Monday, May 31, 2021
Saturday, May 29, 2021
Wednesday, May 26, 2021
"Sensemaking starts with chaos. The nurse encounters 'a million things that go on' and the ongoing potential for 'clusters of things that go wrong' — part of an almost infinite stream of events and imputs that surround any organization actor ... the nurse's sensemaking does not begin 'de novo' [from the beginning; anew], but like all organizing occurs amidst a stream of potential antecedents and consequences. Presumably within the 24-hour period surrounding the critical noticing, the nurse slept, awoke, prepared for work, observed and tended other babies, completed paper work and charts, drank coffee, spoke with doctors and fellow nurses, stared at an elevator door as she moved between hospital floors, and performed a variety of formal and impromptu observations. All of these activities furnish a raw flow of activity from which she may or may not extract certain cues for closer attention. During her routine activities, the nurse becomes aware of vital signs that are a variance with the 'normal demeanor of a recovering baby. In response to the interruption, the nurse orients to the child and notices and brackets possible signs of trouble for closer attention."
Okay. This may not seem immediately evident even to the context above. The study goes on to explain that "bracketing" is the process of being guided by foregoing models of her experience with patients that she's acquired in her time as a nurse. Habitually, she notices anything that doesn't fit with normal expected behaviour and brackets it; that is, calls attention to it in her mind, highlights it, sets it mentally aside from the other commonplace parts of her day, etcetera, so that this specific thing can get her attention.
If you've run a lot, particularly of a specific set of game rules, your chances of accumulating really solid models of expected behaviour increase exponentially. The more often you change your core game rules, the more game genres you play, the more often you switch around, the more scattered your experiences as a DM will be with players reacting to specific rule sets. I've been playing the same basic combat system as a DM since 1986; for 34 years. I've seen the same ebb and flow, the same complicated sequences of players getting stunned, wounded, rallying back, getting separated and so on with lots of different people over a great deal of time. When I run the system, it is like putting on a very, very comfortable coat that fits me so perfectly I can cease thinking about it, almost entirely ... which means it is like getting a cup of coffee or musing in the elevator is to the nurse. During a game, even a complicated combat, I have lots of additional time to think and design in my head because I'm not fretting about how the combat system works. Additionally, with long time players, they've seen the combat system function so often also, that they're not forced to puzzle it out either. As such, we can run a battle with fifty pieces, even when the combat system is so complicated, because it isn't complicated TO US. We've practiced using it.
It also means that if anything unusual happens, it's easy to notice it, just like the nurse above. And here I don't means things like the players coming up with an innovation. I mean stressed words in a sentence, a heightened reaction in a player, the suggestion of oncoming stress, the player becoming overly interested in a specific object or a new player deliberately making decisions that enables his or her character to avoid harm, while riding the coattails of others. After a great deal of time playing, signs like these stick out like a sore thumb, where I can bracket them and wait to see if more information on that is forthcoming. I can see players changing their habits, making more use of certain skills, communicating better with fellow players, getting comfortable in the game group and much, much more ... all important things for a DM to know if what matters is producing a GOOD GAME.
Because a good game is not found in the rules, or even in the way the rules are run, but in how much attention is paid to the reaction of the players to those rules, to the setting, to the ongoing stream of play and such. IF you're spending all your time running some complicated new game setting that you invented just a month ago, or shifting which game you play from week to week, or which characters the players have, or any other random change that you're inserting into your game in order to "keep things fresh," what you're actually doing is blinding yourself to the incredible nuance that constantly bubbles under any group of people who spend a lot of time talking to each other. Keeping things fresh is done by stirring things into this bubbling ... which is enormously helped by incorporating fixed variables into your game like the same rules, the same setting, the same player characters AND the same narrative flow. By establishing these baselines for play, the DM's time and imagination is freed up for inserting additional, more complex ideas into the mix.
I believe I understood this intuitively up until a few days ago, but reading the study has woken me up to certain things I did instinctively and effectively ... and how to explain what those things were. See, I'm learning also.
This evaluation obliterates the arguments made about how "complicated" it is to keep track of all these rules and uncertainties in what a player might do from moment to moment. It also supports an argument I've repeatedly made that while D&D is multi-varied and far reaching, it isn't medicine or fire-fighting. The nurse in the example above manages a tremendous amount of chaos as a daily part of her job ... which is possible because the forces around her job aren't aren't arbitrarily changing her tasks, or expectations, while she gets tremendous support from the other forces at work around her, to help her manage. If DMs could realize that frivolously changing the rules or other aspects of the game, or running ten different games at one time, aren't helping them be better DMs, they might settle down, pick one game and one setting, and get good at that thing ... while simultaneously grounding the players in an experience that is ten times as imaginative while forsaking the shallow appeal of novelty for novelty's sake.
In his book The Big Con, David Maurer explains that everyone ever taken by a confidence scheme has one overriding characteristic: they think there's an easy path to money; that everyone who has money found that easy path; and that the secret back door is the thing they haven't found yet. This let's the con invent "an easy way to make money," then sit back and reel the fish in.
Everyone that gets taken by a con catches themself.
Yet every time you see a television show (there's one on Netflix now) or a documentary that talks about scams, phishing schemes and cons, the one thing you can expect the "experts" to say at the end is that "anyone can be taken by a con; there's no correlation between victims." Hint: the word expert is in quotes because documentary film makers are not con artists.
The key word is "easy." Most people seek the easiest path. And most people seeking that path know intrinsically that their lives have not fared well for that. Most convince themselves its because they haven't found that back door — and so they get taken again and again. The rest, as they get older, begin to realize that maybe they should have tried harder in school; or gone to university; or at least buckled down and given a better effort at that one good job they had 12 years ago. Unfortunately — and this is the deeper problem — there's a nagging feeling that even if they'd wanted to try harder, they'd have still failed. That's not necessarily true, but for people in that headspace, it's enough that it feels true. And so, as they spend their money on this week's lottery, which is also a scam, they justify it in that hey, what else are they gonna do?
