Monday, July 26, 2021

All the Blasted Details

So you and your friends form a band.  You've got Jerry on bass and Nick on piano, with Clarissa rocking the drums and you've spent three years forcing yourself to learn guitar and practice songs you're able to sing.  It's been 16 months of singing on Zoom but starting a month ago when you all got your shots you started practicing for real, four hours a day, every day, sometimes six or eight or ten.  Every one of you cares about this band more than anything and if there's anything Covid taught you, its that life is shit if you're not doing what you want.

Great.  You gotta play somewhere, right?  True enough, the garage is great and you can play loud, but it's not an audience and none of you know how that even works.  Unfortunately, you don't have an uncle or a cousin in the music business, so ... one of you will have to learn something about arranging gigs.  And maybe you don't live in New York or Los Angeles, so there aren't a million bars to play at.  Maybe you live in Omaha or Albuquerque; or maybe it's Hamilton or Akron.  Okay.  You don't have to limit yourself to anywhere, right?  There's the internet, there's making youtube videos, maybe you can blog and talk about your band ... hm ... guess one of you needs some skills will social media, yeah?  And if you're gonna play on the 'net, it'd be good if you didn't sound like shit, so maybe recording is a skill you want to have.  And you are in Omaha and you get a gig in Des Moines, you'll have to get there.  And take your instruments, sound equipment and whatever ... who knows what that bar in Des Moines has?  This isn't going to fit in Nick's car, is it?  Now there's gas for two cars and two people not drinking during the gig because nobody's paying money to stay overnight in Des Moines when Omaha's so close.  That's two cars driving back at 3 a.m.  Maybe you can borrow a van.  Maybe you could buy a van.  How much is a van?  Holy fuck.

Welcome to the ordinary, everyday hassles involved in doing anything on your own, where the organisation isn't built for you.  All we need are some monsters between Omaha and Des Moines and to put the Des Moines bar on a dungeon's third level down and we've got a D&D campaign.  It isn't just knowing your instruments and liking music.  It isn't just practice.  It's a dozen stupid, pissy hassles that maybe you don't really care about, that are just in the way, but probably they're just enough in the way that you don't get to Des Moines on time and you lose the gig, which gets Jerry pissed at Clarissa and Clarissa pissed at Nick, and everyone pissed at you.  Details are fiddly and exhausting but they matter; not that anyone wants them to matter, except that when you get them right it makes everything 20 times better than it would have been if you sluffed through and actually played Des Moines.

It's the details that challenge; it's having the right weapon in hand so you can kill that monster outside of Shelby, or remembering to get off the interstate at Valley West Drive, turning right after the mall and figuring out where the address is on University Avenue somewhere next to the Ocha Bubble Tea and Dessert Cafe on 73rd.  Details suck.  Especially when you've never been there and you find yourself sitting outside some place called Papa Murphy's Take 'N' Bake Pizza asking each other, "Is this where the gig is?"

As a DM, do not remove the details.  Do not snap your fingers and replace the food the party needs to take along with insta-bite nourish bars.  Do not let the band get all their shit in one car.  Do not eliminate the directions and just assume the band gets there.  Do not have the first post the band makes on facebook go viral.  Do not, do not, do not guarantee than when the party finds the right bar and gets their shit loaded onto the stage in time, that the audience will love them.  Have some blasted sense.  It's the hard that makes things great.  And since the party is getting their abilities, their hit points and their spells, their weapons and their blasted magic shit free of fucking charge, for the love of Halsey's Teeth, make the party earn something they receive, so they can appreciate it.

Don't take that away.

There is much to be said for Halsey's Teeth.

Saturday, July 24, 2021


We hate the word "company."

And for good reason.  This last year, 20+ years since Office Space laid out the shit that goes on every day in white collar business, we've been treated to corporations who treated COVID as a personal attack on their bottom line ... not a threat to actual human beings.  The "company" declared itself willing to bring about your death rather than allow quarantine, health measures or sensible behaviour where money was at stake.

So I am somewhat in the hole when suggesting that the word "company" is a better descriptor for an immersive game than the word "party."  I ask only that you hear me out.

"Company" has a positive connotation as well.  Company is the cure for loneliness.  "Good company" is what we call our friends and family.  The word originates in the bosom of society, friendship and intimacy, not in a spirit of people enslaved jointly under the lash of some tyrannical force.  Soldiers began to describe themselves as companies in the 12th century because they battled together, they protected each other, they helped each other and made each other laugh in the face of danger.  Companions are bread mates, people who eat together, who make a future together ... and who seek to perform or carry out an activity jointly.  It is from this last that the commercial sense derives, since gatherings of individuals would make a pact among themselves to participate in a venture of some kind — an ad-venture, from the prefix meaning "to" or "towards" — in which they'd share each other's burdens and gain from each other's talents.  "Forming a company" meant exactly this.

Consider an example in the modern sense: a group of individuals decide to form a "band."  They each have a different skill set, a different personality, but they have a common goal: to produce music and achieve success, variously described as gaining fame, adoration, money and The Stones-like influence of personality.  So they agree to play together; and they agree on what kind of music to play.  Thereafter, a degree of commitment is necessary — to practice, to make concessions to others in the band, to agree to show up to gigs and to sustain each other in hard times.  A good band needs an amazing amount of commitment.  The members must be willing to sacrifice their time with other people.  They must "get over themselves"  — which some achieve for awhile and then, not so much (the history of Jefferson Airplane/Starship comes to mind).  They must get over failing for a long, long time before success happens (see Fleetwood Mac).  Most of all, they must be good company for each other.  They must coordinate with each other.  The final product is a single product, in which everyone is a contributor to something greater than themselves as individuals.

Now, I propose a band because we might imagine, for a moment, that a group of D&D players are not a group of disparate, solitary participants in a board game, but a company of individuals who undertake to accomplish something greater than they could individually.  They meet together at the beginning of the campaign and instead of thinking, "Oo, I want to be a fighter," or "Oo, I want this bling!" — they think instead, what do WE want?  What can WE accomplish?

Usually, this is handed off to the DM, who acts the tyrant and rolls out the worksheet for the group, even handing out the character sheets and saying, "You're the fighter and you're the mage, and we're gonna take this dungeon today," like a boss running a corporation.

Whereupon the players act like good little worker drones, bowing their heads and answering, "Yes sirree boss, we're certainly gonna get on that fer you!"  They know their jobs, they do their jobs, they get paid for their jobs and everyone goes home after a good day's work.  Yippee.

We keep defining "sandbox" according to "what sort of game the DM runs."  In fact, a true sandbox is defined by what sort of game the players choose to play.  No matter what the DM says or does, no matter how much money has been spent on modules and shit, the players can gang together any time they want and say, "We're not doing that shit.  We're want to do this."

Ha!  A Marxist argument, yes?


Because I'm not arguing that the players get together, submit demands to the DM and then the DM provides the sort of work load that satisfies the players.  No, no, no.  I'm arguing that the players QUIT THEIR JOBS, refuse to do the work the DM provides entirely, and forms a good, respectable capitalistic company whereby they set out to profit and share that profit among themselves.

How is that possible if the DM won't consent?  Plain truth: it isn't possible.  The DM doesn't only control the corporation, but the whole blasted government as well — and if the DM won't consent to another company setting up business in the DM's world, then that's that.

However, this exposes the DM's rigged approach to the game for what it is:  a bullshit arrangement designed to control the players in a DM-run rat maze.  Personally, when I learned that every DM was going to approach the game this way, I quit playing and began to exclusively DM: because if I couldn't play the way I wanted, at least I could make it possible for others.

