Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Player Character Racial Tendencies

This heading can be found on the bottom right corner of page 15 of the original DMG.  I sincerely hope this concept dies a mean, permanent death.

Published quotes from 1979:

"Dwarves tend to be dour and taciturn ..."

"Elves are often considered flighty and frivolous ..."

"Gnomes are most lively and full of humour ..."

"Half-orcs are boors." 


Stuff we've heard before, and largely based on templates established by Tolkien, who has been worshipped since culture discovered the man's work in the 1960s.  It's still not popular to mention it among hardcore D&D traditionalists (of which I am not one) that there are uncomfortable relationships between Tolkien's "fantasy races" and possible real-world counterparts.  For myself, I tend to take the word of canon that he never intended such relationships ... but that doesn't exempt him from being a product of his time, which others have connected to Victorian values that existed among the scholars that Tolkien worshipped.

In any case, that doesn't excuse the willingness of post-1960s white males to casually codify racism into the game's framework, afterwards adopting stuffy, pouting foot-stamping behaviours whenever it was proposed that dwarves had every right to be happy, elves could be serious and gnomes were allowed to be depressed or have no interest in tool-making ... at least in the context of what emotions we force players to play.

Personally, I considered dwarves-are-this and elves-are-that as a worthless contribution to the game world, along with alignment and anything else that dictates what a player feels or how a player acts at table, whatever their race.  Space wasted in books to tell us who hates who and who gets along with who is just as ill-considered.  It paints a bleak picture of how poorly we've managed racism since the beginning.  There is half a page of this nonsense in the DMG, and part of me can't help seeing Gygax and crew patting themselves on the back at how literary and clever they were being.

The inclusion of this nonsense in the DMG is an embarrassment.  I say this as a 56-year-old white male raised in a region just right of Texas.  And this is something I knew in 1979, when the book came out.

Monday, March 29, 2021

Getting There's a Bitch

"However that might be, the mere fresh gale that endured for four days after the first storm then worked up again into a tempest, blowing eternally from the westward with almost hurricane force; grey dreary days of lowering cloud, and wild black nights, with the wind howling unceasingly in the rigging until the ear was sated with the noise, until no price seemed too great to pay for five minutes of peace — and yet no price however great could buy even a second of peace.

 "The creaking and the groaning of Hotspur's fabric blended with the noise of the wind, and the actual woodwork of the ship vibrated with the vibration of the rigging until it seemed as if body and mind, exhausted with the din and with the fatigues of mere movement, could not endure for another minute, and yet went on to endure for days. The tempest died down to a fresh gale, to a point when the top-sails needed only a single reef, and then, unbelievably, worked up into a tempest again, the third in a month, during which all on board renewed the bruises that covered them as a result of being flung about by the motion of the ship. And it was during that tempest that Hornblower went through a spiritual crisis."

C.S. Forrester, Hornblower & the Hotspur

The quote is here to provide evidence that the highest levels of adventure fiction have always acknowledged elements of nature that would set the character's teeth on edge.  Of all the cruelties that plague the heroes of novels, there is none so vile as those which keep the characters from carrying forward as they might wish ... and none with as long a history in story.  Storms and floods, earthquakes and blasts from the earth have always done the writer's work, maintaining the tension at the cost of some momentum — which is never really lost, since we know our heroes will get ultimately get there, just the same.

In D&D, we exempt this choice by the DM, given how obvious it would be that the DM was playing head games and nothing better.  Yet a set of circumstances has arisen, unforeseen, out of game rules that I've been running for quite some time, and yet have never produced the sort of frustration I'm seeing now.

One rule is the manner in which I calculate the weather — which, I'm sorry to say, I don't wish to repeat because saying it once on this blog is enough.  I'm quite happy that it's buried deep in the back catalogue — though I'm sure my players have a good idea how I'm calculating the weather.  Let's be clear ... it is out of my hands.  I don't decide when it rains and I don't decide which direction the wind blows.

The other is a quaint little rule I use when someone breaks their weapon in combat.  I've never written it down, but players who have participated with me can attest to my use of it going back decades.  In simple terms: when rolling a natural 1 on a d20, a weapon is dropped.  When the weapon is dropped on a hard surface, a 1 in 6 is rolled (some tougher weapons give a 1 in 8, some flimsier weapons, a 1 in 4); if that 1 comes up, the weapon breaks.  When a weapon breaks, I contend this is a very serious fumble, and the character must roll a "break check" on a d20.  Under perfectly normal circumstances, flat even surface, no teetering upon any slope and acting in traditional combat, this check can only be failed on a natural 1.  Otherwise, if the character is on a bad slope, or otherwise physically compromised, the break check is a "dex check" — roll equal to or less than the dexterity score.  If that fails, a bone breaks, using a location chart, which means an injury of 1-4 pts.  If that happens, roll another d20.  Roll a natural 1 on that, with no attention paid to circumstances and you ... die.  You fell and broke your neck.

In all the decades I've run, that has happened three times to monsters against the players and once to the player party; but it was a follower that died, not a player character.

Okay.  Here's the war story.

The players discover a dungeon east of Treborg in Norway, on June 25th.  They did well against nearly two dozen monsters in four encounters, took a surface level of treasure off the dungeon's first level and returned to Treborg to rest and equip themselves.  Getting to the dungeon a second time has been something of a problem.

They leave for the dungeon their second time on the 29th of June.  First, it was rain rain rain all the time, which isn't unusual for Norway but it is summer and clearly this was an unusual run of heavy storms.  When the party got up to the dungeon again, July 1st, there were two skeleton dire wolves to get past, which the party dispatched quite easily ... but then Lexent the cleric dropped his weapon in the last round, effectively after the last wolf was destroyed, standing at the crest of a gulley that had already been established as treacherous, blew his dex check and cracked his hip.  4 pts. of injury.

The party chose to wait nearby in the wild for the hip to heal, which it did in a few days thanks to a healing staff and a healing bottle; I ruled Lexent was in too much pain to cast spells.  They got the cleric on his feet (July 4th) and decided to scout a little around the mountain before returning up slope to the dungeon.  On the south side, they got pinned down by a giant eagle; the illusionist cast wall of fog to conceal them, which revealed there was also a goat among the rocks where they were hiding.  The party realized they could wrestle the goat into the open and let the eagle take it, a plan that worked.

Only, while wrestling the goat among the rocks, in a dense magically-generated fog, Pandred the fighter rolled a fumble; there being no weapon, and the circumstance being unusually dangerous, I had her roll a dex check, which she blew, so that she twisted an ankle.  3 pts. of injury.

Another round of healing in the wild, this time helped by the cleric, to get Pandred on her feet.  It's July 7th.  The party finally gets back up to the dungeon, meets with a creature that cannot be seen with infravision, with scary red eyes, "Grond" ... the master of the dungeon.  The party decides enough is enough, it's not the right day, so they retreat, all the way back to Treborg, which they reach on the 8th.  There they discover their new house is built, deal with some details and decide they've got to get off to the big city, Stavanger, for better supplies and to hire people to help with the dungeon.  They leave on July 9th in the morning.

The journey is 16 hours of hell, as steady rain comes in and threaten to swamp their boat, while a bare wind in the wide fjord leaves them a minimum of headway, with the wind in the wrong direction.  They get into Stavanger at 1 a.m. on the 10th, soaking wet.  They stay with friends.

It takes them that day and three more to buy their things and hire five sappers and a cook for their basecamp.  On the 14th, at last, they're ready to get out to the dungeon; and there is a hard wind blowing the wrong way.  The pilot tells them it will take probably 24 hours to make their way home to Trebord with the wind at the head, as they have only a lighter to get back and forth across the fjord.  They agree to wait.  Now it is the morning of July 15th when we're due to start again tomorrow.

It's been 20 days since they discovered the dungeon; they probably won't be ready to reach the dungeon itself until mid-day on the 17th (if the weather holds).  It has been a long, frustrating run of bad luck ... and there are quite a lot of players, I know, who would be demanding that we just "get on with it" and stop all this "wasting time."

When players act like that, DMs think it's a bad thing.

It isn't.  It means the players ARE frustrated, which is good.  It means the players are aggravated and pissed and motivated to kill something, which is good.  It means that when the players finally get there, they won't be so anxious to leave the moment they stub a toe.  And that is good.

I'm sorry too many DMs don't see that.