With the last post, Alex asked me, "What do you want?" I want my readers to recognize there is no easy path to DMing. There are no shortcuts. I don't want my readers to find themselves ten years from now feeling like they might still be playing D&D if only they had cared more. I don't want them feeling like D&D was another important thing in their life they didn't give their all to, because they didn't know how or they didn't want to work that hard. I want my readers to feel that they can master this thing; that they can raise themselves beyond what they are now, and into something better. And I want my readers to understand that being able to master D&D uses and enables the same skills that will let them do anything else they like, from bettering their relationships, their careers and their happiness. The repeated examples I pull from psychology, problem-solving and academic deconstruction proves that. Learning how to manage this game will grant people the tools they can apply to anything else they do in their lives.
Some sneer at that. They do because they still believe that "easy" is best. Or they do it because they've already reached an age where they've started to think that "acquiring new tools" is a thing of their past. For those readers of this kind, who don't believe their future can be much influenced by D&D, I rush to point out that I have 18 year olds that read this blog also. I have young readers who are just starting; who haven't given up on changing themselves or believing they can do whatever they want. Too often, I get comments from people who think because they have a ton of experience, they can see right through my agenda ... until I remind them that I'm also writing to a lot of other people. Not just them.
The easiest way to recognize a con is have a thesaurus open to the word "easy." Hearing that word, and any word like it, is a clear sign. Real things in the world never have "easy" stamped on the label. "Hey, come to Harvard, it's easy!" "Be a doctor, it's easy!" "Become a filmmaker, it's easy!" Easy, simple, passively comprehensible things are always popular. Earlier today, JB tried to equate this blog with a classroom, arguing "... doesn't PRACTICAL legitimacy come from attendents [sic]?" I think it does come from attendance ... only in blogging circles, attention is nearly always given to the most simple-simon of writers. Grognardia — penned by James Maliszewski — took an 8-year hiatus from blogging and is written by someone who unquestionably took a shit-load of money from readers (the reason he disappeared in 2012), and yet he's stepped right back into his old popularity, even though he's rewriting the same dreck material he produced a decade ago. His secret is to mutter bland things about very old content, or new content that is very much like old content; he never says anything of consequence, offers no practical details at all and frankly, gushes like a 14-year-old on Demi Lovato. Hasn't hurt his "attendents" one bit. By the way, you can find Maliszewski's blog on JB's blog roll. Maliszewski writes three or four posts a day, so you won't have to scan down very far.
Now, I also took money from readers in 1996 for a book I never produced. And I have felt sick about it. I also didn't go hide in shame. I stayed right here and kept writing, answering whenever anyone brought up the issue, and have tried to make amends by producing meaningful, practical, useful content. However, I'm also saying very clearly that a good D&D game comes from suffering. It comes from long nights, it comes from hundreds of hours of preparation, and thousands of hours of practical work and research, along with changing what you are and how you do. It does not come from gushing about old shit written by amateurs with only a few years of empirical, applied effort. If the game was invented in 1974, and Blackmoor was published by Arneson in 1975, based on wargaming sessions he began in 1971 ... when Arneson was 24 years old, how exactly does this express the chops necessary to write anything that deserves the special praise it gets today? I've read it. I can't say I'm impressed.
I feel my readers can do better. I feel they can do a LOT better, since there's been a lot more focus on the game than ever existed between 1970 and 1975. But while I'm selling work, guys like Maliszewski are selling wank. The more popular is obvious: wank is easier. And woah, do the rubes get taken.
Every subject has it's mix of how-to books. And while "blankety-blank for dummies" sells a lot better, the key word in the title is "DUMMIES" ... as in, the moron who has bought this book in spite of real books that exist on the subject, that are not useless overviews but will actually teach you how to rebuild your car, cook food, survive in the wilderness or fix a dishwasher. Real books that teach real things always exist, but they are never popular ... which is why there are so few people who know how to do difficult things well. I am of the school that the best things we can do for ourselves in our lives are difficult things. I am in the minority.
People who cannot do difficult things constantly find themselves in situations where they're stuck and helpless. Their car breaks down on the side of the road and while they know how to fill the tank, program the buttons on the radio and even open the hood, when they do the latter they are unable to make heads or tails of what they see. Then, some nice soul comes along, stops, looks at the engine and adjusts one tiny valve inside of three seconds and says, "give it a try." And the car works.
When this happens to most people — whether its a car, their dishwasher or trying to find a polling station or use a computer — it makes them feel STUPID. They hate looking stupid. They don't want that. Of course, they could take a very simple course on how to fix a car. Or a dishwasher or a computer, or learn to navigate a website. But they don't. Because that doesn't sound easy. It particular galls them that the guy who fixed their car makes it look easy. That is the fucking worst.
This is why, when I haul out my wiki, my writing, my map posts, my spread sheets and my trade stuff, sure it proves I'm not talking out of my ass. That is not in my favour, except with a small few dedicated readers who come here to get what they can't get elsewhere.
This is good. I don't want to be Maliszewski. I want his popularity, but only because that would mean more people out there wanted to play a better game, realizing that working is a good thing, maybe the best of things. Far better than hope, in my opinion.
Monday, May 24, 2021
"We have to look at what makes something a game, so strap in because we're about to get good and crunchy with our definitions here. Games are sets of rules. Rules can be generally divided into three kinds: the board, the procedures and the goals. Goals are self explanatory. They're the things that the player wants to accomplish in order to bring the game to a close. Ideally, winning. Procedures are all the things you normally think of when you hear about rules: what counts as a valid move, what are the penalties for a violation, scoring systems and so forth all fall into this category. The board is the defined limitations of the game system and can actually be a lot of different things. Board games have a literal board, sports have a field, video games have the game world, card games have a starting layout and role-playing games have a communal agreement of assumptions and the foundational structure of character generation.
"There's one more important characteristic and that's metaphor. The actions taken in the game are arbitrary and symbolic. They do not have intrinsic external consequences. That's important because the entire point of a game is to present the challenge of conflict resolution without the actual risk. In fact, most competitive games, from chess to football ot Starcraft are really simulations of war without the actual killing of other people."