The commitment I spoke of in an earlier post reaches fruition when the players set forth together as a unified company.  They roll and design their own character sheets, exactly as they want them, enjoying the process just as any self-employed individual enjoys setting up their venture.  They enjoy the roll of the dice, because a good roll for any member is a good roll for every member.  The experience gained by the company is shared, no matter whose character it accrues to, since every character is in it for the whole.  If the lead singer's voice carries the band to improbable heights, every band member enjoys the huge audience; every band member enjoys the money; and every band member receives respect, if not quite as much fame as the lead singer.  But fame is something that really only matters to outsiders.  Inside, it's really a different thing.

"The fame thing isn't really real, you know."

People forget that's the real message behind the "just a girl" speech.  Who would know better than Julia Roberts?  Even if she is speaking a line written by the well-known film-industry critic Richard Curtis.  When Roberts puts on her pants, she does them one leg at a time, just like you.

When a group of players work and fight as a company, the enormous strength, intelligence, spell power or whatever possessed by an individual isn't emblematic of the individual's "superiority."  That's the sort of shit that plagues workers in a DM's sweatshop campaign, who must find things to promote themselves over the group.  The wizard in a company knows where that power comes from; it comes from the others who provide a wall against the enemy, and rescue if that time comes.  By the time the campaign has stretched into its first four months, everyone has crashed at some point; everyone owes their lives to the others.  Like a rock band that has spent enough nights where the audience is the enemy, they have to love each other; each other are the only people they can really count on.  And if Grace is more famous than we are?  Hell, that's just the opinion of people who don't knowWho weren't there.  They have no idea how many times the band members held each other, or went the distance for each other, or suffered pain for each other.  In the end, that's the stuff that matters to a band, or a company of fellows, or a "party."  Not how many fucking experience Jack got as opposed to Jill.

Which is perhaps why the "player balance" nonsense was so foreign to me as a DM when I first encountered it.  I'd been running for nearly 30 years, and had never had players demand a change in the rules to reflect their desire to be "equal" with other characters.  The idea was absurd.  The pursuit of the ideal has been as well, having successfully polluted two editions and the overall direction of the game.

Still, if the player has never had experience with this sort of game; if all they've ever known is the sweatshop; then it stands to reason that they'll promote what they know.  They make ridiculous arguments to me that just because their games aren't "deep," it doesn't mean they're "shallow."

Actually, yes, that's exactly what it means.  That's how words work.

It's also truth, for anyone who's been there, working for yourself is harder work than working for other people.  We work longer hours for less pay, and no one's there but the buyer to tell us that are work is any good.  When players act as a company, it can feel like a frustrating, thankless task for a long time — until one day the players find themselves in an unexpected position, facing four to one odds or greater, and find themselves kicking ass like a gangster.

It's a great feeling.  It's even better knowing that it's their feeling, bought and paid for.

Not a wage paid by a tyrant.


Thursday, July 22, 2021

The Higher Goals

Much of the dispute I have with D&D stems from what goals are defined by the mainstream.  The value of the game has been vastly undersold since the 1970s.  It is as though someone invented railroading, and the only use, for which anyone could think to put it, was to make a little ride for the kiddies to sit on.

We are told variously that the goals are to "have fun," to "adventure," to "role-play" and other such short term ideas.  Marketing from the start has degraded D&D to a cute little activity shared by people around a table, like a board game — usually, featuring events that can be played out in a single session, with the characters having no more long-term importance than a racing car, a top hat or a thimble.

There is much, much more to the game.

The leading voices of the mob cherish Sesame Street level participation advice, such as "cooperation" is a better way to play.  Yes, I know, I learned this from Big Bird.  Yet the goals presented as achievable through genius-level immersion of this level are vague, unsketched and tainted by old saws about the judicial authority of adjudicators.  After nearly five decades of game play, we've hardly advanced game play from the goal of "getting to the end" of whatever adventure's being run.

The game provides us with indisputable concrete goals, but these are ignored or flately disdained as "impure" but numerous voices.  These are treasure, experience and preferred equipment — each of which lends itself to upgrading of one sort or another to make the player character more powerful.  The game structure of these things are repeatedly bypassed by providing free gear for pre-made characters, who also jump multiple levels rather than play their way forward — both of which either obliterate the need for money; in most campaigns, money is merely an exchange for better, more powerful gear.   Since most games last a single session, and most would-be campaigns fold after a few weeks, there's no reason not to dismiss these goals as unnecessary — particularly when getting to the end is all anyone cares for.

My game view is very different.  I feel that at the start, player characters should be given VERY little; that "the start" should happen only when the campaign is initiated, and should not be revisited again, ever if possible.  Campaigns should run for years, and the DM should responsibly attack that intention with a commitment that disallows alternative thinking.  Players should be chosen based on their commitment and not their availability.  Treasure, experience and choice equipment should be earned through play and never through convenience, or the desire to "play something new," on account of the player feeling so game savvy that they don't want to play any more characters below a given level or above it.

Moreover, I believe that wealth and character power, along with advetures and role-playing, are merely a means to an end, and not the end itself.  The end itself ought to be indeterminate and wholly in the hands of the PLAYER, unlike the course of single adventures where the end is in the hands of the DM.

In effect, "traditional" D&D, the sort promoted heavily by Gygax, Perkins, Mercer's crew and the general symbiosis of voices intent on keeping the game's design as crippled as possible, is argued to be a finite gameWhereas the game I regularly present and carry forth in exactly the manner I've just described, is an infinite game.  There is no end; and therefore, no absolute last and final goal, except whatever happens to be reached on the day when I, the DM, am Dead, Incapacitated or — in the case of my online campaign — incapable of maintaining the 4-12 hours a week it requires to move the game along very, very slowly.  It takes me 12 hours in text to manage as much game as I can put together in about 90 minutes in face-to-face game play.

And still, I'm still there, swinging.  Because I don't think a D&D campaign should ever stop except for the other two reasons I've given.  And in this, I am in a very, very scarce minority.  Something in the neighbourhood of one-armed, left-handed pool-sharks successfully taking money from British sailors in Yemen.

An infinite game of the sort I describe possesses more than "immersion" or "problem-solving."  Very few things of this kind are infinite; and fewer persons vouching to run these things have the power to convince others that yes, there will be another game and yes, you can invest hard with your characters ambitions knowing there's a decent chance those ambitions will be realised.  This is key.  IF the DM cannot convey this direct and absolute formula, then no matter how complex, detailed, imaginative or wickedly fun the game is, human persons will not speculate in a future that may uncertainly collapse because the DM is suddenly bored with this genre, edition or the venture of role-play entirely.  And if so, game play WILL suffer for that lack of consignment.

Oh, there may be good games played short term.  And there may be long-term games that achieve some sort of relevancy, though the pall of quitting hangs over the campaign month-to-month.  But until the Dear Reader has played in a game that absolutely will be played without expectation of end, very little to nothing can be known of the depth of investment a player is prepared to make ... particularly as a creator.

With my last post, I expressed the hyperfocused state of my mind as I throw myself whole-hog into my game's design.  When I can offer players a game that doesn't stop, and maintain that game ad infinitum, that frees them to achieve a hyperfocused state of player participation that cannot be reached in the "traditional," paltry form of the game that is lauded so loudly by so many cheap voices.  When players know their "sandbox" won't be disturbed, they may work their will with it exactly as they do with the sandboxes of their personal lives.  ANY long-term plan is possible, in any field — with the understanding that any achievement that is made in the real world CAN ALSO be incorporated into the game world, and vice-versa.  What can be conceived as a strategy of success in the real world can be realized as a strategy in D&D ... meaning that players do not merely "play" in my game.

They flow.

Monday, July 19, 2021

The Task

Let us understand, then, how we think when we're working in flow.