Friday, March 26, 2021

Explanation of Abilities

 Etymologies provided by the Online Etymology Dictionary:

Strength: Old English strengþu, strengð "bodily power, force, vigor, firmness, fortitude, manhood, violence, moral resistance," from Proto-Germanic *strangitho (source also of Old High German strengida "strength"), from PIE *strenk- "tight, narrow" (see string (n.)), with Proto-Germanic abstract noun suffix *-itho (see -th (2)). Compare length/long

Intelligence: late 14c., "the highest faculty of the mind, capacity for comprehending general truths;" c. 1400, "faculty of understanding, comprehension," from Old French intelligence (12c.) and directly from Latin intelligentia, intellegentia "understanding, knowledge, power of discerning; art, skill, taste," from intelligentem (nominative intelligens) "discerning, appreciative," present participle of intelligere "to understand, comprehend, come to know," from assimilated form of inter "between" (see inter-) + legere "choose, pick out, read," from PIE root *leg- (1) "to collect, gather," with derivatives meaning "to speak (to 'pick out words')."

Wisdom: Old English wisdom "knowledge, learning, experience," from wis (see wise (adj.)) + -dom. A common Germanic compound (Old Saxon, Old Frisian wisdom, Old Norse visdomr, Old High German wistuom "wisdom," German Weistum "judicial sentence serving as a precedent"). Wisdom teeth so called from 1848 (earlier teeth of wisdom, 1660s), a loan-translation of Latin dentes sapientiae, itself a loan-translation of Greek sophronisteres (used by Hippocrates, from sophron "prudent, self-controlled"), so called because they usually appear ages 17-25, when a person reaches adulthood.

Constitution: Meaning "action of establishing, creation" is from c. 1400; that of "way in which a thing is constituted" is from c. 1600; that of "physical health, strength and vigor of the body" is from 1550s; of the mind, "temperament, character" from 1580s.

Dexterity: 1520s, "manual skill, skill in using the hands; physical adroitness in general," from French dexterité (16c.), from Latin dexteritatem (nominative dexteritas) "readiness, skillfulness, prosperity," from dexter "skillful," also "right (hand)," from PIE root *deks- "right, on the right hand," also "south." Compare dexter. In 16c.-18c. also "mental adroitness or skill," often in a bad sense, "cleverness in taking advantage or avoiding responsibility."

Charisma: In the form charism (plural charismata) it is attested in the "special spiritual gift from god" sense from 1640s. Middle English, meanwhile, had karisme "spiritual gift, divine grace" (c. 1500).

Meaning "gift of leadership, power of authority" is from c. 1930, from German, used in this sense by Max Weber (1864-1920) in "Wirtschaft u. Gesellschaft" (1922). More mundane sense of "personal charm" recorded by 1959.

Clear?  No, of course it's not clear.  Gygax is very clear in the DMG that strength includes "endurance and stamina," NOT constitution.  He's very clear that intelligence assumes "reasoning and learning ability," NOT wisdom.  But it's no good, because he also says that constitution includes "fitness," and most people automatically identify fitness with strength and endurance, so we're already lost.  Gygax also says that wisdom includes "judgement and intuitiveness," which are clearly traits associated with being able to think well, which people identify with intelligence.  And so, round and round we go.  No one is clear on what charisma means, since even though Gygax tried to define it as "physical appearance, persuasiveness and personal magnetism," people identify persuasiveness with cleverness, which sounds like it ought to belong to intelligence, and personal magnetism with good judgement, so it ought to be in wisdom.  Though of course, not everyone agrees with either the denotative or connotative definitions of any of these words, or where they belong, so as I said, "round and round we go."

If Gygax and crew had picked six other words, I'd be putting up different etymology listings which still wouldn't agree with the way any of those words were used in the game.   It's all ridiculous anyway.  Just look at "charisma" above.  The word only existed anything like the way Gygax and crew used it after 1959, FIFTEEN years before the use of the term in D&D.  Like wow, talk about propping up a kid on the throne.  Jeebus, is it any wonder people didn't know for sure what the word meant.

Now, if you, Dear Reader, are thinking to stretch your fingers and write a comment about how YOU define wisdom or intelligence in the game,


The etymology and the dictionary definitions are much, much smarter than you are, since they're written by people who study words most of their lives, so please just don't.  The point of this post is not to define meanings for these words.  That would be idiocy.

Language has no absolute meaning.  That's why we start wars, and get divorced, and fail to explain our position to our children and find that our children are screaming what we think of as garbage at us.  We don't understand each other.  We'll never understand each other.  So let's not get bogged down in trying to make our personal opinions about something that someone else has already proven can't be nailed down absolutely.  It's just an enormous waste of our time.

It does not matter where the lines between the stats are drawn.  Mine will be drawn differently than yours, because I am different from you.  It matters that the lines are drawn concretely, and that you can explain the concreteness of your lines to your players, so that in the game they comprehend concretely which stat is in play at which time.  That depends on your game.  I give you the English language to help, but do it in German, Chinese or Bantu — whatever works.  Use the language.  Piece together from the dictionary, the thesaurus and the word's etymology to comprehend where to draw a clean, easy to understand line, that you can explain to your players in a way that they will "get."

This won't make your game world better.  But it will resolve a lot of arguments and save your game world from spinning into worse.


Seriously.  Don't try to convert me or educate me.  I won't publish any comment that tries to explain how you define these terms.  We have enough examples already with which to strangle ourselves.

Tuesday, March 23, 2021


"When you think your worth is determined by outcomes, you’re asking for trouble. When you equate getting something good as being a good person, you’ve made a fundamental error.  I don’t know how many people are aware but there was an election the other day. It was a pretty big deal.  Anyways, the incumbent lost and he hasn’t conceded to his successor. It’s pretty embarrassing but it reminds me of the games nights I’ve had where one or two friends would either lose their minds when they couldn’t win (to the point where she tried to cheat) or quickly move on to something else while making excuses for not winning."

Read the article and get back to me.

I think the other quote I want to add goes as follows:

"Also, trying to cheat your way to victory isn’t victory. It’s an admission that you don’t know how to play, you don’t care to learn how to play, you don’t respect the other players, you don’t respect yourself and you’re taking this far too seriously."

I think that's very telling — since I'm the one usually accused of taking the game too seriously, and it not being enough "fun."

Looked at it from a psychological point of view, it becomes clear that the argument of the game being about fun isn't so much a defense as it is a demand.  It's a statement by people who aren't having fun; who need fun.  Who feel threatened by anything that suggests they won't get fun.  Players who browbeat the DM for more magic, more privileges, less encumbrances, less chance of being made dead, are players who are definitely trying to cheat their way to "winning" by manipulating the ultimate "winner":  the game adjudicator.

They can't bear their characters dying the same way that a sore loser flips over the board when their desperate attempt to seize all of Europe in RISK goes sour; or when they've just lost their queen in some unforseen way; or when winning becomes that thing in their lives that will make all the shit and garbage they've had to bear all week long needs balancing against "Hey, I killed the dragon."  These sore losers need the win.  It's what gives their lives meaning.

Judging from the writing on the subject I've seen, and occasional videos of D&D players rage-quitting; and the nature of the arguments being made in defense of no-death and no-wandering monster evaluations of the game, plus sites like Puffin Forrest who go long and hard about what players hate about the game, it's easy to draw the conclusion that certain players are living viscerally through the games being played, to a degree that they just can't take another hit against their wish-fulfillment needfulness.  I personally think it is more this than "narcissism," which is an easy well to go to.  Though, I admit, that has to play a part.

I can personally remember games I lost as a kid, specifically sports, where it really hurt to lose.  Where personal consequences about self-esteem were intensified by the whole school also knowing about the loss, and about our being directly involved (and "at fault").  Fuck, those were really hard times; and some of those I played with became passionately deranged about making sure we'd win.  I remember being that person for a time, when I played hockey with the bloodlust of an NHL enforcer, deliberately boarding, spearing, hooking other players and such, because "winning" was more than a drug, it was self-esteem and righteousness and a lot of other pressures that kids feel too viscerally.  I admit — and I'll never think this without a deserved bit of shame — that as a kid, I deliberately injured other kids.  I did it with my parents watching and no one took me aside, not my parents, not my coach, not other players, and said, "Stop doing that."  This was the era of 1975-77.  That's obviously not how it is now.

