DM is expected to provide challenges.  The DM is not, repeat not, expected to measure those challenges.  Give the players a heads up, a good honest warning, and let them figure out the balance for themselves.

3. Characters Die

Yes, I'm saying that players do die in the game.  And sometimes, yes, they die because the challenges are so hard that death is the result.  D&D doesn't have "winners" and "losers" in the sense that the players compete against each other or another team.  This does not mean that D&D is all "success" and never "failure."  This is a weakness of glossing, generalized arguments.

4. Fun is Not More Important

I don't know of any game anywhere that feels the need to repeatedly make this argument, except when an authority figure must make it clear to children that "winning isn't everything."  We've already been told that D&D isn't about winning, but here again we're in this bailywick.

We play games because we enjoy the ordered, provocative test of our tenacity and problem-solving skills that a game demands.  It is the game that makes playing a game "fun."  Arguing that the fun supersedes the game -- i.e., that our emotional response to those parts of the game that imply we've failed or lost -- argues that any part of the game that does not gratify our immediate emotional needs can be dispensed with.  This is narcissism.  Losing is learning.  Facing bitterness and struggle builds the ability to play.  Overcoming a disasterous situation IS exactly the sort of challenge the passage above says the DM and the game are supposed to supply.

If the players can bail any time the game isn't "fun," because things aren't going their way, there is no game.  There's just narcissistic people sitting around doing stuff.

Last words.

Most of the troubles inherent in the above are miscommunications rather than deliberate attempts to permit poor behaviour and gameplay.  However, we know from experience that a certain class of players will do their best to game the system, which includes filtering through written descriptions of what the game "ought" to be and using them as precedents to force DMs into responses that are not in the interest of the DM or the players.  We need to be aware when a miscommunication occurs or how a well-intentioned philosophy can breed negativity, so that we are able to arm ourselves against some player chooses to trip that mine.

This series continues with The Croupier

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Bronzing History

This is now the longest page on my wiki, with 35,847 characters thus far, or about 5,500 words.  So, not as long as some of the posts on this blog.  On the other hand, it isn't done yet; the below only includes human history; I'm working on determining the general feel for accepted history before inserting historical inventions into my game world.

Okay, but ... why?  What's it all for?  It's not as though my players are going to have any direct connection with ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia or the Hittites.  All of this takes place 3000 years before my campaign.

In general, I'm against DMs building up lengthy, invented historical records for their game worlds.  This content, when read, tends to be a collection of unfamiliar persons and events stacked against dates that don't mean anything, so there is no sense of connection with the campaign.  I don't believe that is the case here.  We, the players, are familiar with actual ancient history, so unfamiliarity isn't the case here.  Nor are the dates a meaningless list for us, as those with historical backgrounds are able to piece together the signposts that dates represent.  Unlike an invented history, we know that -- in general, at least -- the events described above really happened.

Well, sort of.  This is not a history account written for a textbook, this is a description of my game world.  As such, I can cheat enormously when writing out the content.  For example, most of the dates listed above are fluid, in that they reflect a "best guess" by historians of the event in question.  We don't know for certain that the Hittites sacked Babylon in 1595 b.c.  Various books will give different dates, with some sources being wildly out of synch, and in history this is an accepted principle because all this happened a long time ago without reliable records.  As a dungeon master, however, I can say absolutely whatever I want.  I can say it happened on June 7th and that it was a Tuesday -- though, obviously, our present-day calendar didn't exist at the time.  Or did it?  This is, after all, my campaign.

Still, I try to adopt the most probable or agreed-upon dates and events, because this is fun for me.  Though this doesn't explain what use it is.

In my game, I make a lot of references to things, particularly the past.  And my players, bless them, tend to possess a minimal degree of familiarity with history.  If they wish, however, the above overview -- distilled from the endless quibbles and counterfactual arguments that confuse history for the lay person -- can be read over in not very much time, if there's some reason why a player should wish to be familiar with it.  Many of the campaign stories or adventure structures I tend to build include elements of something that happened a long time ago ... and because the source material shapes how I present those elements, knowing the source material helps a player understand my motives and viewpoint.  And while in many cases the history written above isn't exactly accurate, it isn't purposefully inaccurate either.  It contains material from sources that have been "debunked," if we can believe the debunking source, which often has more credibility due to the political faction of a university supporting it than any real "proof" -- but that doesn't matter much.  Just as it is good enough for most people to believe that electrons and protons are little spheres, just like the diagrams taught us in grade school, it doesn't cause harm for people to have, at best, a generalized understanding of the Egyptians or the Sumerians.