For those who yet do not understand this term, and cannot follow a link, "flow" is the condition of being "in the zone" ... it is becoming so immersed in what's being done that all other considerations are put aside by the mind.  Stress evaporates with worry and the awareness of physical self.  As apes, we've developed our minds to rise to a level of focus that fear, hunger, exhaustion, even pain cease to impugn our thoughts with their nagging calls.  This state, once achieved, enables us to solve problems of considerable magnitude, to "walk with the gods" — not only do the hours of time melt away, after the fact we can hardly comprehend we had the mental capacity to do what we have done.

In biological terms, it's estimated there are at least half a dozen different hormones surging through our bodies.  In effect, our being is temporarily shutting down unneeded systems while enhancing others.  So, in understanding what happens when we engage ourselves with a project that takes up our full attention, we must remember that much of what's happening is beyond our control.  We don't choose to be "in flow" ... but when we are very interested in something for its own sake, our body chemistry kicks in and clears the road so that we can genuinely think.

Whether gardening, making a chair, writing an important blog post or whatever, the mind is always far, far ahead of the action.  Hours before the gardener's fingers touch dirt, the mind is turning the soil over, deciding how it must be shaped and made obedient to the will.  Once the work begins, the eye and the touch reveal unforseen issues, and at once the mind sinks into flow, imagining a better way of fixing the roots, adjusting the depth, changing the mix — all the while wanting to do the best job possible, to achieve perfection.  From the psychology of craft:

The psychological theory of "flow" proposes that there is a tension between skill and challenge that affects our state of mind. If a task is too easy, we get bored and distracted. Too hard and we get frustrated and give up. If however, the task at hand challenges our physical skill while still being potentially doable — we can experience the "flow state" ... you can be hyperfocused on the project, lose track of time, and experience a rush of self-efficacy — "Look at this, I CAN build it!"

Locked into this hyperfocused state of mind, we become aware of everything.  As I am drawing some probably useless map of Spitsbergen, these are not just lines and colours for me, they are my choice to achieve an appearance, a harmony that is beauty, to make the shapes match a lifetime of staring at maps and reading about faraway places — of which Spitsbergen is only one.  While a viewer looks at the map and may experience a scale between indifference or admiration, my experience is a vague recollection of my spending hours once upon a time fitting together pieces of coastline, sea and land together.  I did it, obviously; but I don't closely remember doing it.  It is as though I were someone else as I did it.  The experience is odd, disjointed and utterly as though my finger reached out and found God's waiting.

And so when I said earlier that no part of my sandbox is intrinsically "better" than any other part, it is THIS experience that applies.  The project of working at my world, and all the parts of it, have been done at a level where I do not cease advancing my execution until I have reached my point of failure, as John Ruskin put it.  That execution is still advancing.

Applying myself in this manner, asking me to give more concern about the party visiting Paris or the party visiting Spitsbergen is akin to asking if I prefer my body cell 45,896,564,003,981 more than cell 45,896,564,003,982.  It is all part of a single composite whole.  There cannot be one part without the other ... and every part serves its function as it is meant to serve its function ... in an incomprehensible way that denies me any power to feel prejudiced about either.  Want to go here?  Sure.  Want to go there?  Cool.  They seem equally fascinating to me.  They were fascinating when I drew them; they've lost none of that fascination with passing time.

I believe that the act of working fully and completely on the game world — and especially if the presence  of the game world is the end goal, and NOT what the game world is used for — produces that artistic gestation we associate with giving birth.  There is a change that is wrought on the mind of the maker.  We learn what our world is and experience what it might potentially be — yet not only that.  It becomes a part of us and we a part of it.  The work, the flow that engaged us, makes the world an extension of ourselves, like an additional arm or set of memories.  Each line of river carves into the world its boats, its waterbearers, its croplands and its bearing away of soil to the sea.  Each border sets forces of power in motion, stirs the minds of occupants to thoughts of war and conquest, while building resentment for "the other" who lives on the other side.  Each city is a center of plague and culture; a refuse pile; a place of glorious endeavour; the clink of coins, the glorious odour of cooking wafting through the streets.  The initiative of drawing the world is an act of spilling out beings, rivalries, histories and germination, like pouring a gargantuan bucket of complex, pixel-sized lego upon an infinitely sized table, then happily spending decades piecing it together.

The fool who does not do this because he or she thinks it's unnecessary "for the game" deserves pity.

And not players.

A Ghastly Mess

Continuing from yesterday, then.

I think we need an example of "giving way" and "pushing back."  As well, I suppose, an example of the way I run a "sandbox."  The online party's actions can be read by anyone, so they'll do.

In summation: ages ago, the party discovered a crashed airship in the wilderness and encountered an entitlement of a fiefdom in Norway in the name of Hamish Ross, a Scotsman who had fought with the King of Denmark and Norway during the Religious Wars.  The party had no knowledge of this person and no reason to care.  The party investigated the ship, found it full of giant spiders and let it be.  They did not know that long before their arrival, that a group of goblins had already plundered the ship and made off with the 12,000 gold pieces that was meant for Ross, to go along with his title.

Later, the party encountered the goblin lair while randomly searching the area, discovering it already destroyed by a powerful wight, one too powerful for the party to face.  However, the party did clear out two levels of the dungeon and discovered Ross's gold.  Here we have the true nature of the sandbox ideal.  The party learned it WAS the Scotsman's gold; they were able to learn through divination that he was alive and living in Norway, in fact in Bergen, three days sailing for the party.   Should they return the gold, or keep it?  The pieces were minted with the king's special emblem, but the party could have melted it down.  Did I care, one way or the other.  From the last post, it should be evident that I would not care.  It was the party's decision what to do.  So long as they acted wisely, the gold could have been melted down and kept (it would have been unwise to publicly spend it).  Had they taken those precautions, the push-back would have been minimal.  The gold had already been lost for nearly 3 years; and been in the hands of the goblins most of that time.  It was already stolen.

Here is a good first example of thinking rationally as a DM.  Don't put the gold in the party's hands unless it belongs in the party's hands!  Supposing the gold can be put there, and then cleverly taken back through some game story mechanisation, is a truly awful idea.  12,000 gold for a 3rd-4th level party is hardly gamebreaking.  Let them have it, let them keep it, don't stew about it, don't punish them for it and don't get petty!  If any amount of gold is too much for them to have, then DON'T PUT IT IN REACH.

There's an excellent scene in the series Band of Brothers, which I've linked.  The scene ends with the admonition, "Never put yourself in a position where you can take from these men."  As DMs, we're responsible for the player's welfare.  Like with war, that doesn't mean they can't get hurt or killed; it doesn't mean they get everything they want; it doesn't mean that they won't suffer and end up sacrificing wealth and status because of something they've done.  It means that of all the things against the players — monsters, selfish enemies, their own inability to solve puzzles, their doubts, the difficulty of the game's rules and knowing what to do next — what they DON'T need is a galdamned GOD mind-fucking with them.

Whatever I give, then, is properly and sincerely given.  It is not given with strings, it is not a part of some plot.  If it is given, there is a proper reason for it being found by the party.  12,000 g.p. is a proper number for gold being given by a King of a rich, important kingdom as part of an awarded fiefdom.

Likewise, whatever push back exists, it must be something the party can reasonably predict and potentially manage.  This doesn't mean they will manage it; only that it can be manageable.  If the party acts blindly, or incompetently, or dismisses the matter with phrases like, "Well, we're player characters, we'll be alright," then they're gonna die on D-Day.  But if they piece the details together carefully, keep a sharp eye and make preparations, there's a very good chance they will be alright.