Dan Olson, Folding Ideas - Source Code
Power and influence occurs when we force another person to do something they don't want to do, or accept something they don't want to accept. My team faces your team in a game of football. Neither team wants to lose; winning forces the other team to lose — and in some circles, winning a football game is a point of honour. When the Browns win over the Steelers, this is a reason to crow, even by fans who have nothing whatsoever to do with the game's play, except that they've bought tickets that support the owners who use the money to maintain the arena and pay the players. It is a long reach from a fan who warms a bench to a player who risks CTE in order to win ... but sitting in the stands is also a vicarious metaphor for those in attendance. Some of these have never played; some played once, but never reached the status to play in a professional league game; and a tiny few, a very tiny few, might relive their own experiences from when they were younger. When the Browns win, especially over Pittsburgh, it is a reason to scream victory; to wreck cars and set Cleveland on fire, in a strange ritual of simulating war without actually participating in war.
The fundamental pleasure in winning is knowing that there are others who have lost. Competition is a comparative apparatus ... and a biological one besides. When two troops of primates encounter each other at the edge of their respective territories, they scream and shout at one another in a state of fury; this is an outward demonstration that they are ready for war. We humans did the same a hundred thousand generations ago, a thousand generations ago, a hundred generations ago and all over the world within the last hour. Shouting, stamping, taunting, threatening, demonstrating our prowess and our willingness to engage in war began as a necessary means of protecting our food supply for our troop against the danger that some other troop would diminish it. The power and influence we exercised was to ensure that some other troop died of starvation before our troop did; and those troops that won that fight went on to give birth to the generations that gave birth to us. The troops that lost are not represented in the present at all.
Wars are extraordinarily more destructive of late in our history, however. As war has become progressively more destructive since the time of Lucy and far-gone Africa, efforts have been made to temper the devastation by seeking other forms of conflict resolution: negotiation, diplomacy, unification, the pursuit of higher things ... and, as it happens, games, which channels our biological urges to feel dominant into metaphorical avenues where less people die.
For some, "game" enables us to subvert the dominance-compulsion in large part. My friends and I get together for some stickball and decide not to keep score. Or to treat the score as something that doesn't matter. This is possible because in fact we are already of one tribal organization ... these are my friends after all. It is different if a group of strangers — another tribe — sees us playing stickball and asks if we'd like to play against them. At once, the dynamic is changed. We don't know these people; and as they start cheering whenever they make a goal, and slapping each other on the back, and start keeping score ... we're very conscious that our friendly Sunday-afternoon game is no longer that friendly. Yet somehow, though we know we're not having as much fun as we were before, no one on our side wants to say suddenly, "Hey guys, we've changed our minds. We'd like to just play among ourselves again."
The changed dynamic is that shame is on the table now. Quitting is losing; even when we understand that "losing" means absolutely nothing here. Our lives and the strangers lives won't be changed whatever happens ... yet still there's a tacit agreement among my friends that "we're going to win," because winning here is a means of escaping shame. Our winning means that they're the ones that feel shame; and when afterwards we're congratulating ourselves, we'll say things like "Those guys shouldn't have messed with us!" "Fucking right!"
No, I didn't play yesterday with my friends: covid and all. But we've been here often enough we know how it goes ... and we know that when outsiders ask, the right answer when they ask if they can join is to say, "Nah, we want to play among ourselves." We prefer to be loyal to the troop. We've also been in that position when the outsiders don't take well to be rebuffed; when they return to the old trope of two primate groups threatening each other over territory ... though more nuanced, of course, with less screaming and jumping around.
Admitting, however, that in my teen years, going back to high school, there were groups who, if they weren't allowed to play, would want to fight for real. Ah, youth.
Okay, so stick a pin in all that.
The communal agreement in role-playing games gives room for different groups to play different versions of D&D under an umbrella that lets them all identify as "D&D players." Even if they play adjusted rule sets within a specific edition, even if the rules are contrary to one another, they continue to share a mutual desire to "accomplish" the game. The differences are established along tribal lines, with each gaming group agreeing that they will play these rules and not those — and likewise disliking the pressure to play the game in a way that outsiders might want them to play. When I, for example, stress that my readers should play in such-and-such a way, and with such-and-such an attitude, the tribal defensively begins to equate my stirring up a conflict with the need to protect and defend their tribe and customs. That conflict awakens a spectre of shame. Unlike the example above, however, I'm not directly competing with anyone; no one is losing because I'm not winning. Yet there is still an inherent sense that if the territory isn't being defended, then the territory is in danger ... and to allow the territory to be lost, even if that loss was brought about by changing your mind, then shame rears its ugly head. The biological urge is to push aside the enlightenment and go back to one's old ways.
Additionally, I don't make it easy, do I? The way I write, the way I present my point of view, the way I vilify the old ways and mock them, the way I haul out all this psychological research about how humans think, the pedantic way I have of building up a case using a wide variety of metaphors based on both research and a good memory gives every impression that I want the reader to be ashamed that they don't run a better game. My game or a game as dense as my game, with a rich and complicated game setting, empowering the players like most don't or won't or can't do ... it really feels like I am doing all that's in my power to diminish you, to dance and scream in your face, to scare you into getting the fuck off my territory and give up the tiny bit of ground you've managed to carve out for yourself. The way I express myself, this can't just be a "feeling," either. A person wouldn't write like this; wouldn't communicate as I communicate, unless they were an enormous prick with a threatening agenda. Admit it. That's it. That's the thing that gets under your skin and stiffens your resolve to dismiss everything I'm saying.
Because ... and let's be clear ... I have to be wrong. I have to be. There's no other possible alternative. I'm not there at the game table when the communal agreement between DMs and players is made. I don't participate in con events, I certainly don't run them, I'm not invited to speak, I don't have my name on any official literature, I didn't write a module, I didn't invent one of the fourteen versions of the game, I've never received any approval from any of the known voices in the community, I'm absolutely not certified and I've made no effort at any time to get certified by any WOTC entity. In no way do I have the least legitimacy.
Worse, I don't sound like any other DM anyone has ever read or met. I make outlandish accusations, I attack beloved, traditional aspects of the game, I refuse to kowtow to long-established doctrine and I won't stamp "approval" on anyone who plays the game as a "game."