What stopped me was getting hit, getting minorly injured ... and starting to read books after 13 that began to sort me out with respect to my fellow human.  I had friends who explained things like reactive behaviour to me, who helped educate me towards seeing that "needing" to win was less about winning and more about what the rest of my life wasn't giving me.  One of the reasons D&D appealed so intensely with me when I discovered it at 15 is that here was a game that wasn't about winning or losing, but about working together and overcoming problems.  Little did I know that this aspect of D&D was the one that many players hated.  They didn't want to work with others.  They didn't want to solve problems.  They wanted to do it all themselves and they wanted the problems to miraculously melt while pouring "winning" into their backpacks.

I cannot grasp how a person who pockets from a sure-bet feels like a winner.  That takes a cognitive dissonance I don't possess.

This post is supposed to be about character death, so I'll draw a line from what's been said to the subject at hand.

D&D has always incorporated death as a part of the game; it began, after all, as a war game, where chits were removed casually from the board when they were "killed."  It became about role-playing later, organically, from the premise that the board combatants were anthropomorphized, particularly when they would survive numerous fights.  Sometimes, the participants became so attached to some of the fighters that they were "retired" rather than played until they lost, or died ... because the attachment grew too strong.  Those sentiments slowly became associated with the larger milieu that became D&D. 

Attachment to player characters is both a boon and a curse.  On the one hand, attachment makes the game feel meaningful and awards excitement to the players on behalf of fictional stand-ins.  Without that attachment — which is a biological component, connected in part to the way human beings invented religion out of the natural world — D&D isn't a beloved past-time.

But for some people, that attachment is TOO strong.  If you'll forgive me descending into the dirty muck of politics again, we come around to the quote that starts this post.  The candidate was a sore loser; and a great many Americans had become so invested in the candidate, and what he stood for, and his magnificent capacity for standing up to the storm and owning the libs, what when the loss came, these American's couldn't bear it.  They still can't.  The feeling is very like many people had, me included, when the candidate won on his first time out: shock, fury, incomprehension ... and an unrelenting resolve that everything was very, very wrong.

On the night the candidate won, I rushed to my blog and swore a vow that I wouldn't talk about the candidate, that I wouldn't mention him, ever.  I broke that vow a few months ago, when it ceased to be relevant.  But I made the vow because I knew, within an hour of his plainly winning, that if I didn't tie myself to a chain, bitching would take over this blog.  I had to stop myself.  And for four years, I managed it.

Death is the game challenge.  It is one thing to figure out how much junk can be loaded on a wagon, or one's encumbrance, or tactically figure out how to handle the monsters in a tower ... or work out the right answers to the king whose trying to force you to marry his daughter, if role-playing is your thing.  There are lots of things in D&D that require resolve, thoughtfulness, innovation and sheer guts ... but death is on a whole other level.

Death asks YOU, the player, not the player character, to master yourself in the face of a loss that may be inconceivable.  It means not rage-quitting the game and humiliating yourself; or rage-quitting your country and ending up in prison for years, because you couldn't manage to deal with the fact that your candidate lost.  Death, the only serious loss inherent in the game, demands that you have Ethics, Honour and Character ... none of the things had by someone who screams at a DM that they're not getting enough treasure, or that it isn't fair that their character died when a giant rat randomly turned up.

Ethics, in that a recognition exists that the dice don't mean anything if there aren't consequences.  As a moral philosophy, ethics defines how we award value to things that bring us, as a group, the best results in co-habitating and living with each other.  An ethical person is not merely someone who obeys the law, but comprehends why the law exists and why the spirit of the law is more important than the wording.  Therefore, if no law exists, we can still see what law ought to exist, because people other than ourselves are influenced by what we do.  The rage-quitter, the carper, the manipulator, the game-player, they are all hopelessly self-involved; they can't see that their behaviour affects others, so when their character dies, all they see is their loss and the abuse that falls on them.  They can't see that living up to the convention is better for everyone, much better than everyone getting "their share."  The key to ethics is to appreciate that not everyone can always get their share, because that's an impossible standard.

Honour, in understanding that my not getting "my share" is fine when I get enough to continue participating at something I respect.  Self-respect being the key, since being honourable means living up to a code of behaviour that is deserving of the respect of others.  A player who carps and complains does not care about gaining respect.  They care only about what they get.  I stopped beating other hockey players not because I fell in love with my fellow man, but because I decided to like myself, and cease to act in a way that I found intolerable.  A player who can bear up under the death of a character does so because they are too dignified to let their equanimity be broken by something that can be endured with grace.

Character, in that being a person who is respected, and who is patient and considerate of others, fares much better in this world when things go bad.  Of course, bad times are not pleasant; and of course they are not desired.  But when persons of character rise above the bad times, they are able to do so without having been poisoned by those things.  I have gone five years through bad times; but steadily, for this last year, things have steadily improved.  And now, here I am, despite those times, feeling ambitious, looking towards the future, making plans and still having hope.  My character survives, because it is stronger than the hits that come.

Bearing the death of a character is a challenge.  One that, obviously, most players think they're going to fail.  They won't even try, which is why they set the rules so they don't have to try.  And because they set the rules that way, they learn nothing about themselves, or what they're capable of bearing.

That's not only sad.

That's pathetic.

“A coward dies a thousand times before his death, but the valiant taste of death but once. It seems to me most strange that men should fear, seeing that death, a necessary end, will come when it will come.”

— Shakespeare, Julius Caesar

Monday, March 22, 2021


For those able, here are my rules for disease.

My son-in-law K is a power gamer; he's arguably the best player in any of my campaigns.  He's excellently versed in the game without being jaded, he's a tactical genius and he's able to be both dispassionate about bad things that happen and emotionally involved in the sheer pleasure of the campaign.  From a rules-lawyer standpoint, he'd be hard for many DMs to run ... unless, like me, they're perfectly happy to be called out on the rules when forgetting how they work.  Oh, and my son-in-law is better versed scientifically and mathematically than I am.  He thumps me occasionally on those subjects as well, which I accept as best for the game.

He began playing in my game at 17, along with my daughter, many years before they were married.  And three weeks into the campaign, I killed his 1st level druid character with a cold.

They were walking towards the city of Samara on the Volga river in Russia when it started to rain.  They decided to keep walking.  I rolled the base chance of catching disease on page 13 of the original Dungeon Masters Guide,  for everyone in the party.  K's number came up, though it was a 1% chance (cool weather or climate).  I rolled acute, terminal on page 14.  Just like that, "Pikel" was dead.

Pikel is an 11th level druid in my game.  He was carried to Samara, raised and continued on as a character.  K never faulted me for the decision to make the roll; never faulted me on a world that will let natural elements kill players; never mentions it except when the matter of walking in the rain comes up.  He and the party have been caught in worse weather, brutally worse, including freezing winter rain on the shore of the Caspian and arctic climate while toiling along the river Pechora in the far north.  The party survived those journeys by chance and through preparation ... but one of the things about disease is that it isn't "rational."  It's capricious.  A fact we're painfully aware of now.

I'm writing this post on disease because it came next after Aging in the DMG.  I've been writing my way through the DMG for a month now.  As it happens, I've gotten through the front part, which is mostly punditry about gaming, and into solid rules, with tables and firm results.  This sort of content, incidentally, is all over the original DMG.  It doesn't exist anywhere in 5e, as near as I can tell.

I read about players rage-quitting over being killed by a wandering monster.  I had a conversation with my daughter today where she talked about players rage-quitting over not enough treasure, and the not kind of treasure, and an unequal treasure division between players.  Correct me if I'm wrong — and I'm not — but there's clearly something toxic about a community that a) argues that rage-quitting is a reasonable response to the manner in which a DM adjudicates either happenstance or reward; and b) that expects the rule-makers to continuously reset the game measures in order to soothe the marketing demands of such people.

I believe firmly that the crippling of D&D began here, with disease.  Deviations have multiplied plentifully in the DMG so far: how stat dice are rolled, what level do you start at, the deliberate failure of the designers to write effective rules fully and an over-reliance on the DM's skill in keeping players from becoming bored if they don't get what they want.  Those things, I feel, are matters worthy of discussion and debate, and were by not means clearly understood when I began as a DM.  But this — the use of disease.  Or rather, the decision not to use it; and then to argue that it shouldn't be used, because the insertion of a real world consequence that can strike any person any day is "wrong," or "unfair."  This is where the game's meaning began to fall apart.

We're watching a country fall apart in the same way.  The indisputable fact of Covid will not be accepted as fact by a substantial part of the United States.  To that I can add the indisputable fact of climate change, which the conservatives in my country, Canada, decided yesterday isn't real.  We can add to that a host of things, including Biden's constant, frustrating assertion that racism, violence, greed, whatever is on today's docket, "isn't America."  When it plainly fucking is.  Pardon the political digression, the metaphor is made.  A considerable number of human persons are simply not capable of seeing the intrinsic benefits of a game that, like art, reflects life ... because so many humans are incapable of life.