This is a weakness with playing off the cuff, as many DMs will argue is the best way.  DMs are human.  They give too much and realize they can't take it back; so they have to engineer claw-backs and deus ex machina to restore the balance.  They kick too hard and realize they have; so they have to fudge and have the cavalry show up to restore the balance.  Then, while the players puzzle out the DM's concoction, the DM must parasitically steal ideas from the players ... until the players realize what's going on, whereupon they get hold of the DM's tail and wag the dog.  It's an unsustainable pattern.

I haven't met a DM yet who plays by the pant's seat, who isn't absurdly proud and righteous about the ability (I was, until I learned better); yet what is it when the DM spends two minutes inventing something and the players spend four hours sweating their thoughts on the same problem?  Cleverness?  Or Laziness?  And what have we got when pillars of the community, from the WOTC staff down to a blogger like Maliszewski, wear LAZINESS as a badge on their chest to argue their fucking virtue?  Is this, Dear Player, really what you want in a DM?

Between sessions, I have considerably more than four hours to pore over possibilities and reasons why the world might give way or push back against actions the players take; why shouldn't I use that time to their benefit, so that when the player makes a prediction about their first move, I'm three guesses ahead of them, thinking more clearly than they can (I have nothing riding on the answer), having given much more time to the problem than they've had during the night's running.  How can this not make me a better DM?  Especially, as I say, I'm not invested in any particular result.  I'm free to invent answers to questions on every side of the problem, as there is no side I'm banking on.  NO dungeon master playing on the fly has the wherewithal to do that during a game — AND manage the game as well.  Which means, every answer has to be on the fly as well.  Every answer has to be made without considering first if it's a good answer or not; and so who knows what the consequences of those answers will be?  Are they the best possible answers?  Probably not, being that they're the first answers, the most obvious answers, the answers with the least possible time given to invention.  These answers will reflect the DM's prejudices and the DM's gut instincts.

Too often, the game world's going to give way when it shouldn't; and push back when it shouldn't.  When the players get too much, they'll feel the game's too easy.  When they get thumped excessively hard, they'll scream injustice.  The middle ground, where the game is good, gets narrower until it's soiled completely from shit flying from the left and right.  And because the DM's making it up as we go along, we can expect overcompensation, impatience, sensitivity and desperation to cover up mistakes made, usually resulting in other mistakes.  In all, a ghastly mess.  This is why I said in the last post, when we try to run this way, we will fuck the game up.

Why, then, is no part of the sandbox intrinsically "better" than any other part?  I'll pick that up with the next post.

Saturday, July 17, 2021


After 41 years, were I a gardener, I'd be well past planting things and watching them grow.  I'd be well past relying upon store-bought dirt to grow my flowers, well past buying someone else's seeds, well past relying on the corner hardware store's garden shears.  There'd be a lot I could say about soils and fertilizers; about species and forms of blight; or about tools, bees and such.  For if gardening coupled with writing was my passion, I'd have a blog that outlined all this in phenomenal depth, delving into everything from geology to genetics.  Because after awhile, growing flowers isn't enough.  We want to grow better flowers, or flowers that are harder to grow; we want to invest ourselves totally into the science of what we're doing.  We want to get serious.

My actual flower-growing ability

Alas, I'm not a gardener.  I'm a D&D player ... something with far less cachet.  Yet the rest holds true.  I'm not interested in advice that promotes "Let the players have fun."  This is equivalent to advice like, "Plant the flowers in soil."  Of course it's true.  We can do better.

With this recent post, I said in passing that the players acted as a "company," deciding their goals — and that "I cause the game setting to give way to the party's designs or to push back with obstacles."  Fine.  What does that mean?

Combing through my files, I stumbled across this very old link to ChicagoWiz's blog back in 2011; he's breaking JB's balls, as I'm am want to do occasionally, which only proves that we've been around an indecently long time.  The whole page is worth a read, suggestive of a bygone day when people on the internet really felt that things could be discussed and pulled apart, with the expectation of finding an answer.  Ah, salad days.

Let's put most of the discussion aside, though it's relevant as a background, and deal with this single point introduced by JB:

"It requires a crap-ton of energy on the DM's part to keep the campaign world living/breathing/evolving/resolving as the PCs podunk around the imaginary countryside."

Coincidentally, JB's been writing a series of posts on imagination this week, which lend a meaningful nuance to the use of the term "imaginary" in this quote.  Presuming that JB's instincts have accurately endured for these past ten years, he's not talking here of merely "making shit up."  Here, the deeper, traditional meaning of imagination is in play, the sort that led C.S. Lewis, L. Frank Baum, Lewis Carroll and J.R.R. Tolkein to build complex, structured realms that presented as real to the mind's eye.

Plainly, this overtone is lost on the vanilla-some discharge we can expect from James Maliszewski, who writes,

"Really? Maybe I'm weird, but I've found just the opposite. A sandbox campaign demands a lot less energy on my part than do other styles of campaigns. It's true I have to be able to think on my feet and improvise when necessary, but that's what having lots of random tables at the ready is for!  I don't why sandboxes are so often portrayed as so difficult and time-consuming to run, because they're not. I'm lazy by nature; if they demanded as much of me as some suggest, I wouldn't run my campaign as a sandbox."

Gosh darn, I'm just going to say it.  If there's one thing Maliszewski can do, it's plant flowers in dirt.  He's unsurpassed in such skill sets.

ChicagoWiz's take more or less agrees; and with ten years of research and writing, he's managed to produce some truly boring helpful guides for DMs who want to do things super-simply.  Unlike, say, any of the writers mentioned above who spent a "crap-ton of energy" producing massive volumes of work that are utterly, unquestionably significant.  For those who feel their game worlds "improve" with less work or emphasis on design, I direct them to the empty shelves displaying the genius work of a would-be writers who disliked the time needed to research or edit their own work.

'Course, JB gives no indication that he intends to give that energy; his post is more about why he doesn't need to, or want to, or that he's not particularly good at it.  In 10 years of reading JB, he's tried to encourage himself otherwise, but it's fair to say he's not there ... yet.

My chief contention with this argument is the word "energy."  The word implies negativity, as in, "I haven't the energy for that."  It speaks of forcing ourselves to do something, which maybe we recognize needs to be done but which we rather not do now, or which we'd prefer someone else did.  It's a strange way to speak about one's passion ... usually, as I described at the top of this post, we can't restrain ourselves from doing things we love.  It's a beautiful morning and we rush through the household chores so we can hurl ourselves into the garden with shears and soil knives, delighting in the opportunity to get dirty and become intoxicated among roses and orchids.  To an outsider, sure, it looks like "energy" ... but to the absorbed floriculturalist, the time spent is a drug, an experience that obliterates one's sense of time.

Many's a time I sank into a project with my first cup of coffee in the morning, only to notice by-and-by that the sun had set.  If ChicagoWiz, Maliszewski or JB were in the room with me, looking over my shoulder, no doubt they'd have been astounded at the unrelieved colourlessness of the work they watched me do in designing my game, puzzled at why anyone would plunge such dreary effort into something that can be done "on their feet."

Of course, the results can't be done on their feet.  I dare any of them to produce an 80-item menu of carefully described treats and intriguing dishes in a few minutes of game-time; or to recieve any real interest after the fact of them doing it, since the results would have next to no impact on the players.  As DMs, we do concoct moments of interest by the seat of our pants.  I do it all the time, at least half a dozen times a session.  But I also have a bag of holding deep enough to swallow the party anytime I want to slip the drawstring ... in case I want to invent a moment the players will remember the rest of their lives.