Do I want you to feel ashamed of the game you play? Do I want you to feel ashamed of how much preparation you put into your games? Or how you dungeon master? Or about how you treat your players, what you handwave and what you won't let them do?
Is that what I want?
Friday, May 21, 2021
The content of the last post relates to a much earlier post about meaning-making. Investigating the concept of what happens when things "pop into my head," led me to search for "epiphany" on wikipedia, then situation awareness and then sensemaking ... which meant looking up the study by Weick, Sutcliffe & Obstfeld, which is here. See, we're not stumbling around in the dark. When we want answers for how something happens, we need only look.
"Sensemaking involves the ongoing retrospective development of plausible images that rationalize what people are doing. Viewed as a significant process of organizing, sensemaking unfolds as a sequence in which people concerned with identity in the social context of other actors engage ongoing circumstances from which they extract cues and make plausible sense retrospectively, while enacting more or less order into those ongoing circumstances."
Weick et al might as well be talking about D&D. They go on to say explicitly, "The emerging picture is one of sensemaking as a process that is ongoing, instrumental, subtle, swift, social, and easily taken for granted." There's the player's response to the DM describing something in a nutshell. The study tells us that "the first question of sensemaking is 'What's going on here?,'" and "the second, 'what do I do next?'" Again, straight D&D. As DMs, the weight is on us to answer these questions: a. knowing what's going on and the far harder b., what happens when the players do what they do.
Remember that when DMs are watching and listening to the players, we too are making sense by determining what's going on and then deciding what we're going to do next. The players are making as much of a struggle for us as we are making for them ... only in our case, we have all the power. If we don't like what's going on, we can snap our fingers and have the roof cave in.
This is known as cheating.
Good DMing means that we take the player's choice of action and create an appropriate, proportional response. That is, the circumstances remain within a framework of the players expectations that they accept as believable ... which in turn gives the players a sense that they have a reasonable amount of control over what's happening to them from minute to minute of gaming. Break that plausibility and you break the players's trust ... which in turn will cause players to treat your game as something that doesn't really matter anyway, since they have no real control, which leads to the players goofing off and making jokes, breaking the mood as often as they like because "Hey, when we try to play seriously, you just fuck us over."
This may not manifest itself consciously ... but it sure does responsively, as each time a player tries to invest in the game they get the game's metaphorical door slammed in their face. As a DM, you may think it was a very clever stunt you pulled, having the roof cave in at just that moment; that it was really good for the "story" ... and that the players sure had a tough time extricating themselves, with plenty of mayhem and momentum, making it a really good game, right? Yeah ... except that the player was trying to do a particular thing when you stepped in and did your DM Shuffle, making the doing of that thing obsolete, leaving the player to think, "Why do I even try?"
When the players have already started to invest in something, that is the moment for DMs to put their plans aside and invest in the players' investment. The players want to do this? Put your shit on a shelf and help the players do that. Put obstacles in their way and make it a struggle, but HELP them get to the end of THEIR path. They're making sense of your world ... they're deciding what they want to do. Be deliberate about not deciding what they want to do for them.
Which brings me back to what I was saying about DMs making game worlds without concern for what the players might want. I posited a DM saying, "Once the players see this, they'll be able to do THIS ..." I don't think this is a strawman. I see DMs talking about their game all the time in these terms. I see people writing endless discriptions of modules with this very sentiment in mind. "I want to run the players in this adventure," goes the DM. It's always implied that the players will "love it" because, as the DM thinks, "I did." We hear DMs saying all the time, "I love running this module," because they've shoved it down the throats of many a party. To which said DMs would respond, "I did run it and they DID love it." Uh huh. Compared to what? How many of these "lovers" have had D&D given to them in any other way? And how many of them have codified themselves so they can't play except according to the box they know?
JB later explained that he was writing somnambulistically in the early morning, implying he wasn't responsible, but he explained that,
"You're like the guy who says, 'Hey, I have a car ... I could drive from Calgary to Tierra del Fuego. I've always wanted to see penguins in their natural habitat.' And then you do it."
After three million words, I should think at least my regular readers would understand me a bit better. The above is inaccurate. The actual description is that I'm the guy who says, "If a player wanted to drive from Calgary to Tierra del Fuego, they'd need a damn good car, one that was reliable, one that didn't let them down. I'm going to build them that car; it's going to be the car of their dreams and once they're behind the wheel, it won't matter where they want to drive — because this car will get them to the moon if they want."
I'm not the driver. I'm the manufacturer.
I want the players to identify what matters to them; to interpret the events in their own way; to consider what they've done already and how that influences what they want to do; to enact their plans, and to build their own narrative accounts; to do this socially, with other players who support them; to do this continuously, for long, long periods, not just a running or two; to develop a larger sense of what D&D playing is to them, to stretch themselves towards even larger goals; and to provide them an equivocal world with depth, people with shifting identities and the freedom to believe what they want to believe, because it helps them find the game they're looking for, not the one I want.
While I get to watch and answer questions.
Tuesday, May 18, 2021
"You describe a number of elements functioning in the setting, a number of elements that I think most of your audience could manage, and what I would find especially helpful is a breakdown of your method.
"When you're creating a piece of your setting like Brunswick, Whitebirch, Elias, Waterrock and his brothers, and that owlbear, their motivations and plans I imagine you starting by piecing together in your head bits of film you've cut from movies.
"Please describe what your method really looks like. Where you start, your layering-up technique, and your subsequent refinement once players interact with those elements.
Okay, how do I start?
Take a place. Any place. We want to flesh out the space and give it a purpose for being, so that when the party arrives they will feel something emotional about it.
Every story that's been written faces this problem. The reader/viewer knows NOTHING about the characters or the setting; we have to get both of these things established, and in a way that an audience will like them and keep watching, as fast as we can. The longer we take, the less likely the audience will go on caring. The faster we do it, the less information we can relay, and thus the more insipid and disinteresting the characters will be. Thus, the challenge is to squeeze huge amounts of information into seconds, by using very interesting phrasing, shots, momentum, locations, etcetera. I talked about this in a couple of posts at the start of this year: here and here.