There is no other way of correlating the evidence.

The next subject heading in the DMG is "Death."

Guess what I'm going to say.

Sunday, March 21, 2021


For those able to visit, I've put up a new post on my Higher Path blog, the first in more than seven months.

Poster's Getting Full


Nine weeks into this project and I keep getting distracted by side projects and duties, but head way is being made.  The space is getting tight, but I'm still not at a point where I seriously have to make choices about what to include.  I did leave off the boomerang this week, but perhaps there might be time for such odd things before I'm done. 

As always, a good expandable version of the poster can be seen on my patreon.  Just move the mouse over the image and it will give you a + option.  Give it some time; the image file is up to 6mb.

That's it for the moment.  I just wanted to reassure readers that it is progressing.  I think my original guess of 13 weeks is out of the question.  That was a rough guess made before starting anyway.  I'm thinking 17 weeks at this point, but perhaps it's not as bad as I think.  Part of my process is making sure the table will remain consistent with my game system, which would seem unimportant to a profit-driven merchant.  I don't want to look at this poster in 5 years and shudder, thinking I wish I'd been more consistent in my work.

Saturday, March 20, 2021

Character Age

If wanted, here are rules for aging.

The only reason to incorporate character age at all would be in the event of a D&D campaign.  The actual age of the character is irrelevant if the goal is to run a one-off adventure or some similar episodic game, where a sustained period of time isn't part of play.  In such cases, it doesn't matter if the character is 20 or 200, or 2000 for that matter, so long as they're able to stand on their two feet and function accordingly.

The game of D&D as it is usually played does not incorporate age well.  In my present campaign, which I began playing online in late 2016, the total "game time" that's passed is not quite three months, from April 18th to July 7th.  This despite the players having gotten involved in two dungeons, many encounters and several short journeys overland and water, though none of those more than 40 miles at a stretch.  The reason for this compressed time comes partly because players do not want to expend food for days just sitting around, but also because viscerally they don't get "tired" of constantly being on the move, as actual living characters would.  Players will concede to sitting in any one location just long enough to heal, but then they are instantly off the next morning, without pause, as though it really matters that they are gone within 8 hours of healing that last hit point and not the day after.

As such, even in face-to-face campaigns, where a great deal more ground can be covered in six hours than in an online campaign, it can take 2-3 years of real time to pass one year in game time.  Of course, if the players chose to do so, they could agree to sit out a full year and that could be calculated and applied in perhaps an hour and a half ... which could enable the DM to create more personal relationships between the player characters and NPCs in the neighborhood, build up hireling loyalty and relations, allow the players to plan and build a home base, raise food, accumulate goods, build contacts with local vendors and even the constabulary or authorities.  At the cost of a player moving from 23 years old to 24, the players could more easily protect themselves from misunderstandings with the law, gain considerable status by supporting and aiding a community with spells and their experience and build in-roads to greater opportunities for larger, more ambitious adventures than what they happen to find in the local wilderness ... but they just won't do it.  They want their marshmallow RIGHT NOW, and though they probably have 60 years to spend before any chance of dying of old age, players will not spend one.

In large part, we should recognize that at least 85% of all participants in D&D have never experienced any age older than their early 20s ... and that their whole conception of being in their thirties, forties or later in life is entirely superficial.  They know only what they've observed about middle age or being old, and are particularly influenced by things like appearance, apparent indifference that old people display, or evidence of old people being tired or incalcitrant.  Unless the young player happens to have good relationships with older family members, they will have little to know understanding of why an older person thinks as they do, or how experience has influenced the older person's perspective on things.  And even if they have that, it's probable that they enjoy that small insight with a very few persons, perhaps no more than one.

Obviously, a forty-something person knows hundreds of forty-something people very well, a truth that will hold as people age steadily.  Every person of forty plus can recall many conversations about "getting old," and about how they see the world very differently from when they were in their teens and twenties, and why they see the world differently.  It is impossible to be in your post fifties and have a multi-hour conversation with anyone near your age without drifting into subjects of "what we have to do now about our health" or "what we're doing about preparing ourselves for getting older."  These are facts of life that older persons must consciously control, just as young persons must consciously control their approach to school or their approaches to a new career.

Because of this discrepancy — in which an older person can recall what it meant to get ready for school, do homework, pass courses or adapt to a new working environment, but a younger person knows zero to nothing about having their formerly excellent body break down slowly or prepping for retirement — it is somewhat facile to roll character ages of 50+ for players to imagine running; and positively ridiculous to tag a character with ages in the hundreds of years, when no person living anywhere has the least conception of what personality an age like that would provoke.  Since players don't care, on the whole, about campaign games, and don't care, except trivially, that their 50+ character has grey hair and moves a little slower in the morning, the concept of aging presents, for most D&D players, an utterly useless and empty-headed rule set.

On the other hand, if players COULD see age as a resource to be exploited in the same way as a pile of food, personal skills or wealth, as something spent in order to obtain those things mentioned upper in this post, there might be reason to see the accumulation of years over real-time spent to mean something, even if it's only that formerly, before spending the time, we were strangers in this community, and that now, ten years later, we're well known and liked because of the time spent and the work we've done to earn trust and friendship from others.  It is far easier to "spend" ten years in D&D than in real life, where those years physically challenge the body and mind with boredom, ennui and undesired doubt — and make no mistake, we all DO spend ten years the hard way, and experience those effects even when those years bring success and recompense.  In any case, the only reason to have age be a part of the game is when that age is given real value, something more than a number written underneath one's ability scores.

Of course, this presupposes the DM is open to seeing age as a resource and is not, like most players, as anxious to get the next encounter or adventure started once the hour of the last one has barely finished chiming.

Thursday, March 18, 2021

Starting Level of Experience for Player Characters

Once we've established what a character will look like at any level — and knowing that characters of higher level will have more defenses against possible deaths, more widespread and powerful abilities and expectations of fighting more interesting monsters — we cannot be surprised to find Players and DMs alike opting to start campaigns at 5th, 10th or 15th level.  The immediate benefits are too tempting and much too gratifying.  Experienced players in particular, who have observed every character class sufficiently to be jaded, will want to "get down to it" with regards to the campaign, without the pesky trouble of waiting to level up.

Additionally, where the games being played are one page adventures, or where the "campaign" extends no further for these player characters than the end of this module, it's absurd to keep track of experience or even treasure, except where that treasure immediately strengthens the character.  Thus it arises that much of the game's accounting, as well as fruitless bothering ourselves with the preservation of our resources, can be discarded directly through shortening the game's scope and eliminating much of the game's needless functionality.  This enables the players to focus on the moment-to-moment aspects of D&D: i.e., what happens when we open this door, how is this combat going to resolve itself, what is the solution to the convoluted puzzle at the root of the adventure and what sort of character do I feel like playing when this adventure is done and we start a new campaign?

We should recognize that the game is not, as many people think, about overcoming odds and receiving rewards, but about the players feel instantly delighted with their choices.  A furtherance of that ideal is that the players should be free to pick and choose from magic items they've never had the opportunity to use before, or investigate spell levels that they've not yet fully explored, so that they have the chance to fight complex and extremely rare enemies that have been encountered only one or two times before.  No player should ever be forced to "make do" with the tired, overused monsters and problems that may have once seemed worth trying, but are now so yesterday.  D&D shouldn't consist of yet one more banal encounter with orcs!  Surely, a DM should count themselves ashamed to propose such unoriginal material for a gaming adventure!

D&D is about having fun.  No one can have fun with so few hit points that they must worry about being killed by some hacky wandering monster.  Fun is so not there if the players have a mere five or six magic items to their name.  Going through the laborious process of having to actually work ones way up in levels, encounter by encounter, is no way to encourage a good time.  A good DM knows to keep the player's appetite whetted, by ensuring that all the toys are available for today's play.  Game night is not about being stingy; DMs should not be ungenerous!  They should knock the bars off the gates of exuberance and indulgence, and let the players run riot.

Only the worst scrooge of a DM would insist on players actually starting at first level and painstakingly making their way through an extended, pedantic and dull-minded campaign, where every point of experience and copper coin needs to be obnoxiously counted.  What an outrage.  Such DMs, who think the game's "purpose" is found in such balance-sheet keeping, should be identified, tagged and banned from all public gaming groups and D&D get-togethers, in a show of solidarity against these wretches who feel the game should be played as it was originally written in the original books.  In another generation, with firm resolution, we shall purge the hobby of these people, ensuring that D&D being played for "fun" will remain as the only socially acceptable model.