To come 'round again to having the game setting give way or push back against the player's designs, IF we try to do this by the seat of our pants, we will fuck it up.  This is the fundamental bedrock of JB's position on the whole matter, one that's utterly misunderstood by ChicagoWiz and others ... but understood perfectly by one commentor, The Bane.  As he says,

I wanted a chronological plot of time - an epic continuios story. I thought the only way to get that was through a well developed setting and predefined plot. Then I began studying on sandboxes.  When I /thought/ I had it, I tried it out as prescribed. Epic failure. I studied some more and off I went, armed with guidance. Epic fail. This went on until I got tired of losing players, which is painful in this day and age to find more, and went back to, "No shit, here you are and this is what you have to do..." tactics.

DMs try for what I'm saying I do normally (and I haven't said yet what that is), learning their lesson.  They learn to go back to the modules.  They think initially they can do it.  They see what their neighbour can do with roses and zinnias, so they buy plants, they set out neat rows, they purchase all the best tools and they work very hard all summer long ... and the results are AWFUL.  So they learn their lesson.  "I'm not a gardener," they say.  "I'm not cut out for it."  And they're right.  Oh, not for the reasons they think.  The results are bad because they don't know what they're doing.  They don't know anything about flowers or soil, or very little.  All they can think of is the result they want; whereas  actual gardeners are thinking about how much they love gardening.

Designing my world, I'm not thinking about what the players will think!  Who gives a crap if they want to go to Spitsbergen?  My game has steaming jungles, barren plains, people crushed together on narrow streets, spectacular palaces, offal dumps.  I don't give a damn where the players want to go.  There's no particular place I think is better than any other place.  I just want to run the fucking game.

Because I love it all, when I'm thinking, "How is the world going to give way or push back against this idea of the players?" — I have nothing invested in whether they win or lose.  I don't care either way.  If the idea makes use of the game's rules, the design of the various bits and pieces I've built into the world's structure, in a manner that reflects how a similar idea would actually work in the real world, I consider what dice should be rolled, what the probability on those dice ought to be, and decide while taking a walk or during a soak in the tub what labels belong on the world's roulette wheel to the extent of my imagination.  Then I roll, or wait to do it in front of the players, often telling them in advance what the results might be prior to the dice hitting the table ... and then I run the version the dice pick.

This gets pretty damn complicated.  And we'll get into that, with an example, in the next post.  I felt this post was needed to hammer out some principles of "sandbox" that I follow:

1) no part of the sandbox is intrinsically "better" or "more important" than any other part.

2) my first challenge as a DM is to be inventive with all the scenarios that MIGHT be, and then indifferent to the scenario that actually occurs.

3) my second challenge is to provide such depth of texture, intricacy and tension that's humanly possible, once I know which scenario I'm running.

I rise to these challenges because I have not spent one summer trying to garden like the floriculturalist up the street for one summer.  I've done this for all the summers.

Thursday, July 15, 2021


My intent with mapmaking on a desktop was that each hex ought to be one-inch across; this seemed a good size to squeeze in detail as needed.  It has proved to be so.  I felt that making the diameter of the hex ought to be 20 miles; in map parlance, 1:1,267,000.  For comparison, most maps found in an atlas are 1:4,000,000 and up.  So, mine are a bit more zoomed in for scale.

Because the world is so big, I've had to represent it on numerous plates, or as I call the, "sheets."  The sheet shown represents an area of 366,450 sq.m., or about the size of British Columbia (almost 50% larger than Texas).  The problem with an area like the one shown is a) there's not much on it except water and places no one wants to go; and b) for those unfamiliar with maps, it's difficult to get one's bearings.

I can supply an overview on the wiki, even provide a bit of colour if given the opportunity.  But I've been thinking that I could also provide an inset of the above, so that it's neighbour sheets can be seen at a glance.  I've done my first test and I'm pleased:

I suppose this isn't entirely helpful, since there are no big labels defining Norway, Sweden, Finland or Russia.  I like the bright coloured square against the black and white background ... but then, I am familiar with maps and so I'm not a good judge.  So, there's this alternative, where the background is also coloured, and the core area surrounded by a blue line:

I think many would prefer this.  The line can be strengthened, if need be.  But I'm still partial to the black & white version.

There's no reason I can't do this for every map I put on the wiki, though it will take time.  Worth it, though.

Tuesday, July 13, 2021


Every now and then, I get an idea and I write it down.  Sometimes I work on the idea for a few days, sometimes longer.  Before computers, I would do this on paper ... and over time, I would dream up a new approach to an old idea and start again on the idea from scratch.  Occasionally, I'd collect this together into folders or binders ... but as there were always new ideas, for short stories, novels, D&D adventures, game rules, plays, magazine articles, etcetera, inevitably the stacks of paper defied any possibility of organization, even though I threw away far more than I accumulated.  In 2016, that pile looked like this:

Naturally, with the development of computers in the 80s, this pattern progressively moved from paper to computers, where it spreads like a plague.  An idea goes into a file, which is added to a folder.  Folders are added to other folders ... and because I don't want to lose anything, the folders get backed-up on other computers and memory sticks.  Sticks themselves become the focus, as files are brought home from work and taken back to work; the sticks get backed up on hard-drives.  As computers age and die, the whole hard-drive is backed-up on a new computer, dragging old files along.  So it goes, until decades of back-up files are duplicated with each new device, until copies pile on copies, unexamined and forgotten.

A week ago, I decided to collect the combined data from several computers and sticks in one place.  The result: 135,000+ non-program files.  Word files, excel, pictures, video, shortcuts ... and yes porn.  In some cases, there are as many as 30 versions of a single file.  These can be deleted, of course; but they're scattered in different combinations of folders, often having different actual names (as new ideas led me to start new files from scratch), not to mention different formats.  I can't trust the latest date being the best version, either, since in some cases versions of a file were created on different computers, and often the later version was a disaster and the earlier is the one that must be kept.

I've boiled this down to 34,000+ since Thursday, basically by stripping every file from its parent folder and mashing them all into one single folder, where every individual file can be compared with others.  I'm in the process of manually picking them over, upgrading documents, sometimes cutting and pasting their substance into other formats, deleting them or otherwise moving them off this computer altogether onto two other empty vessels (my newest computer, purchased a month ago, and a 4-terabyte extended drive).

It's certainly been interesting, what with being reacquainted with content I haven't seen in literally decades.  The oldest things date back to 1998; the rest, scattered over the last 23 years, represents a life's work.  I'm finding the process to be clensing, purposeful and helpfully clarifying as regards to work I hope to be doing in the next ten years.  Perhaps other DMs don't think on those scales, but I know what I've done in the last ten years.  In 2011, there was no wiki; no patreon; no sage abilities in the present sense; no automated character background generator; no books; no game con experience.  Those things that did exist were smaller, less complex.  It's impossible to look at my work from more than a decade again without a sense of wry, mocking superiority.

No sentimentality, however.  Sentimentality is a booted foot stuck in mud, stopping a designer or artist from advancing.  A designer must be an assassin.  Projects that don't yield results, that don't lead to better ideas, need to be knifed through and kicked to the side.  Nostalgia is a cloying, smothering whore, forever wanting attention and providing nothing new.  I have no room for it.  My computer's trashbin has progressively filled up and been gutted ruthlessly.  That work, if it had any value at all, remains in my present-day habits and insight.  Following this one last glance, it is better dead, gone and forgotten.

Of course, a lot made the cut.  The hundred-thousand-plus repetitions and junk has yielded, so far, 5,255 files worth keeping.   Just under a thousand relate to D&D.  There are textbooks, audiobooks, songs, movies, documentaries, home pictures and films ... and yes porn.  Not as much as you might think, however.  I'm fairly picky.