This problem exists just the same in D&D ... with the caveat that players will usually give a DM much more time than an audience will give a book or a film. However, I have learned that playing by hard core exposition rules works much better than slacking, just because the players will let me.
"Bits of film" serve as shorthand. I have thousands of films and books in a reservoir floating in my head, with effort taken on my part to understand how other writers have solved problems I want to solve. When I was very young, and wanted to be a writer, every voice I heard on the subject screamed the same thing over and over: "If you want to be a writer, READ." So I did. As much as I could. I'm still reading. And since movies are a way of cramming visualization into knowledge as well, I watch a lot of films. This last three weeks I watched Percy vs. Goliath, Boss Level, Land, the Courier, Nobody, Bad Times at the El Royale, the Mitchells vs. the Machines (terrible) and all of Jupiter's Legacy (meh), none of which I'd seen before. If I add movies I've seen before, and seen again in the last two weeks, I'd add Men with Brooms, Hiding Out, Miss Sloane, Rambo II (was on netflix; hadn't seen it in 35 years), Knight and Day, Radio Rock, Bachelor Party, Counterfeit Traitor and the Secret of Santa Vittoria. I play either movies or music when I work or play games, so I go through at least one movie a day ... usually two, sometimes four or five. The list here is not complete.
Some will recognize a few of these movies and cringe. Some will drop their jaws and scream "WHY!?" Because, whatever the reader may personally feel about any of the films mentioned, they were all put together by artists, by people who cared, by people who worked very hard to solve those problems I just mentioned and because I am open to change. I sometimes watch films I know I'm going to hate just because I won't hamstring my artistic potential by only watching films I "like." It does help that I like a very wide assortment of films ... VERY WIDE. Dramas, comedies, action flicks, whatever, from every decade stretching back to the 1920s. The only film genre I watch very little is horror ... because it is so gawdawful redactive that every time I push into that bubble, I'm just watching the same half-minded shit I watched thirty years ago. Jeebus, if you must copy someone, copy Rob Zombie. Enough with the Wes Craven school of jump scares.
Okay, okay, that's lots of back history. Probably not needed, except I'm trying to make the point, with "bits of film," I go to a HUGE library that far surpasses the comparatively tiny collection of fantasy and science fiction.
Which means ... hm ... when reaching to create a place or a person, I think in gestalts, not examples. If I try to explain a key point to someone, I'll pick a film as an example. I'll ask, have you seen Inside Moves. And when they say "No," I'll try for Regarding Henry or Leaving Las Vegas ... because if we've both seen the film I can make the point I'm trying to make with audio-visual aids. But when I'm creating Waterrock in my head, I'm well out of any particular film. Waterrock is not just one character from one movie; he's an amalgam of dozens of momentary flickers of characters, most of them not even native, tempered by what native history I'd heard and hopefully understand.
Now, let's take that little piece of the story. Waterrock wanting to kill Whitebirch for the sake of Quickotter's love is a cliche and not very meaningful. So, in conjuring Waterrock in my mind, first and foremost, I want to avoid the obvious. I don't want to get stupid about it, like Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, but there's definitely a vibe where Waterrock's got to have deeper sense than just a blind wish to kill. There's got to be room where he can be reasoned with, by a player who tries and succeeds in coming up with a rational argument.
Still, Waterrock is in love with Quickotter. Or thinks he is. And he's convinced his brothers to help. Now here, again, I've got scores of examples of stock hoods standing behind tough guys, who have as much character as a post; that is, again, a cliche I want to break. These brothers deserve personalities of their own. And here, as I write this, a thought pops into my head without my willing it: the two brothers represent two sides of Waterrock's motivation. Where does that come from? Oh, only about every literature class I took in university. Still, not a bad idea. I didn't invent it by any "method" ... it just popped up there, like I said. But the "method," if I had to define it, is deciding if that's something I want to use or not; and if it something I want to use, then how? Is it a devil and an angel standing on Waterrock's shoulders? God no. But one being more supportive than the other: that seems believable. What would the supportive one say? Well, if you were Waterrock's brother, and you supported him, then what would you say?
Look. You've got to put yourself in the shoes of the man. You're not saying things to support a plot. You're not picking your words for their symbolic meaning. You don't know what's going to happen. You only know your relationship to your brother, and what he intends, and what you think you'd say ... damn the rest of the universe and its motions. In the real world, when you speak, you don't think about an ongoing story, you don't try to fulfill some checklist of exposition ... you say what you feel and what you believe. Well, do that! Only say what you think Waterrock's brother feels. What Waterrock's brother believes.
And what is that?
Well let's rub our hands together and think about this.
We know that everyone is different from everyone else. True enough, the variance between some people is wider than between others, but it stands to reason that Waterrock's first brother ought to be different from his second. They all had the same mother, so the variance doesn't need to be excessive, but it's more interesting for the players and for you if they have sufficient variance that they have their own personality. Desirably, every person in the setting, within reason, is different from every other person, at least the persons that appear to the players. Even the owlbear ought to be at least a little different from another owlbear, if you can dig down and find that capacity.
Difference alone isn't enough. If you keep chalking up characters based on difference alone you'll get a box of very dull alternately coloured beetles but not much of a drama. Look at the example from Bumper Cars. Everyone has their own motivation. They want different things. That's where conflict begins. Let me put that another way:
"Conflict" happens when someone says or does that another person hates.
So when picking motivations, look for conflicts. Waterrock loves Quickotter. Whitebirch loves Quickotter. Quickotter loves Whitebirch. Waterrock hates that.
Now, what might Waterrock say or do that his first brother actually hates? Or dislikes? Or is uncomfortable with? Overall, I'm using "hate" as a word to spark the reader's imagination, but hate is really a scale, not an absolute yay or nay. You hate when your brother does [blank] but that doesn't mean you "hate" your brother. You fight with your mother because she says [blank] ... but it could easily be something you dislike her saying, rather than something you actually hate. Understand?
The method I use, every time, is to A. Imagine these are real people. B. Give them real motivations. C. Mix 'em up. Make the motivations conflict.