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Fathers & Mothers

Within a month of starting this blog in 2008, I posted a series of tables describing skills that a player could obtain from his or her "father."  That was a convenient appellation; I've since adjusted that to "progenitor," as the source could be a mother, a grandparent, an older sibling or cousin, or a non-related mentor.  This came before the invention of my character background generator, and became a central part of that concept.  It has also since been folded into my sage system.

The goal has always been to provide the character with a childhood that was not conveniently the one a player might want.  I don't know about the reader, but I was not given a choice about the family I was born into, or what town, or what culture or race, or indeed anything about my upbringing, since I was forced to go to school, attend church and numerous other things without my consent.  Because this is how children are raised.

Players would like to believe that their fighter character was obviously raised by a fighter, since this enables the player to believe their character has never done anything else but fight their whole lives.  Unfortunately, even a fighting father would not put a sword into a baby's hands (and if he did, mom would quickly take it away).  Boys and girls are actually raised to do chores, to learn useful skills, to fulfill an expectation, not only having to do with actual character class things, but also convenient stuff like using an axe, making bread, picking weeds, reading books and sweeping floors.  Obviously, for a great many D&D players, this level of detail pops their bubble and they'd rather have none of it.

I play on the premise that fighters, mages, clerics, thieves and so on do not come from members of their own class, but from anyone.  Mom and Dad were farmers?  You ran away, found the big city, fell in with a bad crowd and was taught to be a thief.  Grandpa was a buccaneer?  One day he decided that you shouldn't follow in his footsteps, so he shoved you onto shore into the hands of a tutor with a very large stick, who taught you how to be a cleric.  And you're glad.  Your uncle the priest listened to your deepest wishes and campaigned to get you enough money to travel three hundred miles to a thaumaturgical school where you learned to be a mage.  Born a prince, actual royalty, you fell under the sway of a dark-minded courtier who warped your perception of the world, so that you became an assassin.  The table provides a second piece of information to go along with your chosen class ... and the path that began with who birthed you, to where you ended up, is the background story your character has.

In the meantime, you worked as a farmer for years before running away, and learned about farming.  You scrubbed decks and loaded ships, learning about shipboard life, before your Grandfather packed you off.  You sat years and years in churches, listening to your father's sermons, following him around as he spoke to his congregation one on one, and you learned something about religious power.  Technically, somewhere out there, there is a kingdom with your name on it.  Maybe you have an older sibling; probably your mother and father are still alive.  And maybe you think about them occasionally when you're sharpening your knives.  I don't know.  That's not really my issue.

All this only comes back round to the point that a profession is something your elders had when your character was just a kid.  In a redesign of these tables, something I've not found the passion to build — yet — maybe your background doesn't include parents or anyone who taught you anything.  Even then, I'd argue, you were forced to beg, or scrounge, or learned to live despite starving.  You became a character class.  You must have been good for something.  You wouldn't have wasted your childhood entirely.

For game purposes, these skills must have application.  In 2008, I was still struggling to fix those applications ... I've continued to work on several ideas and slowly, year by year, the measure of what a player can DO gets deeper.  A farmer isn't just someone who plants crops — one learns the seasons, the sight of good food, where to seek mushrooms and how to work very long hours.  Being aboard ship isn't just learning to sail — it's recognizing the sea from one season to the next, its visiting far away places, it's a willingness to eat mouldy bread and visiting markets to buy and sell.  Growing up with a priest as an uncle isn't just picking up a spell or learning to turn undead — its reading and writing, comforting the sick and the poor, speaking your heart and having a deeper faith.  And being a prince isn't just inheriting a kingdom — it is school day after day, with a dozen tutors, endless hours of discipline, mastering decision-making and learning foreign relations.  Players must be led away from believing that the "title" of work that one does is the whole story; it isn't.  If you don't understand this as a DM, talk to a farmer, a shipmaster, a priest or someone who might chance to inherit a title — though I admit, this last might be hard to find.  I went to university with a fellow named Harcourt, whose father was in the House of Lords, who exempted me from calling him, "Your Grace," for which I was grateful.  In any case, there are more books written on the education of princes and princesses than there are about farmer's children.

With this, I'm content to put down the subject about "secondary skills" and move on to the next subject.

Saturday, March 13, 2021

Acquired Skills

Continuing on from the last post, the title for this does not come from the DMG.  This answers the question, where do these skills come from?

Sterling mentioned Traveller, an example of the same period that appeals to me.  For those who don't know, Traveller is a future-based RPG where players travel to multiple planetary systems and have adventures on different kinds of planets.  Basically, the original premise for Star Trek, or Wagon Train to the stars.

It seemed that when I ran this game in the early 80s, it was mostly about players trying to accumulate money to either buy, build or fix a ship, and constantly getting into trouble they had to get out of.  My experience was limited to the very early books, those published in 1980 or thereabouts.  I had abandoned the game before later books came into style; searching for a pdf of the original books, I was stymied online.  I guess they're quite rare now.  As such, I was forced to take images from my own copy of Book 5: High Guard.

Now forgive me if I miss some details regarding the explanation below.  I haven't created a character in Traveller in 35 years, so I'm rusty.  And it could be this was the way we interpreted the rules back then, different from other players; there was no internet where aggressive self-righteous persons could tell us we were doing this wrong.  Too, I'm going to skip over a number of details that aren't relevant to this post.  Please bear with me in any case; I'm establishing background for a point I'll make after.

The game had an unusual procedure for rolling the player character.  In our game, the character "began" at 18 years of age, and could attempt to join various organizations: the navy, the army, the marines, the scouts and so on.  Here, the example player character, Jim Ford, is entering the Navy.  Jim wants to be an officer, so he tries out for the Imperial navy and succeeds.  He rolls for his branch selection (what part of the navy he serves in, and we'll say "Line."  I'm leaving out details, because I'm not trying to teach people how to play Traveller.

The first one-year assignment of the character begins with OCS; for that one year (Jim is 19 now), he gets a roll on the branch skills table and the staff officer skills table.  Here's a screenshot of the skills table:

Jim gets no bonus on the staff officer table, as his rank is "O1."  He rolls a 5 and gets bribery, written as "Bribery-1."  He gets +2 on the Line/crew table because he's in the Imperial Navy; he rolls another 5 and gets "Zero-G Cbt-1."  Okay.  He's out of officer's candidate school and now he's young Ensign Ford, with two skills under his belt.  What happens next is ordered by these tables:

Let me stop a moment and say that Traveller was an odd, idiosyncratic game.  On the one hand, the character development system was overdone, and yet at the same time strangely compelling.  A navy character wasn't a "class" like D&D; it was a collection of skills, gathered randomly, which made any two characters potentially different ... but it also tended to create a lot of similar characters, where die rolls clustered, and many of the "skills" were not that useful for the game.  In Jim's case, unless he actually enters zero-g, or decides to be the sort of person anxious to bribe someone, he has no useful skills at all.  This was very frustrating for players who lacked flexibility in their self-perception.

Here we get into the weirdness of the system.  Jim's entry into the navy is presumed to be a four-year assignment; we've determined his first year, it's officer candidate school.  Now he's entering his second year: and he may, but he's not required to, make a throw on the Command Duty table, top left.  Success puts him in a command position; failure puts him in a staff position.  If he doesn't roll, he's a staff officder.  We always rolled.  Non-officers do not roll for command duty.  I roll for Jim on 2d6 and he gets a 6; he's a staff officer.  Next, everyone rolls for specific assignment; I roll a 5 on 2d6, and Jim gets assigned to a "Strike" — a combat mission, rather than an upfront battle.

And now I will ask you to look at the lists of tables on page 7.  At the top, you'll see "Line/crew."  Jim is an ensign, so he's "Line," and rolls on these tables.  The tables read Training, Shore Duty, Patrol, Siege, Strike, Battle.  Under "Strike," the table gives survival as "6+".  Here's a quote from the book's rules:

"Any assignment may pose some danger of injury or death.  To survive a unit assignment, the character must throw the indicated number or higher on two dice (2d6).  If the indicated number is thrown exactly, the character has received a wound or injury; if the injury occurs while serving in a battle or strike assignment, it is officially classed as a combat wound and the charaacter is awarded the Purple Heart.  A character may elect to take a negative DM on his or her survival roll and then apply it as an equal postitive DM for decorations in the next step."