I stumbled across a single picture that I saved from some site or other: it's called an adoptive emergent collaboration framework.  I don't remember it, but doubtlessly I thought it might act as an organizational structure for describing game preparation.  Apparently, I found it in late 2013, about the time I was struggling with how to write the advanced D&D guide that became How to Run.  I often wander over sites discussing intergration in business, among computer programmers, managing institutions and such, because these fields spend considerable time searching for ergonomically-friendly methods for getting people to work together, while managing the unmanageable processes of design on a grand scale.  Reading this material and reflecting upon its application for managing a role-playing game is useful for me.  Over the decade, this kind of material and also proven to be a good source for writing blog posts.

For example, start with "Process," the bottom right-hand arm.  Information management is what I've been doing that dredged the illustration from the darkness.  By scaling back the dreck and singling out the useful material, then usefully organizing it, we have a better idea of what we know.  This gives a better idea of where we want to go next.  I didn't write out those notes for decades because they were all valuable; I wrote them out so that future me could decide if they were valuable or not.

Allow me to explain how these subjects fit into RPGs, specifically my D&D game.

Automation in D&D describes anything a die is rolled against, including programs I design for calculating encumbrance, experience or character backgrounds.  Escalation, as I see it, describes the improvement of the game, the implementation of new ideas and approaches, that generates more information and ultimately requires more automation.

Moving clockwise, "Technology" in RPGs describes the use of tools in order to implement the game's meta-processes.  Tool selection converts pencil and paper into computers, physical dice into other formats, the shape and design of the game table, the physical location of the DM with relation to players, means for transmitting information and so on.  Integration includes the players' adjustment to the game system and to each other, particularly in getting everyone in a group on the same page with regards to what the rules are and how they enable the party's actions.  Training describes the DM's responsibility for teaching the players how to run, what rules exist and how they're meant to facilitate play, and specifically what part of the rules can be "played," that meaning the wiggle-room that's been incoporated into those rules.  Adoption presupposes the expected time the players will need to take up, follow and use either the tools or the game system, this being more than the system as it stands, but also new emergent ideas being integrated into the system as part of the aforementioned escalation.  Finally, maintenance and upgrades reflect the results of integration, training and adoption, with the DM specifically returning to these various subjects and discussing them at length, even if they've been discussed before.  After any game session, I always attempt to revise, or upgrade, the players perception of the ongoing game from my designing perspective, as much as possible.  For example, by explaining that the monsters did this or didn't do that because I was adhering to policies or game rules that disallowed me from exploiting my superior knowledge as a DM, so that I ran those monsters as I perceived they would act as unknowing entities inside the system.

Next, "Governance."  To govern is to conduct the action and affairs of a "thing;" in Latin, res publica translates literally as "the public thing."  My D&D world must also be governed, which makes me the governor, or administrator.  Therefore, best practices describes those points I spend time describing here when I talk about what a DM must do or what a DM shouldn't do.  For example, a DM should follow the rules; decisions affecting the game should be discussed jointly with the players; no decision should EVER be made by fiat by the DM, who ought to be able to describe exactly why a particular ruling was made.  "Because I'm the DM" or any version of that is not an acceptable answer.  Guidelines are the examples I just gave: that rules apply to everyone, that the DM is not a monarch, that a thorough understanding of the rules is as much the DM's responsibility as the players, since the training being given in the previous circle should belay player ignorance about the rules as much as possible.  Policies are clear statements of intent.  The game is meant to be friendly, and thus no player-vs.-player.  Persons should not behave impolitely towards other persons.  No one rolls a die without prior notice given.  The DM plays without a screen and to fudge is to cheat.  That sort of thing.

The oversight team includes any outside entity willing to wade in and discuss the goings on.  I describe what goes on in my game world on this blog, inviting the entire world to act as an oversight team.  Unfortunately, most of the time, many would-be agents of correction fail to pay any attention to the policies, guidelines or best practices of the DM in this instance, or those reasons given for why such things exist, in order to ad hoc describe why they "feel" the game should be different.  My best commentors, on the other hand, point out where I've failed to follow my own policies or practices ... these people are worth their weight in gold.

Finally in this circle, social service level agreements.  Let's parse that out, since on the surface that looks utterly incompatible with D&D.  A "social service" is an act aimed at promoting the welfare of other persons.  An "agreement" is an accordance in opinion or feeling.  Essentially, the DM accepts that the hard fact of the game cannot be allowed to contravene the harmony of the game WHERE an individual's need, in the opinion of the whole consensus, supercedes the need of the game.

As an example, once I had a player whose character died under extraordinary, near-gamebreaking conditions.  The absurdness of the situation, as well as the unlikelihood of the death, coupled with the DM's general intention of introducing the circumstances, pushed probability levels of death into the 1 in 100,000 range.  Additionally, the player character's body could not be recovered, though it was in fact pristine at the time of death (ie., not lost at sea, not crushed under rock).  The matter was discussed at length.  The player character was not restored.  The party, including the player character's subordinate henchfolk, was given the opportunity to perform an extensive quest to restore the character; the quest was invented and pursued.  The dead character was regained by the player.  Welfare was granted and the party as a whole felt in harmony with what the results would have been either way, regardless, since failure was a possibility.

"Goals & Objectives" are not my own.  This is hard for most DMs to understand.  I am not the company, the players are the company.  The party is the company.  The party decides what goals they wish to pursue and I cause the game setting to give way to the party's designs or to push back with obstacles.  I do this in accordance with the governance I've previously described.  The player characters decide on which departments exist and which person fulfills the duties of those departments.  The players decide who to hire as employees, which may be obtained in exchange for money (hirelings) or may be obtained through role-playing, generosity and integrity (followers).  The customers consist of any entity in the game world that the players service through their deeds or their designs.  For example, a "customer" includes a town that the players save from a dragon, and also members of the town that buy wood that the players cut down and ship there.  Metrics are resolved through the complicated, detailed and multi-inclusive trading system that I've designed, as well as hundreds of other applicable rules, including combat rules of course.  By pitting themselves against the metrics, or using the metrics to sustain their practices, the player character company empowers itself and attains its goals.  This is the purpose of the game.

At last, "Organizational Culture."  First and foremost, I've been talking about leadership off and on for weeks.  This describes my philosophy towards the players, in providing them a serviceable game that I pursue with a sense of duty and honour.  I want to run a successful and enjoyable game; and I want to give my players an experience in my game that surpasses the experience they receive from other games run by other DMs.  I almost always receive feedback that tells me I'm doing that.  Change management describes the coming and going of players, who enter the game and drop out; my duty is to immerse them into the existing game, training them in the rules, introducing them to guidelines and policies, helping them manage their information, encouraging the party to embrace them and make them part of the company, etcetera.  These are a set of personal skills that take time to gather and are incredibly necessary for running a good game.  They are also the thing most severely lacking when a DM is complained about.

Evangelists are zealous advocates for the game, talking up the game for newcomers, discussing the game among themselves ... not only in the capacity of the game itself, but specifically MY campaign.  Encouraging evangelists among my players is a part of my capacity as DM to immerse new persons into becoming believers.  Once they hear about the thing, then experience the thing themselves, they are willing converts when the thing benefits them directly.  If my players talk down my game, it's impossible to bring in new people.  Therefore, openness encourages the players to speak directly to me about their grievances, to feel those complaints are addressed and allowing them to see that legitimate complaints made WILL lead to adjustment in the game rules, even when those adjustments come at a great cost to me personally, in time, effort and even philosophical approach.

The last subject, mutually beneficial value, is the fact of players returning to the game each week without fail, without my having to hound them into showing up or being concerned that they won't.  Knowing that my players will play, that they want to play, because they do not consider any other activity to be worth as much beneficial value to them, is the critical mass of game play I always want to reach.  When I hear DMs complain about most of players not showing up, I must believe this is due to a lack of evangelists, management and leadership, and concommitantly all the other factors outlined on the post.  Let me stress: ALL the other factors.  Any factor here, if not addressed competently and with much respect, will sink a game world.  The best game worlds will leave NOTHING out.