The details come from a vast store of practicing the advice to "read everything" ... or "see everything." That applies as much to being out of the house, people watching, travelling, talking to strangers, trying new things, breaking old habits, putting your own misgivings on a shelf, etcetera.
Most of all, changing. Always, always, always, changing. Doing it according to what you see, what you learn, what you add to your store of knowledge and what you want to do. If there's something you want to do now, that you're not doing, then don't lament that you "can't" do it or you "don't know how." You don't know how because you won't change the way you look at the problem. You don't realize the solution is staring you in the face, because you keep insisting the solution is hard to find.
I can't "explain" my method because most of it is stuff that pops into my head whenever I beckon for an answer. "Hey," I say to myself. "Why not hide something in the bed? The bed is right there. The party's going to see it. Maybe, one of them will flip back the covers and search the bed ... what might I possibly put there that would add to the game?"
Well, where is the bed? If something's in it, someone must have put it there. Who? Why? What possible reason might exist for putting something into a bed? Don't know.
Maybe I just need to think about it, until something pops up.
That's usually what I do.
Okay ... can we guess what the "subsequent refinement" is when the players get involved? Let's go back again. The player says something to the NPC. Is it something the NPC hates or dislikes? Judgement call, yes or no. If yes, we have a conflict. How would this NPC respond to this player, given what the player looks like, how strong the NPC is, etcetera. We respond to things we hate all the time with fear because we judge the situation and perceive that we'd better shut up rather than challenge this scary looking dude. Player characters are often scary looking. They don't clean up that often, they fight so they have scars, their gear looks like it's been dragged through a burning forge and then an offal pit so, yeah, maybe not acting overtly.
But then, some NPCs look that like too.
So, we decide, does this NPC respond obsequiously? Rudely? Sarcastically? Passive Aggressively? Appealing to authority? We've got lots of choices, tons of emotions to pick from. And then, we listen to what the player says, and roll with the punch all over again. We listen. We react. We don't make up the NPCs mind wholly, because the player might say anything. But then, there's always a line we imagine that the player shouldn't cross. Insult my wife? Draw, you bastard. Humiliate me? Oh, oh, one day, you just wait. Abuse the king? Blaspheme? There are lots of lines. And not every response is an upfront challenge. Remember: appeal to authority is always an option for any NPC.
The subsequent refinement is key. The gameworld has to slosh and ripple in every imaginable way as the players paddle around inside it. They throw a rock, we describe the waves. They kick around as they swim, we decide if there are sharks. And with each decision, we gauge the big picture: what would be a really good result that would shake the party out of their lethargy? We have to always be a step ahead of the players. We have to see what they want to do, five actions before they do it ... so that when they get around to do what's predictable, we can do something UNpredictable. I talked about this at length in my book, How to Run.
Subsequent actions in the game comes as a result of situational awareness. Skill at situational awareness arises from pattern recognition. The more patterns you see (books, films, real life situations), that you make a part of your consciousness, the better the chance that you'll recognize a pattern as it unfolds FASTER than the players recognize it. That gives you an edge over them, which enables you to handle exceedingly complex situations because you've already done much of the thinking beforehand that you need to do ... saving time and letting you think on a much higher plane (walking a higher path). I'm not making this up. This is how surgeons, police, firefighters, soldiers, jazz musicians and scores of other professions learn to do AMAZING things with ease.
You can do those things too. The path is education, experience and effort. Don't do the same things every day. Don't read/watch the same sort of things. Go on. Get at it.
Let's bring the party to the little trading fort of Brunswick, on the Androscoggin river, population 174. To tell the truth, this is a seasonal population number. About half have a bunk or a shack in Brunswick they use from time to time while trapping, trading or bearing their goods to a better civilization. 3/5ths of the remainder are groups that are just camping in the area, and won't be here by the end of autumn. That leaves about 35 actual inhabitants ~ traders, their staff, the fellow who makes whiskey, his dog and a collection of low sorts who haven't another place in the world to go. There's three shacks that poke onto Maquoit Bay, not 3 miles south of the settlement. Seven other permanent structures are scattered below the waterfall. There's no law, no order, no services other than whiskey and a will to sell very little and buy raw goods.
Is this the real history of the place? Hell, no, probably not. The true history probably has 174 pilgrims and a wooden church. But this is what I need for this post so this is what we'll go with.
There's no "wild west" feel. There's rather a sense of pure boredom broken occasionally by the arrival of a friend with two hundred pounds of beaver and mink pelts, fresh meat and news. After the party hikes from the dock at Maquoit Bay, they meet some strangers who direct them to where they can pitch their tents and visit the traders.
Outside the first trading post, they see a mule loaded with prospecting gear and other kit, what appears to be a heavy load. As the party enters, to get warm as much as anything else (which is a fair point for a DM to make), there's already a conversation going on. This is also a much used trope but it has proved its value for only 500+ years. Like with other recommendations I've made, the goal here is not to shove an adventure down the party's throats. We want a light, subtle feel that offers local color to the descriptions we've made so far; we're not broadcasting, "And now the adventure!"
The prospector is in conversation with the trader, which goes something like this:
Prospector (chuckling): I may have to give up prospecting at last.
Trader: If so, I wish you the best of luck.
Prospector: Will you?
The prospector will laugh and the trader will pay attention to the party. It should be plain from the above that nothing meaningful was said. That's what we want.
But there is much more going on, that we can tell the party at any time. The prospector has just come across a dead mastodon in the backcountry and has a load of 700 lbs. of good ivory on his mule. "Giving up prospecting" could mean he took up mastodon hunting instead. Of course, the party can't know this; but the party isn't going anywhere, so we can have the prospector, now a familiar figure, tell more of the story.
Think of it as a hook for the hook; we have a tendency to rush towards the adventure hook, and we don't want that. Once the conversation above is dropped, and the players begin asking their own questions, the moment might present itself to plainly say what's going on; in which case, we may drop the whole story casually or merely another hint, with a plan to finish the hook after yet another encounter with the prospector — which we can engineer anyway we want.