That is, he can roll 8+ to survive to get 5+ on his decoration.  If Ensign Ford dies here, he dies; mindbogglingly, the player starts at the beginning of the procedure, as many times as necessary.  This could be extremely frustrating ... but it did tend to have players hesitate when deciding to accept another tour of duty (four more years).

We don't have to talk about decorations and promotions; we're here to talk about skills.  Jim needs to roll a 5+ to get a skill; I roll an 8 and he gets one.  That makes him eligible for one skill, on the Skills Table where he rolled after OCS.  He gets one skill, but he gets to pick which table it comes from.  Anyone in the navy is entitled to choose the Navy Life table.  Jim isn't a petty officer, and can only roll on the one branch skills table, Line.  He blew the command roll so he can choose Staff Officer.  He did not serve in training or shore duty, so he can't use the shore duty table.  But he was aboard ship, so he can roll on the Shipboard Life.

That gives him one skill rolled on one of four tables: either Line, Navy Life, Staff Officer or Shipboard Life.  Players never get enough combat skills or the treasured pilot skill, so they tend to roll on tables that will get them one of those things.

At last, then, let's begin to move away from such details.  As nuts as the system was, the players could see and feel where their skills were coming from.  They could perceive that they had been in fights, and could add bling and ranks to their characters.  After going through the process four times, they could muster out, get some money and equipment, and start running in the "real" campaign.

Towards the end of my running Traveller as a "referee" (which I did as a DM, to be honest), I began to subvert the character generation in an unexpected, and reportedly popular way, so my players said.  I required them all to join the same service and, with some variance, the same branch.  All the players would be in the Navy together and they'd all be either officers or crew.  Players would compete for the commander position, with only one getting it, because their characters would be "together" on the same assignment.  And then, to take the example above, instead of making a "survival" roll, I would RUN the players in a strike situation, role-playing the experience as an adventure, and force them to live or die by their own wits.  At the end of the adventure, the skills they gained would depend on what they'd tried to do, or what they'd been forced to do; much of the time, I rolled the skills in secret for the players, and then built the adventure around that.

This got everyone into the game quickly, without relying on the character generation system — but still using that system as a premise.  Character skills therefore became things the characters PICKED UP over time, rather than something they were trained to do in the distant past.

Additionally, I began around 1983, about half-way through my Traveller years, to mix in rules from another roleplaying game, Top Secret.  I preferred the combat system, adjusting it to work with Traveller weapons.  I liked something else about it:  when something special was done in the game, the skills were "marked up" by a 10% bonus.  So instead of a character having Bribery-1, a successful use of that Bribery would make it Bribery-1.1; and then 1.2 and so on, letting the character increase their skills by their own ken, rather than letting the game system rule completely over it.  I also let players without any skill develop something like Pilot, starting at 0.0 until they got a little bit of training that would boost them to 0.1.

These things worked very well with the players, as we might imagine.  Unfortunately, I would have to surrender my D&D campaign for a few weeks to play "Star Jumper," as I called my campaign; and then suspend Star Jumper to play D&D.  By '87-88, I was getting less and less interested in suspending D&D.  Finally I called an end to S.J. and never went back.

I could probably run it now, but it would never have the depth of my present D&D campaign.

Notice, however, the way that my sage abilities have begun to reflect that earlier idea in a different game.  Players aren't limited to the sage abilities they're given.  They CAN find an instructor, spend a lot of time and learn how to do other things.  They can improve their own skills through levelling; and the system is built so that everyone of any given class will become an amateur-level in every study within that class, within 5 or 6 levels of 1st.  To some degree, an experience player becomes a jack-of-all-trades within their class limitations; and this scope increases if they choose to be multi-classed.  Most importantly, they know where their abilities are coming from and what those abilities do, in game terms, when I have the time to sketch them out.  I'm usually a few abilities behind, but I'll work on any ability the players truly desire to have in their pocket.

Therefore, while there is a certain randomness in the sage abilities, they're not relying on randomness. Nor is the party relying on having only a few abilities forever.  With henchmen added, a party can eventually incorporate every character class into their ranks; and therefore, every amateur skill available for the party as a whole.  Since most of these skills are something the characters can simply DO (no roll made), the sense of inconsistency in the skills that exists with 3rd and other editions isn't there.  When a character in my game has "close drop," it means their weapon, when it falls out of their hands, never falls into an enemy's hexSome might feel this takes away from the game: but not every player has access to this particular ability, and those with it will most often be those who can remember when they didn't have it.  Therefore, it becomes something like "belonging to a club," where the players can feel real evidence that they're getting stronger and that all their gaming is having a measurable effect.  That is far, far more important than insisting on constant randomness for the sake of randomness.

Hm.  I seem to have run out of things to say.

Thursday, March 11, 2021

Player Character Non-professional Skills

Time to pick this up again.

Page 12 of the original DMG proposed a simple rule that became structurally intrinsic to my campaign, remembering that for me, a "campaign" is a full-on functioning world, providing a deep, resonant setting and structured logic enabling the players to innovate and self-build their own milieu.  I appreciate that many DMs will argue that they just want to play a "game," that they don't want to spend that much time prepping their sessions or their campaign, and that they don't see the point in all this worldbuilding.  Contrary to their point of view, for the players to be thoroughly invested, the game's interface MUST include a means for the PLAYER to prep for the session, and for the PLAYER to prep the campaign, in ways that push the DM to respond to what the player makes and what the player wants, rather than the "traditional reverse", which is all we ever see in most campaigns.

In my previous steady rewrite of the DMG, the content has largely paralleled my own campaign.  There may be quibbling about when the dice are used, but my use of dice more or less remains close to the original game's intent.  I maintain the old rolling of ability scores; I can see the benefit of using battle maps and representations on those maps.  However, where it comes to "non-professional skills," the book and I totally depart company.  

For one thing, all of the "skills" listed here are professions.  All of them require considerable time to learn and excel at; no one can spend a few weeks learning how to become a miner or a tailor.  These professions take years to learn well enough that an individual can employ the many skills involved with each competently.  "Fisher" and "farmer" aren't "skills" ... they are occupations that incorporate hundreds of skills, none of which are listed in the DMG or even proposed.  That failing in particular was acutely felt by me and my players whenever we spoke about this list: what on earth was the point in saying that the player was an armourer, a gambler or a trader, without also providing applications to these labels?  Presumedly, Gygax did not think it worth the time; perhaps he felt that we could go to a library and look up what exactly a forester or a husbandman did.  Of course we could do that — but since no book would explain how these things would work IN GAME, it was entirely worthless to include any reference, period.

As such, none of the campaigns I played in used the list.  For a long time, not knowing what to do with it, I'd dutifully roll the result out with a wait and see approach — maybe, one day we'd figure it out.  Later on, I added more professions.  Steadily, I shaped in vague terms what a player could do ... and began to think on the problem, how do characters even get these skills, player and non-player alike?

What with things based on an historical period, we know that farmers gave birth to farmers and merchants gave birth to merchants.  Lateral movement between professions occurred when a boy was adopted by others, not because his farming father decided to become a merchant.  People were legally tied to the land, or to guilds, or deliberately kept out of organisations, much like you or I cannot join many associations or clubs because we don't have enough money in the bank, or we're just not the right kind of people.  The rules then were far more draconian; even if you had the money to buy products and carry them elsewhere, you would still be denied entry to a town because you didn't have permission to sell here, or because you did not belong to the baker's guild in this town, though you might belong to a baker's guild elsewhere.  These hoops were designed to force you to follow in the footsteps of your father, because the upper echelons didn't want competition.  That didn't change until so much land and opportunity became available, through the discovery of new worlds and new trade routes, that the wealthy couldn't maintain their hegemony.

Calling these skills non-professional implies that the character classes, "cleric," "fighter," "thief" and so on are professions, which they're not.  Religious persons do not self-identify as "religious persons," but as priests, friars, teachers, deacons and a host of other professions based on who manages, meets & greets, handles the money, performs what services within the religion's heirarchy and so on.  No one has ever put on their resume, "fighter."  Fighting is a set of skills, not a profession.  They think of themselves as soldiers, guards, lancers, marines and a long list of names associated with specific jobs.  Outsiders may think of a group of persons as thieves, assassins or monks, but that is not what they call themselves, as evidenced by names like "cutpurse," "burglar" or "forger," which are all about stealing but each having totally different skill-sets.  Monks do not call themselves "monks" ... they call themselves Buddhists, Jains, Cistercians, Franciscans ... in short, by the set of rules they personally accept as their path to enlightenment.  Paladins aren't "paladins."  They're knights, crusaders, peers ... AND soldiers, noblemen and such.  The word doesn't appear in English until 1592, and comes from the French word that means "of the palace."  It only means what we think it means when we speak of D&D; it is a convenient word picked by Gygax and crew that has become a convenience, but is not accurate to anything historical.