Having the time to work on this material, and considering it worth working on, also goes back to recent posts where I've said I have the time because I'm not rebuilding game systems that already work.

The overall task is monumental and probably impossible to finish, given my limitations, but who knows.  I may live to be 90, and still be able to write.

Thursday, November 19, 2020


Reviewing our discussion so far; let’s allow for the reader having settled down, progressed, paused 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?

Monday, November 16, 2020


Having "paused," the problem becomes, how do we start up again?  No doubt, like many of us, you've felt that sensation of looking at something you did months ago, only to hate it now.  "This is garbage," or "What the hell was I thinking" are common responses.  The result being that we can't bear to take up the effort again, so that we trash it and, in the end, wind up where we were when we started.

This dissatisfaction with work is a part of the creative process, and unquestionably the least pleasant part.  We see the imperfections in our work more clearly that we do in the work of others, because we have invested ourselves and because we've spent hours painstakingly reviewing every aspect and link.  The process of making anything involves choices ... and with every choice made, we destroy avenues and opportunities not taken.  What we are left with is something we're tired with, something that isn't as good as we hoped it would be and something we've begun to hate with the heat of a thousand suns.

It is this familiarity that breeds contempt for our own work.  It is familiarity that makes us hate editing or having to go back and fix something we thought was fine.  What we have to remember -- and this comes with difficulty -- is that others are not nearly as familiar with our flaws as we are.  Others don't know what it was "supposed" to look like; they only know what it is.  Others don't know the choices that were made, now regretted by the creator.  Others can see the value of our work much more clearly than we can.

It is common for actors and directors to admit that they can't watch themselves on the screen or attend their own movie.  Authors very often can't bear to read their own books.  I consider now and then that my book, How to Run, deserves a rewrite -- but all I feel is acute pain when I consider the task, like a stabbing blade in my liver.  If I read any single page, all I see are its ugly imperfections.

From this, it should be evident that there's a danger in putting a project down and pausing it, as I argued with the last post in this series.  Maintaining the process of working from beginning to end is a method of maintaining the delusion that the work is going brilliantly -- by not awarding ourselves any distance on it.  Of course, it doesn't matter whether we finish the work or not.  The result will be a first draft and first drafts always suck.  Sooner or later, no matter what, we're must someday look at that work in the cold bright light of reality and see it for what it is: crap.

Here is where we separate the meat from the bones.  I know deep down that there is nothing in my book that I can't fix -- it is only a matter of doing it.  The doing is a determination of not minding that it hurts.  The doing is committing to the end product, and not to the superfluous regrets and unfortunate lack of self-perceived talents we have.  The trick is to set aside things we would have liked to have done, or things we chose not to do, or things we tried and weren't able to do.  In the long run, with the final product, the things we see as "garbage" in our own work aren't nearly as important as we pretend.  Every work has shortcomings.  Every program will fail to accomplish something.  That.  Doesn't.  Matter.

We must learn that lesson or we're doomed.

As an example, I'll pull out a back-and-forth between Sterling and I from late October, regarding trade tables.  [Yes, Sterling, you knew that sooner or later I would have to pick this discourse out of my teeth; today's the day].

Sterling asserted,

"For example, your trade system, which I think is one of the solutions you cited is not the best solution. Mine is better. Mine can't rely on the number of references in an encyclopedia to determine the amount of a resources in a hex, because my world doesn't have an encyclopedia. But moreover, the number of times a word in mentioned in a description of a place is not a reliable way of determining how much of the stuff is in there. You need an arbitrary way to determine how much stuff is in a hex and that one works, but is it the best way? (I may be misstating how your system works, but I hope the point is not lost in spite of my errors.) My system accounts for resources, labor, and technology in determining what and how much an area produces and consumes (all values I must set arbitrarily as well). My system is not tied to a hexagonal grid. My system does not as easily produce a list of prices as yours, but it clearly illustrates imbalances between settlements and allocates my populations to various activities very well. I don't believe your system does that. Those allocations create more verisimilitudal value for my world than a bill of trade goods prices. And I can extend my system to produce price lists when I need them. So my system is better. By my measure. This isn’t an emotional choice; it’s a solution driven by different goals which reflect the difference between what my game needs and what your game needs."