Scores of posts can (and have been) written on any of these factors.  I will continue to address them, one by one.  The next time I'm struggling to think of what to write today, I should pick one at random, ponder upon it and see the matter I haven't yet addressed, having to do with D&D.  After all, sketching out which each means has been as much information management as the steady reducing of my computer's files.

Thursday, July 8, 2021

The Limit

Setting the menu aside and getting to those meat & potatoes.

While I pursued an undergraduate degree in university, I didn't choose to go on.  I have no masters, no doctorate to my credit; I've never written a thesis or a dissertation, and had it picked apart by the gatekeepers of knowledge.  I have much respect for those who have — therefore please understand that it's not my purpose here to disparage higher education or the choices that we make in deciding our fate.

I enjoy the Why Is This Happening? podcasts with Chris Hayes of MSNBC.  The guests tend to be highly educated and experienced; they tend to be persons at the forefront of their professions or civil servants whose past put them in a distinct position giving them tremendous insight.  Best of all, the subjects are varied and unexpected, as the guests come from all walks of life.

A recent one featured Natalie Wynn, of the youtube channel Contrapoints.  Once upon a time I was a follower, but as Wynn became less and less substantive, in favour of boosting her ratings by pursuing the dramatic, I ceased to listen.  I've heard her give interviews before; off the cuff, I find her wearisome.  Judging from her earlier work, there's a mind there, but it's one that needs preparation to be interesting.

This post is not about her, or her background — nor is it about her politics, which I won't deconstruct.  Rather, it is about a random inoculous thing she says about eight minutes in; I quote it.

Chris Hayes: So you decided that philosophy was not for you; but what did you like about it?

Natalie Wynn:  I really liked being a philosophy major when I was an undergraduate.  I think philosophy’s more fun to study at the kind of 101, 201, maybe even 301 level.  It’s fun to get this grand tour of intellectual history when you’re reading Plato one week and the feminist philosophers the next week – and then post-modernism.  It’s very exciting to go through all this for the first time, and you feel the kind of thrill of your mind expanding.  But by the time you’re considering writing a dissertation, and it’s like, “Okay, which three paragraphs of Heidegger am I gonna spend the rest of my 20s writing about — oh, that’s, um, that’s a different situation.

Hayes: Totally.

I find this very funny.  It's not meant to be.  Wynn is entirely earnest about her reasons and there's no doubt this is exactly the experience that thousands of doctorate-students have about their field, especially in their 20s.

Only, there's a discontinuity that slaps me right in the face.  Do you see it?  There's an intrinsic flaw in the university system, right there, bold as a neon sign.

Understand ... universities and other post-secondary institutions are there to teach people.  The process of obtaining a doctorate is a specialized learning exercise, in which students demonstrate through various means their ability to understand the material, defend it, and thus meaningfully provide it for others, most probably students, upon request.  In non-STEM fields, particularly, the probable usefulness of a doctorate of the humanities or social sciences is to be a professor ... therefore it stands to reason that other professors should be the gatekeepers on whether anyone should be a part of that cabal.

Being an expert on Heidegger, and specifically upon an important turning point in Heidegger's work — or anyone's, really — is critical if you're going to make some other person understand why and how those three paragraphs are fundamental to philosophy.

Only, do you know who did not spend his 20s focused on three paragraphs of Heidegger?  Martin Heidegger, who wrote all the paragraphs — and thus spent his life advancing the field of philosophy by writing on everything that interested him, and not just how to explain other people.

The creation of any Heidegger is not the goal of higher learning.  This is brilliantly demonstrated in the obscure 1970 film, Getting Straight, in which the main character is working to defend his master's thesis in English Literature amidst a series of university protests against Vietnam, ending with the campus being put under martial law.  The final critical scene occurs when the main character Harry is interviewed by a tableful of professors, who quibble over Fitzgerald's work, The Great Gatsby — specifically, if you can believe it, the significance of Carraway's attraction to the character Jordan Baker in the novel.

This was a classic "three paragraph" fetish among literalists in the 1960s; I'm tempted not to go into it, since if there is an English scholar in the crowd today there's sure to be the sound of "Oh, that bullshit"  in the room.  Simply put, the old saw that Carraway was queer for Gatsby.

I have no idea what the hell they teach now on that.  I don't know if this is still embraced by scholars or if the world has come to its senses ... or if it's still a final exam question.  I saw the movie when I was very young, definitely before being old enough to enter university.  I'd read Gatsby by then; and I knew all about the violence that took place on school campuses in the late 1960s.  Harry, the main character, spends the movie breaking himself against the anvil of preparing himself for the cross-examination he's going to face, while everyone else he knows is breaking themselves against the political reality of free speech versus military force.  It's absurdist (which is why Wikipedia calls it a "comedy").  Harry walks past armed soldiers, to meet with old men to discuss fictional characters, and ultimately whether or not one fictional character was, in fact, gay.  Harry doesn't believe it; but then he's faced with one professor who argues Carraway's queerness to hysterical levels — because obviously it proves Fitzgerald was gay.  It becomes painfully obvious that if Harry wants his ticket, he will have to sacrifice his beliefs ... and worse, the mountains of research he's done regarding Fitzgerald — which he has to pretend he doesn't know.  And he tries.  He tries really hard.

And then ... he just loses it.

There is a kind of insanity in what people believe ... and what they think they have to believe, especially about things that'll never be known.  The process of deconstruction has its limits.  Nitpicking about any three paragraphs, for any length of time, isn't much of a life.  We do better if we attempt to write as Fitzgerald or Heidegger did, than concern ourselves overmuch with what either meant.  It's well enough if we come away from such things understanding what the mean to us ... and help others understand what it might mean to them.  But if we think it matters what it means absolutely, well ...

That way madness lies.

Monday, July 5, 2021

The Menu

As demonstrated here.  With this screenshot:

For some time, I've put down work on the poster (which will be picked up again) in order to produce this more accessible product, a functional menu for any medieval campaign using copper, silver and gold coins.  The items are arranged neatly, described, a price is provided and sufficient quality of design that a Dungeon Master can proudly announce that the players have arrived at the "Jousting Pig" and oh, here's the menu.  The background is rich and appropriate for the time period and the folder is comparable to what the reader might find in a quality restaurant.

As yet, as the video says, I don't have a price.  Just at the moment, we've calculated what it would cost to buy and print the materials in bulk; there is also the matter of packaging and shipping, not to mention that I'm on the North American continent and that many of my readers are in Europe, South Africa, Asia ... I'm not sure of details regarding shipping overseas at a reasonable price.  The combination of these things suggests a fund that would ensure reliability on our part regarding delivery.  Previously, I've not had these concerns, as selling my book through Lulu and Amazon puts those troubles on them.  This could not be done effectively that way, since we must purchase the binding ourselves before mailing it out.

Some months ago, a reader suggested "Make the product first, and then make a kickstarter for it."  As we've followed that advice (and by "we," I mean my daughter, my manager and myself), it would make sense to launch a kickstarter for, say, $3,000.  This would let us purchase the device that would enable us to provide and implement a design for the menu cover ourselves; it would let us buy the menu covers in larger numbers; we could make arrangements ahead of time to manage credit cards online; and all the other technical details.  One stretch goal above that amount could support the creation of additional menu pages, with other dishes and logos, that could be switched out with the Jousting Pig.  A further stretch goal would support the creation of another menu entirely, one that was based on a later time period and cuisine, say pre-Columbian North America, as none of the J.P.'s menu items feature foods that were acquired after the discovery of America (unless I've miscalculated somewhere).  In any case, a different menu that focused on beans, maize, sassafras and sasparilla, yerba mate and so on would definitely be doable.