The heading, then, deliberately calls things that ARE professions "non-professional," and things that AREN'T professions "professional."  Gawd, is it any wonder we were soon immersed in people pulling words out of a thesaurus to make new D&D classes, since obviously a magic-user isn't a witch, a necromancer or a sorceror.  Shoot me, please.

We didn't need more classes, we needed a rational skills list that could be employed by players in the campaign ... as evidenced by 2nd Edition's decision to do exactly that, because the demand was there and needed addressing.  Unfortunately, while the skills list was fairly comprehensive, the scholarship behind them was utterly lacking, so that every skill was seen as a kind of saving throw determining success.  I do not need to roll a die to write this post.  Nor do I need to roll a die to make this sentence grammatically correct.  Astronomers very rarely fail to have perfect knowledge of pre-telescope astronomy; so what is the "check" for?  Gaming, obviously.  The designers, having no concept of how D&D worked or even how skills worked, turned them into a silly game that subverted any value they might have had ... and the pattern was picked up by 3rd Edition with glorious incomprehension.

It's self-evident why this didn't work, to me at least.  A game's random generating functions cannot overwhelm the predictability of the game.  Randomly rolling snake eyes or box cars playing Monopoly, though very different numbers, is mitigated by the relative slight difference in the effective results.  You're standing on Connecticut Avenue, and the full scope of results will land you anywhere between St. Charles Place and Kentucky.  The difference in price between those properties is only $80 (St. Charles, $140 and Kentucky, $220).  Unfortunately, D&D checks do not offer slivers of success, but total success vs. either total failure or partial failure.  The "greyer" the partial flavour, and the more kinds of partial flavour, the more practical the die roll becomes for a game.

Combat presumes that in most cases, you won't die in one round; low-level combats in my game typically last for no more than 8 or 9 rounds, and then only if the baddies don't go down more quickly.  Typically, it takes at least 8 to 9 rounds to kill a party; this gives them time to explore strategies and decide how much of their full strength they want to reserve for a later fight.  As turn 7 passes, with the players still doing poorly, the party stops counting on swings and starts going all-in with their magic and one-shot options.

2nd Edition and 3rd Edition systems didn't account for any greyness; and constant, inconsistent pass/fail results forced players not to rely on skills, except when failure didn't matter; and if it didn't matter, it didn't add to the game, so why have the system?  Only the fluff-lovers could embrace a system that worked inconsistently when it was really needed and didn't provide meaningful, trustworthy game play ... and it is always the fluff-lovers still who defend those systems (or similar systems found in later editions).

Full disclosure, I have similar checks in my game.  I also treat them as "saving throws" ... but as Pandred pointed out a couple of weeks ago, rolls against these things are rare, and CAN be avoided if the players take steps to protect themselves, or don't take risks.  This is different from a skill roll, such as Lore, that isn't actually needed for the game being presented.  Lore is frosting; and if we don't have it, meh.  We still have the cake, that being the actual campaign, and what we don't know about the lore and need to know, the DM will eventually provide.

A skill set that provides game flavour has to also be reliable ... as reliable as knowing that when you buy food to keep you from starving, there's no die roll to determine if it does.  Generally, games don't roll dice to see if the horse will carry you to the next town, or if the rope can be let down from a wall to help you up.  If we did roll for these things, we'd quickly see players stop using horses and ropes.  Players organize their strategies on things they don't have to roll dice to accomplish ... and while there is a sick conception that giving players skill sets that don't need rolls would make them "too powerful," truth is that the more consistent, reliable functions the game offers, the more opportunities and dimensions the game offers.

This post is long enough for the present; let's come around back to where the skills come from with the next post.

Wednesday, March 10, 2021


During a conversation with my daughter yesterday, we got to talking about the difference in our ages, and how I used to look at things when I was her age compared to how she does.  She's a lot smarter at 32 than I was; yet of course I have the benefit I hindsight on that and she doesn't.  In any case, with one thing or another, I started thinking about where the world was when I was 32, and what I knew.

My entire experience with the internet in 1996 was sending the occasional email, and I didn't send too many of those.  I didn't have a good practical internet computer until 1997, and I didn't actually hook it up to the internet for the first 18 months of my owning it.  That's incomprehensible now; I mean, what would I do with a computer that didn't have internet?

At 32, I still had to learn out how to lay out publications on a desktop; I didn't know publisher yet.  The game I played then was very different and much less complex than the one I play now.  My trade system hadn't been solved and things like my background generator or even the structure of the maps I've created wouldn't emerge in my creative process for at least another decade.  I had to teach myself a new type of excel and get used to new word processors.  I wouldn't see my first blog until 2003.  It isn't just that computers changed the world, it's that I had to learn an enormous amount about computers and making use of them, to become the savvy person I am now ... and I had to do that long, long after I had finished university.  I wasn't a kid in 2000; I was 36.

It's a bit funny to hear someone mumble on about how long it's going to take to read so much material, or learn how to draw or paint, or to write or master an instrument.  I'm connected to people who are trying to use this Covid-time to start youtube channels for let's play gaming or low-brow documentaries ... and they tell me, "I've been at this for six months, I've done 70 videos ... how come no one comes to my channel?"

Because this shit takes a long time, and that doesn't matter.

I started this blog in 2008; I've written over 3000 posts and I'm doing "okay" but I'm certainly no Jingles.  There are lots of D&D creators who started after me, who are doing better than me financially, though I hate their work — but none of the stayers have been at this less than 10 years.  Guys who popped up fast in the early days of 2009, like James Raggi, have since lost their legs ... I notice James Maliszewski is blogging again, churning out the same content he did 8 years ago.  "Churning" is the winning strategy ... and it takes a lot of resolve to just churn and churn and churn.  Guys like Tim Brannan or Barking Alien, they're still here because they've found some power in themselves that enables them to just keep going.

That's not always a good thing.  Season #237 of the Simpsons proves that.  But presumedly, if the creator keeps at it, they'll learn new techniques and conceive new ideas and add features to their internet presence.  What's sad about so many people on the intenet, no matter what the subject, is that the content they're producing today is no different from what they made 10 years ago.  They're not growing.  They're not learning.  And, in fact, some of them take pride in not changing at all.

The justification is that they're doing this as a "hobby" ... it suits them, they're not concerned about likes or page views and they certainly don't want to monetize their hobby.  I've had many a discussion over the last ten years with those who think in the short run that they'd like to monetize what they're doing — only to learn, to their misery, what monetizing actually means and what a horrible process is involved.

I don't have any trouble monetizing my work because, in 1982, when I was fresh out of high school and wanting to be a writer, making money was always the goal.  I spent a decade sending work off to publishers in vain, costing myself money in printing and postage; when I started at the university paper, which was not just to teach students how to write and lay out publications, it also sold advertising to support itself.  I learned how that advertising worked, and how to sell space, so that when I started some 'zines of my own in the '90s, it was always to make money.  When I wrote a play and found space, I sold tickets; and when I worked with film companies as an actor or a script doctor, we were all there to make an independent film that would make money.  Long, long before the internet became a thing, all the writers and musicians I hung around with talked about how they were going to turn their product into money.  It seems kind of crazy to me that there are people running around on the internet who (a) don't think something they write should be "tainted" by money; and (b) find such distaste at the idea of "selling themselves."

Yet what is youtube except an independent sort of television studio?  With commercials and ratings collected in page views?  What is a blog or a website but a print publication on a different format?  And why does performance art and written content exist?  Why has it ever existed, going back to the 15th century printing press, or performances of the Agamemnon in ancient Greece?  To make a buck, of course.  To entertain an audience in exchange for the coin that audience will willingly part with, because the entertainment is worth it.

I didn't change from the world of 1996 to the world of 2021 just because I liked to learn things.  I changed because I talked to other people who discovered new ways to sell old things, and I followed the paths they laid out.  I saw people getting attention from blogs and I thought, "Hey, I can write, I can do that.  And I can think of things to write, too!"  I'd had a lot of practice inventing my own content, going back to when I used to do it for those publishers who ignored me.  I tried youtube, I tried soundcloud; I learned things and I've thought how to better use those venues — and I have some ideas I'm going to launch this summer.  Lulu publishing worked well for me; I feel I've finally turned myself around and there will be titles in the near future.  All that is only saying, I'm still following the money.