Shouting arises from outside and the players go to see what's happening. There are about a dozen people, all Europeans and one native Abenaki. A 15-year-old English boy is wrestling with the native, who is trying hard not to hurt the boy. The spectators are shouting for the fight to end but no one is diving in. After a few moments, the native easily throws the boy to the side and stands up, easy but wary. The boy draws a dagger.
At which point, a full grown Englishman, who looks a little like the boy, steps forward, grabs the knife and strikes the boy across the face. "That's enough!" says the striker — and the boy starts to cry and flees in anger and shame.
The Englishman says to the Abenaki, "I'm sorry. He's new off the boat and he doesn't know. He'll learn. I'll see to that."
The Abenaki shakes his hand and the crowd breaks up. For a moment, the Abenaki sees the party, regards the player characters, then heads off towards the river, where he has his yurt-like house.
Again, this is merely an introduction. The party will meet the Abenaki later, Whitebirch by name. This is an intelligent, very strong fighter (or mage, if that suits the party better), very familiar with the land from the Atlantic to Montreal ... but he has lately been in trouble over a woman he loves, who has been married to another man. That man, Waterrock, is hunting for Whitebirch with the help of Waterrock's two brothers ~ and these are deadly NPCs as well. None of this is the party's problem ... yet. But they could be.
If the party wants a guide, they'll turn up Whitebirch. When they learn more about the prospector, Elias by name, he'll explain he's going to Montreal because he can't get a price for his ivory from the trader. If the party offers to help with the journey, Elias will accept — and then he will hire Whitebirch to protect him from the party. If the party pays no attention to either, and decide to go hunt mastodon for themselves, Whitebirch will follow them and watch them, to be sure they're safe (he often does this for strangers to the land, which he'll recognize in the party).
Either way, there will be two plots running ... the players looking for their own ivory or helping Elias move his, AND the native being helpful and being hunted by three jealous men. Once these two plots are in place, we can add further features to the plots as they come to us. Does the girl, Quickotter, find Whitebirch, and the party, first? Does the party stumble across Waterrock before they find Whitebirch? Basically, we have five groups wandering around the wilderness, plus a potential mastodon and who knows what else, in a Midsummer Night's Dreamscape, all of which keeps the party uncertain about what's to happen next. Meanwhile, the resolution of one plot does not depend on the resolution of the other ... and Elias might have enemies and friends as well out in the bush.
Finally, even if the plot with Whitebirch is resolved, that doesn't mean we can't just create another plot with different perameters to replace it, before the mastodon/Elias plot is resolved.
Much of the difficulty in comprehending an "open world" comes of this notion that we're "presenting an adventure" rather than the presentation of a setting. An adventure is time-dependent — it consists of a series of events strung over a period of time, which is therefore dependent on a cause and result relationship that depends on the players acting in a particular way and making particular choices. We don't want this. We want a non-temporal framework that spontaneously develops rational and logical events, thus manifesting an unknown adventure of the future.
Settings are accomplished through mapping. We're perfectly comfortable mapping out the forests and mountains of an area, designating a river and coastline, plunking down a settlement, even sketching out the hovels, trading posts and tents of that settlement. But somehow we forget that we also have to plot the people as well, in the same way.
Coming back to Elias and the trader (let's call him Samuel). We can plot Samuel as standing behind two kegs with a plank laid over them, serving as a bar, with Elias across from him. We can plot the party at the trading post's entrance. At the same time, outside, we can plot the location of the mule. We can also see the father and the son, and Whitebirch, are moving simultaneously towards the front of the trading post for the confrontation that will take place in a few minutes.
We can then take this further. 17 miles to the northeast, Waterrock and his two brothers are steadily making their way towards Brunswick, searching for Whitebirch to kill him. Quickotter is 35 miles upstream upon the Androscoggin river, paddling furiously towards Brunswick. Three miles away, along the trail to Montreal that Elias plans to take, an owlbear is stripping the bark off maple trees and licking the sap. A mile and a half south of Brunswick, a moose is ambling its way towards the settlement. And so on until we have a clear idea of whatever else is going on, precisely at this moment, recognizing that each of these elements is moving with its own purpose towards an unknown series of potential encounters.
The series is unknown because we don't know what the party is going to do. If the party leaves with Elias, they'll miss the moose and we don't need to worry about that. If they stay in Brunswick, somehow insult Whitebirch (so that he ceases to care about the party) and let Elias go, eventually they'll meet with Waterrock ... and then potentially Quickotter. If they head out with Elias, they'll meet the owlbear. If they follow Elias six hours after the prospector leaves, they'll find Elias's dead carcass, killed by the owlbear, and two free mastodon tusks. If the party leaves Brunswick immediately, they'll miss everyone; and whatever movement the party makes, we'll take note of new things that might fall across their path. There is a killer brown bear nine miles to the northwest. There is a murderer named Liam who is wanted for killing his wife and her brother in Cape Elizabeth, right now lost and scared about two miles north of Yarmouth. We don't need more information that this, because we'll see what the party thinks, first.
To get a better grasp over the interaction between the party and their setting, we need to zoom still further. Inside Trader Sam's mind, he's wishing that Elias would just get out because these strangers look like buyers of whiskey; and he knows Elias is a born liar anyway, so he is dubious about the mastodon tusks. Inside Elias's mind, he's anxious to leave because he never actually saw a mastodon, he actually stole the tusks from a campsite 25 miles to the east and he wants to unload them and get moving to new places; Elias knows this is the last time Trader Sam will ever see him. Inside Whitebirch's mind, he knows that as soon as he finds Quickotter, their joining will give him the status he needs to confront Waterrock in single combat. Inside Quickotter's mind, she only wants the two of them to flee and seek a place where they can live alone without any others around them. And so on. Each person has their own motivation, their own agenda.
As the scenes play out, the players will be dragged into the subsequent conflicts that are materializing. But how they materialize will depend on the player's choices and actions. Our goal is to ensure the players choose a side; and that they will act in accordance with those choices. It is on us to make the situation interesting enough that the players want to invest themselves in what they see ~ whether it is opportunity to acquire something or because they want to put an end to some injustice.