As the video says, all these items on the menu above are REAL.  They were painstakingly researched, which my long cooking experience of 17 professional years was key.  Given the tools and the right arrangements (many of them require a walk-in fireplace) I could make every one myself ... and they would all be tasty, I'm sure.  If anyone wonders, haggis is not on the list.  It is too often rushed to for an example of old style cooking and so I did not include it.  I could add it to another, alternate menu page if requested.

Interestingly for some, all these menu items were priced according to my trade system ... which meant determining the cost of each part of the recipe to establish the Inn's "food cost"; table costs were then calculated accordingly.  All the items have been added to my trade tables, which are still under revisement, and so in my game at least, these items would have different prices depending on what part of my world the players find themselves in.  This is something I've done for myself, though it has nothing to do with the menu as a "product."  I mention it only to explain that there is a logic to the prices; I didn't invent them out of thin air.

At present, I'm not in a position to do any selling.  Please, as I said last week, DON'T send any money or make any special donations at this time.  If a kickstarter seems like the best idea, then it's best to save it for that time.  For the present, my supportive readers who contribute to my Patreon are doing enough to enable us to move forward on this project and on its sister project, the equipment poster ("A Streetvendor's Price Guide").

I cannot wait until we're able to arrange a table at a con and sell this direct to visitors.  Having it in my hand, I cannot express how good it feels, or how good it looks ... and from seeing the faces of others watching this project go through some iterations since its first printing on Wednesday, when it didn't look good enough.  Today, it looks ... well ...

I'm fairly certain nothing like this has ever been presented for D&D.

Thursday, July 1, 2021

Common Sense

Before writing How to Run, I read every published book about dungeon mastering that I could find, including Matt Finch's Primer.  It's terrible.  It is better than other more terrible things.  Frankly, I'd forgotten it's existence — as I do with many pieces of old school junk — until reading this from Dennis Laffey's blog:

"In the Primer, the section talks about how description should trump die rolls and common sense should trump dedicated game mechanics. I don't have a problem with that."


This is not a take-down of either Laffey or Finch.  The logic expressed here is quite common and if I wanted to rant, I could find the blog of someone I didn't like.  I'd rather talk about the trouble with simple solutions to things.  Take this example from Larry Gonick's Cartoon History of the Universe, vol. 8-13:

Plainly, old school DMing is Confucianism

An extreme example, but I'll try one of my own.  New players to chess often become enamoured with the Queen.  They prefer the queen to every other piece; and when they lose the queen, they're sure the game is lost.  But the game is not won with the queen; it is won by using all the pieces in concert.  

Description does not supercede die rolls, because in the case of DMing, ranking one part of the game over another makes no sense.  Likewise, it makes no sense to impose a rule such as common sense superceding game mechanics, when what we want are game mechanics that incorporate common sense.  If a game mechanic is non-sensical, get rid of it.

When building a structure, whether a plan to defeat an enemy or redesigning our kitchen cabinets, every part of that structure matters.  Every part deserves our attention and every part must work in tandem towards the common goal.  This is self-evident to me.

Die rolls are used when randomness improves the character of the game; description is used to build emotion, when making a die roll would be foolishly destructive; game mechanics, or rules, demarcate the players' possible responses, using voiced problem solving (which is "descriptive" but is not "description," which may incorporate dice as the rules dictate.  Common sense exists at every level, not as a gut instinct that feels right, but "sound, practical judgment concerning everyday matters ... or the ability to perceive, understand and judge in a manner that is shared by nearly all people."

Our common sense doesn't derive from a "personal" perspective!  It derives from an empathic comprehension of how others would view this matter that's come up during the game.  If a DM is gainsaying that something should be so-and-so according to their gut, then they're not demonstrating common sense, per definition.

Though often, we think that's what common sense is; something we automatically share with the human race.  We tend to believe that if we think a given way, it must be that others, probably most other people, also think that way.

A thing is sound when it is free from defect or injury; that is why we say we're "safe and sound" when avoiding an accident, or we've gotten home without trouble.  The word equates with a tone that falls pleasantly on the ear; if a tone is off, it's unsound; if you're unhealthy, you're unsound.  Therefore, when we say that an opinion is "sound," it's because the opinion resonates equally on the ear of those hearing it.  If your "common sense" isn't immediately met with the entire table nodding their heads and agreeing, without the need of an argument, then you're not invoking common sense at all.  You're producing an opinion, just like any other opinion, and your need to attach a "soundness" to that opinion is merely puffing up your ego.

Something is practical when it can be applied as an action or a use.  It comes from the same root as "practice," as in a thing being practical when it can be practiced.  Practicality is being concerned with material considerations and when we say that something is "practically true," we mean that it has proved itself through practice.  Therefore, if you produce a ruling in the middle of your game that amounts to nothing that the players can use to play your game, you're not exercising common sense.  You're just producing air.

From this, it's painfully clear that "common sense" things ARE game mechanics; and that when someone says that I'm superceding game mechanics with common sense, what they're actually saying is that they feel constrained by game mechanics and the game's structure, so that they want an "out."

Now, this is interesting.  It serves us to remember than any person faced with a game rule, or a social convention, or an imposition of the law, will feel resistance.  To "resist" politically is to organize covert opposition to an occupying or ruling power.  The key word is covert.  One of our best strategies in resisting a group dynamic is to trot out "positive sounding" phrasing in order to redefine our actual intent.  Saying that my opinion, which elicits neither support from the players, nor invokes any obvious application, is "common sense," gives weight to my arguments because I've marshalled the whole human race into my corner.  "SEE?  Of course I'm right, because everyone agrees with me — except you, you and you."

Rules are hard to follow, even in a comparatively simple game, like chess.  That is why there are rules about touching the pieces, or talking, or otherwise distracting your opponent, because when those rules dictating behaviour don't exist between consenting adults, players will attempt to fiddle with the pieces and adjust what square they're on, or talk incessantly about aggravating things, or thump the table with their palms or hum.  People won't follow the rules, even "common sense" rules, where it comes to preserving their own lives.  We have to make laws about maintaining our cars, ensuring the brake lights work, wearing lifejackets, respecting private property, even not grabbing a police officer wildly — because even when there are laws designed to protect people, people still ignore the laws and grab cops, trespass, drown in boating accidents and ignore all those little pesky things having to do with driving a safe automobile.  D&D has so many rules, of so many types, that are often very restrictive on player behaviour, and equally so on what the DM can and cannot do, we should not be surprised that a vast number of participants just don't care about those rules, or why they exist, or how they're meant to function.  The rule exists so I can't do what I want, meaning the obvious right thing to do, the "common sense" thing to do, is to ignore the rule and do whatever the fuck I want.

Now, where has that "I'm Being Facetious" sign got to?

Under public scrutiny, of course, we can't be that obvious; we have to at least pretend we're on the straight-and-narrow.  What I can't understand, and having already said this: if we don't like the rule, or game mechanic, why go through all the rhetoric of "common sense blah blah blah," when we can just change the rule to something that we do like, or which works better?  Where is the logic to assigning the caretaker work to a barely understood phrase (I've spent most of this post defining it, because we don't understand it) instead of simply fixing the game?  It isn't like the company is going to swoop into our kitchens and fine us for House Rule Violation 6.2 section-B paragraph 2.  We own our own games!  We can do whatever we want!  If the damn thing isn't sound or practical, then for pete's sake, make it sound and practical!

Surely, if we're looking for a "primer," the first rule ought to be, "If it's broke, FIX IT."