It's pretty easy to work for a company and have them pay out.  The goal posts are clear, there's none of that pesky asking people for money up front, and since work is almost never creative, there's no sense of prostituting one's personal thoughts or ideas.  A job, even a career, is about getting into harness, pulling like a mule and then feeling good because the bucket is full of oats afterwards.  Straightforward, direct, pre-determined.  Even if we have to be a mule.

Selling one's art is not like that.  It isn't just an exchange.  We love the work, we love how it looks or sounds or how we feel at something we've put so much work into creating.  It's personal.  It's costed us.  We've had to bleed a little, and not like a mule bleeds, but like a mother bleeds.  Putting it out there and then asking for a few grubby coins in exchange feels ... well, if you're not used to it, it feels bloody awful.  It is even worse when the buyer opens it, or hears it, and say, "what a lot of shit.  I feel ripped off."

Who needs that?

Well, me.  Because that's not the side I see — partly because I've been doing this a very long time.  The side I see is the friend I chance into who sends me a text, "Hey, I was thinking about that play you put on back in, what was it, 2001?  That was a good play."  I hear the reader who says, "Are you publishing another book?"  This is, like, five years after the last book I published.  Five years later and that reader isn't thinking about the cost of my book.  Art is a product.  One that everyone has in their home; and which they turn to for solace.  Do you care that you had to pay money for Eric Clapton?  Do you care that the picture over your bed, that you love, cost you money?  If you could purchase concert tickets for anyone you love right now, would you care that they were $500?  Wouldn't you sacrifice a kidney right now to see a concert?

This notion that some people have, that they don't want to sully their work with crass commercialism, don't hesitate to sully the work of others with money they want to spend.  The actual reason is that selling a product — any product — is hard.  We have to convince people the product is worth buying; and then we have to convince them it's worth the price we name; and we have to organize ourselves so that when they buy the product, we have it and can get it into their hands in a complex, internet-driven world.  It doesn't matter if we're selling our painting or a child's doll.  The principles are the same.  Most people aren't ready to push themselves to learn the business well enough to make this process doable.

I do wish, however, they'd recognize that was the reason, and not invent excuses like "crass commercialism" being to blame.

Honestly, I'm a little surprised at how far I've come in the last 24 years.  And it's interesting to wonder where my daughter will be, 24 years from now, with all the changes that are going to pass in the time that's coming.  I really had some big hurdles to overcome, to stay in the front line.  The hurdles she will have won't be any easier.  But then, like I say, she's a lot smarter than I am.  That might be on account of whom she had for a dad, compared to whom I had for a dad.

Saturday, March 6, 2021


So.  Getting bloodwook done last week, I tested positive for cancer.  A couple things about that: the test isn't conclusive, I have to see a specialist, and I'm told there's a 1 in 100 chance that it's the real thing.  Still, I'm a D&D player, and I've seen many cases where players blew off a percentile check only to have a double-zero turn up and kill them.

It has to be understood that on some level, we all "have" cancer.  Something that emerged from improving mammogram technology in the 2000s was our ability to find cancer in virtually every subject; because most of the time, the cancer is there, but it's benign.  I'm not saying this to reassure myself, but because it's fact.  Unfortunately for me, my doctor is a hypochondriac, who likes to wax on about 1% chances when he feels his patients aren't panicking enough about results.  Literally, he told me the chance, and then spoke for five minutes about why I needed to be really concerned.  He's a happy fucking fun guy.

I'm 56 and I'm a white man living in Alberta, which is parallel to Texas if your perception of that state is red meat, eggs and potatoes for breakfast, with a chaser of fatty milk and heavily sugared coffee.  Coming out of that culture, you keep testing me and testing me, something is going to come up positive.  My LDL is high, too; I could go any time.  I thought long and hard about that during my five-mile walk home yesterday.

My father ate bacon every day, plus steak three times a week, up until Alzheimer's gripped him in 2016.  He died at 84.   He must have heard the same pronouncement from his doctor when he was around 56 — and judging by his habits, he must have ignored it.   I don't intend to ignore my doctor.  Still, I'm feeling mortal today.

Way too late last night, not sleeping, struggling for distraction, I stupidly went slumming on JB's blog roll, which is a very bad habit since it drags me through the mud of D&D bloggers — and JB has the elitist D&D blog roll in existence, judging by blog rolls further down the evolutionary scale.  And for reasons that passeth all understanding, I clicked moronically on the blog run by noisms, who is a pretentious fuck and yet lingers on as a writer I know not why.  Clearly, I was feeling masochistic and self-destructive.  There I found these statements coupled together with a bunch of masturbation surrounding football commentary:

" I've remarked before that regular play somehow correlates with a diminished need to think obsessively and write about gaming. This seems to be the pattern ... One thing you begin to notice after a while is the really absurd level of detail that is read into the tiniest and most trivial of events ..."

Naturally, this is followed by the obsessive qualifiers of someone who can't hold a firm opinion for more than five minutes; still, I take umbrage.

These two things seem to have taken hold in my mind, since I am a D&D writer who absolutely does examine D&D gameplay to a really absurd level, reading that into tiny and trivial events — like, for example, an affected prat writing a blog post.  This causes me to sit back and think, "Hm, maybe it is true, as noisms says in his post, that 'ultimately the game is the thing,' and not writing about it."  And maybe what he says about getting off your rump and running an online game is a good idea for the scads of D&D pundits drenching blog rolls of other blogs.  But then I think, oh wait, I started doing that in, what, 2009, 12 years ago, putting it up for everyone to see, and I don't think, one time, noisms has ever praised me for doing that.  Hm.

In any case, in my present state of mind, it's easy to explain my preoccupation with ephemera related to D&D, to an absurd level.  I like writing it and people like reading it.  In fact, people like reading it so much that they support me on Patreon, to an absurd degree, almost religiously, which suggests (just a guess here) that they like ephemera and absurd detail.  Could be that football commentors also do that on National TV to millions and millions of fans because they also like it.  Come to think of it, there just might be an argument to be made that liking something makes us want to examine it in positively excessive, dare I say fanciful, detail.  When I think of the many, many hours I've spent closely examining my wife's breasts, I must admit I cherish those moments as golden.

This doesn't make her breasts better, or more "breast like."  I'm quite sure her breasts remain unimproved from all the attention I've laved upon them.  And yet, for the record, I don't count this time as "wasted."

[I read this part out to my wife after writing it and she laughed and laughed ... I'm sure she gets something out of my impractical fact-finding missions]

More to the point — and I can't get around this — I'm going to be dead someday.  And when I am, there definitely won't be any more setting up games and playing.  When I'm dead, all that time spent selfishly in my gaming gratification will be only a memory in the thoughts of my players, and somewhat confused memories at that, since we were all flushed with those kinds of endorphins that makes time pass very quickly and in a very unexamined manner, at least in the moment.  In any case, those memories will, with the inevitable deaths of my players, pass into the Land of the Forgotten ... and what will be left of me personally will be left in the things I write; things that can be read by my grandson, for instance, when he reaches an age old enough to understand it and I've gone the way of too much really, really good pig meat.

As such, I think I'll continue to absurdly write about these tiny and trivial things I find so fascinating about D&D.  I'm quite certain — from experience, as it turns out — that "playing the game" and "talking about the game" are not mutually exclusive activities, and that it is entirely possible to do both in the time we have.  I'm just guessing here, because I don't watch football commentary, but I'll bet that the "pseudo-intellectual journalists who think about the sport [football] far too much," are actually reading copy that dozens of other persons have written, who do it because they're paid a better than living wage, because they know more about football than noisms could ever hope to know; and that these football pundits are actually only speaking for minutes out of their day, and that they probably don't go on thinking about football when the camera turns off.  Just as when I finish writing this post, I'll probably do one of a hundred things with the rest of my day that aren't actually about D&D — the day having so many minutes and hours in it, with so many chores to do, friends and family to talk to, the cry for needful planning, things to buy and love to make, etcetera, etcetera.

I understand that noisms thinks we all just "switch off" the moment we stop writing our blogs, but we don't.  We do lots of stuff.  And then we take a break from that stuff to goof around talking about D&D.  It's a multi-tasking thing.