We are not, however, "presenting" an adventure. We don't know yet what the adventure will be. We only know what is happening, what is going to pass across the party's viewpoint. Think of it like a series of bumper cars (if those are still a thing), on an immense field, each moving in their own random direction, while the players are operating just one more car amid an infinite number of others. And each time the players turn left, we put other bumper cars across their path, consisting of nothing but a few phrases of description, a motivation, and a duly attached hook to get the party interested.
Then we create what ought to happen next. We don't plan for the party to crash into Waterrock's party. We have them meet, have Waterrock's personality express itself, have the party react to that personality and then see. The party might be indifferent; they might be incensed; they might agree with Waterrock, and decide to help him. Waterrock thinks he's in the right, after all; he probably has a good argument for why he's trying to stop an ambitious man who wants to use Waterrock's wife as a road for power. That's not the story that Whitebirch gives ... but that's the POINT! Everyone is in their own bumper car, with their own desire to hit others and not get hit.
So when you're creating the setting, remember that everyone is moving as the party is standing around making up their mind. Opportunities are disappearing; new opportunities are emerging. Dungeon Mastering an open world is managing those opportunities, adding to them, discarding them, keeping the cars moving, acknowledging that some of the cars will miss while other cars are definitely on a collision course.
Monday, May 17, 2021
Amy: It is just a rock.
Chris: No, it's not just a rock.
Chris: No. It's forty-two pounds of polished granite, with a bevelled underbelly; and a handle a human being can hold. And it may have no practical purpose in and of itself, but it is a repository of human possibility and if it's handled just right, it will exact a kind of poetry. For ten years, I've drilled for oil in 93 countries, five different continents, and not once have I done anything to equal the grace of a well thrown rock sliding down a sheet. Not once.
Most often, the belittlement of D&D frustrates me into a dark place. The line in the film above to the belittlement of curling is said gently, kindly, with love; but I have been apt to write acerbically to the same argument. D&D is not just a game. Any practical purpose it may serve may be minimized or mocked ... but to my mind it is a repository of human possibility. If handled just right, it is poetry. If I feel an acute, burning fury from moment to moment when reading the phrasings other people use, it is in the clanging of their metre ... the desecration of rhythm, form and beauty. The inapt insistence on understating, soft-pedalling, depreciating or deflating the game to a size and strain that can't impune their tragic egos.
Gygax writes on the bottom of page 25 of the DMG that it's important to give the player characters little money because we must "prevent the game from becoming too easy." This, because he sees a scenario where the players will be able to wholly purchase all the tools they need to make the dungeon or the adventure "too easy" ... to which I say, phooey.
Don't tighten the purse. Raise the fucking bar.
The United States has all the wealth of Mammon with which to settle matters between Isreal and Palestine, or Iran and Saudi Arabia, or Pakistan and India ... and guess what: there's not enough money in the universe. If the problems we rely upon to make our adventures difficult can be solved with coin, then the problems aren't that difficult. They're not that imaginative. But they fit right inside the tiny mind of most D&D game designers.
My sympathies for those Gentle Readers feel a bit insulted by that. I assume you're not paying me to pat you on the head; or to tell you that the same undead acculturations of 40 years of resurrecting long-dead game design content is okey-doke.
The nice comforting thing about dungeons as they usually manifest is their lovely straight-forwardness. Oh, sure, there's a bit of mystery to break up the fights; and granted, you can always choose to go through the dungeon by the left-hand door and not the right. But we are speaking of a linear, straight-line process whereby you meet an obstacle, surpass the obstacle, meet another obstacle, surpass that, then rinse, then repeat. This ... isn't problem-solving. This is puzzle-solving. As far as D&D goes, gaming like this is as interesting as pouring out puzzle pieces and six people spending the evening putting it together.
Not a hideous evening. Company, drinks, jokes, gossip, stories, dopamine ... not the worst evening I've had. But jeebs ... D&D can be soooooo much more. If it's handled just right.
Problems get interesting when there are no definite solutions; where that is the case even when a resolution has been met. Where, when the situation arises again, there's reason to think that maybe, just maybe, though the first essay produced a resolution, it wasn't the best resolution. The best problems are those that, whether we've committed ourselves or not, we are still taking apart the pieces and putting them back together again ... because there is no set way to put those pieces together. Depending on how they're arranged, the pieces change shape. And, more importantly, no matter how many ways we put them together, or how they change, we'll never be sure we did right.
I see DMs writing descriptions of how they're going to build their game worlds, and how they're going to put the pieces together, and what matters to them ... but NONE of these DMs ever write, "And once the players see this, they'll be able to do THIS ..." For these DMs, there are no players. The DM is building a puzzle; and crafting the pieces; and it is inherently implied that the players will have fun putting the pieces together. So why talk about it? Why discuss what the players will do? Or what options they're being given? They're being given the option to play. That's enough for them.
"I'm certainly not going to spend twenty blog posts writing about their experience possibilities in my new game world. No, no, I'm going to spend the next twenty posts talking about my cleverness, and the reasons why I've decided to be clever in just this way, and why other people should understand how damned clever I am."
I love my game world and I talk about it a lot but please let's understand: the players need and want a game world that is more interesting than puzzle play. And so we're clear, I'm counting a set-up where they enter a room and kill monsters as a PUZZLE. I'll include that kind of play in my world — obviously I will, because my players online are participating in that now. I won't tell them not to kill monsters, and I will put the monsters in front of them for as long as that's what they want to do. Running an open game demands that I accede to that request.
But when the player stops one day and says aloud, "Hey, guys ... you ever think about why we even do this?" ... my answer is not going to be, "because that's how the game is played."
My answer is, "You don't actually have to."
Players can choose a different path. First, however, they'd have to imagine a different path.
That's a problem. And that problem has no specific solution. It can't be solved entirely with money; it can't be solved by finding all the pieces and miraculously putting together a puzzle. It must be solved by stepping back, looking at the whole picture and realizing that the choices we make in life are not limited by "doing the right thing" or "doing the obvious thing."
"Trying something new" comes to mind. Or "trying something impossible." Though while a player might conceivably attempt something on these lines, you, me and the cheese knows the DM is going to squash it because the DM needs to minimize the game to a size and strain that he or she can manage.
And judging by the field ...
That ain't fucking much.