Marvelous.  For those people who think I can't stand to be kicked in the teeth, I give you Exhibit No. 1, the above.  Coldly, plainly stated, with each statement possessing the force and pace of a hammer hitting an anvil.  Rarely am I eviscerated with such meter.

I do not care that mine is not the best solution.  I did not base my economy on the admittedly arbitrary method of counting references in an encyclopedia because it would be a reliable measure of that which is implied but not stated here.  I assume Sterling means "unreliable" with regards to the real world of the mid-17th century.  That is true.  There is no attempt at accuracy between my trading system and that of the real world.  That was by choice.  My numbers are, however, known and fixed precisely for my fictional game world, so where it comes to calculating any part of my system, my numbers are completely reliable (particularly since, when I wish, I can tweak the numbers to fit my perception of what my world needs to be, rather than concerning myself with reliable numbers that would indicate accuracy -- a value that has no meaning in my fictional setting).  In creating my trade table, I didn't need to account for resources, labour or technology, so my system was not built to account for those things.  I could have easily built my system so that it ignored a hexagonal grid; lines on a map would have been sufficient.  The grid is not there to limit the design; it is there to streamline the design.  I had no reason to feel that greater precision would produce more meaningful results that my players would recognize.  My system was designed to easily produce a price list.  I can produce a price list for any market incorporated into the system in about 45 seconds, a time period that mattered where it came to players deciding to head off to a market during game play on a whim.  I have no use for knowing the imbalances between settlements.  I don't need to allocate my population to various activities.  I'm not running a system that is designed to produce results like Europa Universalis.  It is designed to enable the players to use a system specifically adapted to the needs a player has.  And nothing more.  It is irrelevant to me if another system is better.  It is only relevant to me that a player understands it, can predict it and finds elements in it that enhance the player's experience.

Choices were made.  I made different choices than Sterling has made.  The one thing that Sterling says his system doesn't do is the one reason I built my system for.  This does not mean that Sterling made the "wrong" choices.  Sterling made choices that created a trade system for his needs.  He did not make a trade system that would have fulfilled my needs.

That said, my trade system is a disaster area.  For two weeks, I have been painstakingly reviewing every calculation, something I did not do in 2016 when I last updated the system.  And omg, the errors.  The errors.  The stupid, myopic, blundering, sometimes incomprehensible errors.  I owe an apology to every person who asked for and received a copy of this terrible, bug-filled document, and particularly those who contributed $10 to my patreon for the privilege of seeing it.  Jeez.  I am embarrassed.  At one point, without reason, I simply copied the price of a pound of wheat grain in one part of the document as the price of an ounce in another part.  As a result, I have charged my players 16 times the real cost of bread out of sheer incompetence ... something I've apparently done for, I'd guess, more than seven years.

I can only take comfort in that, of the scores of people who have copies of the document, none have ever said to me, "Why does cell B1073 give the price of barely per ounce at 2.14 c.p., when cell B4186 gives that as the same price for a pound of barley?"  Not that this excuses me.  But it does comfort me.

I am fixing it.  And scores of other errors, many of them just as embarrassing.  And trying not to mind that they are embarrassing, so long as they get fixed.

Returning to any task once it has been paused is a Herculean task of getting over oneself.  When we pull out those old tables, or look at that compiled description that kicks us in the gut, we must take stock of the situation clearly.  We are at a fork in the road.  One signpost points to an easier road that says, "Burn It, Start Again."  Yes, oh yes, that is the easy road.  That road is well lit, has sunshine falling down upon it and is filled with notions like "The new concept will be amazing" or "Don't worry, it will resolve itself."  When we're freed from looking at our mistakes, we can imagine all sorts of perfections in our future.

The other sign, broken, weather-beaten, hard to read, says, "Keep Going."  It implies that if you don't keep going; if you always follow the bad road; nothing will ever get done.  And that's true ... but I still haven't explained how you're going to do that.

My daughter is a hat maker, though she hasn't been able to declare that as the source of her income yet.  Because space is at a premium in her condo, her materials and tools are crammed into a clothes closet that is about eight feet by four.  Whenever she works, she has to haul her materials out, lay them in place and settle into work -- but of course, there's always something that she's forgotten or can't find, meaning that she will spend an hour or two dredging through the closet before she's able to seriously get down to work.  This is annoying as all hell.  I'm sure many readers here can identify similar issues they have with their own projects.  It is aggravating to remember some paragraph in some publication that would perfectly suit this specific project at hand ... only to forget exactly where that paragraph is and find oneself searching, plagued, through twenty or thirty books.

My daughter's problem would be solved with a worktable, had she the space to put one.  She hopes that sometime in the next year, they will be able to sell their condo and purchase a house with more bedrooms and a basement, both for her newborn son and for herself.  With a worktable, not only is everything organized, but present work can be set down and left exactly where it is, so that when we settle into work again, it is easy to find our place.  Then we can resume without all the hassle of figuring out where we were or where things are.  Things are where we left them.

Recommencing involves the adoption of a mindset that can be daunting, at first.  When I recommence a map, most of the methods are straight-forward; there are only a few places where the process gets quite complicated, and I try my best not to set down the task of mapmaking just prior to one of those points.  That way, when I pick up the work again, the first day or two is spent doing something easy and uncomplicated.

On the other hand, with something like the aforementioned trading tables, there are no simple points.  The excel file that exists is an interwoven hodgepodge of endlessly linked cells which were too numerous to label in a side document.  This means when I take up the task again, I must spend at least a week following my logic around in various circles until I adapt, once again, to the mindset I last had when I last took the plunge.  There is, first, the getting over the mistakes I've made; then there is getting over the emotional bitterness that I haven't the skill-level to do a better job of things.  Then there is the methodical task of following threads, such as C275 linking to E3487, which is adjusted by F2234 on another worksheet, whose data derives from B345 on yet another worksheet ... all this being an adaptive process that forces my brain to work differently.  The way my brain worked when I first made this nightmare.

I could just decide to force the system to fit the way my brain works now, but there is a problem there.  The system as a whole is monumental in size.  Reformatting it would require five or six months of constant and diligent work ... and it would require doing all of it in one sitting.  The first version, created in 2005, took me about a month.  The second version, in 2009, took two.  The third version, in 2013, did not attempt to reformat the second version, partly because I was working full time at a job, while in 2009 I had lost my journalist job with the rest of the world and was living on E.I. (I had the time).  The 2013 version was a tweak.  The 2016 version was as well.  I have the time right now, mid-covid, to take the months needed to rebuild the system from scratch, but with 2013 and 2016, it has become HUGE.  And frankly, I can't imagine how I would make it better than it is.  At best, I could organize it differently.  Not better.  I don't see that as a value-added proposition.

Whereas I can change my thinking pattern to what it was in 2016 in just a few days, though it is skull-sweat.  I'm adaptable and once, I was very familiar with all of this and I can be familiar again.  Oh, sure, I hate the freaking thing; but as I've said several times now, that can't matter.  I want to make corrections, improve the math and add new things to the price list.  That's what matters.  Not how I feel about it.

Those are the things the players will notice.

My worktable is the desktop of my computer.  Everything is carefully assigned to a cubbyhole, and carefully titled, so that if I cannot remember what a thing is called, I can at least identify where it ought to be.  This means that, like a worktable, every month or so I spend an hour or two "cleaning up."  Deleting files, moving new files off my desktop into the right folder, pulling a bunch of old content I don't expect to use again into a dead-letter folder and putting that in the right place, and so on.  I move about a hundred files a month this way: renaming, deleting, correlating, cutting and pasting ... whatever it takes to keep the desktop clean without my losing a sense of how it is structured.  That way, when I want to find the pricing table and open it up, I know where it is and when I last touched it, often at a glance.

I haven't used paper and binders in 15 years now.  It is more valuable to take a picture of a page with my phone, transfer it to my desktop and give it a name and a tag, than it is to keep the piece of paper.  Then, if I want to find it, rewrite it or delete it, I'm not hunting through the shelves in my room for a piece of paper I haven't seen in two years.  It is right there, tagged "guild" or whatever, when I want it.

Get a worktable.  Organize it.  And put the things you've paused on it.  Then, learn how to make yourself recommence your work, without the compulsion to take the easy road to getting nothing done.