Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Stock Characters

This is a western from 1957. Some readers will recognize which. I'll give a hint: it's the opening scene. The main character is dead center, moving from left to right.  He's the good guy.  The others are background characters ... they're here because it matters that this not be an empty saloon; the plot requires lots of witnesses.  These characters have no lines, however, because the story is told through visuals — meaning these other unimportant people are extras.

The good guy is the player character.

This is a bad guy.  He's not "the" bad guy, he's "the" bad guy's brother ... but he's here to commit a murder that sets up the film's plot.  In film parlance, he's a stereotypical fictional person of a specific type, age, social class and motivation.  He's a stock character.

In D&D parlance, he's a plot hook.  He's there to taunt the party and get them inextricably invested in the adventure, which must be resolved before the party's safe.  Note the mocking gaze, the mottled leather vest, the low gun-belt, the flashy wide-brimmed hat, the choice to buy a full bottle of liquor.  These are the tell-tale cliches that rush to the front of a DM's imagination — every time.  But we can talk about visuals another day.

The stock character is a problem.  Savvy players recognize him immediately: because typically he's the only NPC that notices or addresses the player characters.  Or, to be more accurate, he's the only character the DM describes in the room at length.  "There's a room full of people; one of them is wearing a big brimmed hat.  He's standing at the bar, watching you as you enter; his lips curl in a smile."  The message is obvious: the DM wants you to address this guy.  I can do this set up all day long and every time the players will dutifully do their part.  It's like a monkey hitting a lever to get grapes.

But turn on the DM and say, "Describe any other person in the room," and almost certainly the DM will launch into a general description of everyone, and not the one person asked for.  "Uh, they're cowboys, having drinks, wearing basic cowboy clothing and, uh, there are a few women at the table with them."  This is because the DM doesn't want us to talk to these other people; they're not relevant to the DM's story and therefore of no use to the adventure, except as set dressing.  Quite quickly we'll be back with the man and his black hat, conscientiously moving the adventure, um, "forward."

This happens without anyone's noticing it.  We're forcefully brainwashed from a young age to recognize how these people appear on film as opposed to those people.  There's a deep, intensive science involved in grabbing our focus and directing it, one that we're unconscious of.  Look again at the first picture.

To get a good, clean screenshot, I waited until the character, moving through the crowd, pauses; as he does, he turns his face away from the camera.  His waist is framed neatly between the girl and the two cowboys at the bottom, with the vertical candle pointing upwards to force your eye to look up.  His head is likewise framed between the lantern and the vertical seam in the wall ... while the adobe brick is horizontal.  There's a lone cowboy on the right, who's looking up at the character, turning your eye away from the darkness on the right (which will be used to frame the actor again later on in the shot), while the one fellow who's standing is gently leaning towards the shot's centre.  None of which, I promise, you'll notice when you watch the film; the moment is less than one second long, probably about 21 frames, and your thoughts are full of the lead actor (whom you'd have recognized in 1957, like recognizing Brad Pitt in a film now).  Some readers who don't know the film have figured out who he is by now, and are looking him up in IMDb to figure out which movie it is.

While you don't consciously recognize all this, the cinematographer is paid serious money to set this up; hours and hours are spent on this framing; good actors learn to hit their marks perfectly so the work isn't wasted (one reason why a seemingly popular actor stops finding work, while some other tiresome actor gets three movies a year).   You don't see it but your brain does.  A scene like this and you instantly, habitually ignore everyone; you know none of these people will matter, so you don't look at them (unless, of course, you're a youtube doof with hundreds of hours to pick over films frame by frame looking for someone's wristwatch).

So when the DM tells you to look at the character at the bar with words alone, your brain filters the scene through a hundred thousand film hours, scrubs out the extras and spotlights the relevant NPC.  The bar might as well be empty.

This is generally fine for most worlds ... but the system breaks when it meets with a sandbox.  The difference between the film above and you actually walking into a random western 1875 American saloon (recognizing it wouldn't look like this saloon, which I covered yesterday) is that there are no extras or stock characters.  The saloon is full of people, actual beings who haven't read a script, aren't told where to stand, don't dress like stock characters and have reasons for being there that have nothing to do with you or a film audience.  They'll respond to you exactly as any group responds to you in the real world right now ... and without the cues you need to tell which of them are of such-and-such a social standing, an experience level or of a particular motivation.  The good guys and the bad guys look alike.  And none of them care a whit about you.

They're not necessarily there to advance a story line or a plot.  Oh, yes, of course I can have one of them be a plot hook if I want, I've written about that before.  But it's important to understand I don't have to.  AND it's important to understand that every person in the room has a story; every person is potentially a plot hook; every person might be be beneficial, or malevolent, towards the party.  A roomful of people are like 40 dungeon doors waiting to be opened ... with any number of them leading to nowhere except a home and kids.  But you don't know; and I'm not going to definitely tell you.

Therefore, if someone starts a conversation with the party in my game, that might be a plot hook.  It also might be a local being friendly, with no agenda whatsoever.  If a local trips over the player's chair, that could be totally innocent.  People in saloons trip over chairs all the time.

But a genre savvy player that's been weened on everyone-that-talks-is-a-stock-character, this gets a bit ludicrous in short order.  Every NPC who offers to help the party is a suspicious, dangerous character; every comment is an invitation to a saloon fight; every glance is loaded with intrigue and overthinking; no one is taken at their word; this is obviously a set-up for a dangerous fight that's definitely waiting outside the front door.  And as the players drift conclusively into rank paranoia, I'm forced to adopt William Goldman's strategy in the Princess Bride: "She does not get eaten by the sharks at this time."

"I give you my word," I explain, "that when this guard says he intends to help you, everything your character knows having lived 25 years in my world, and the nature of guards, and the expression you see on the guard's face, that the guard is being genuine and is not a random plant in the employ of the bad guys at this time.  You can trust him.  As a DM, I'm not going to fuck you on this."

It has to be made extremely plain, you understand.  Otherwise, it still won't be believed.

My face-to-face campaigns were easily purged of this illness, perhaps because of my body language and because my family and friends know my character and recognize I get zero pleasure from "gotcha D&D."  It just isn't my game.  I enjoy offering odd, ordinary, loyal, dutiful or lackidaisical characters as potential resources for the players to use ... not as false fronts hiding mastermind criminals.  What I said about my game being "political" is relevant here.

Greater success in my game, above that of surviving and advancing the character's ability, lies in reconciling oneself with the natural and cultivated elements of the game world, such that the faithful are rallied together as allies against the unseen, as-yet-unmet holders of power, who jealously hate to lose any of that power to newcomers.  To survive a dangerous world, the players will need to bring some of it under their control, to ensure a safe refuge against the outside; this will be seen as a challenge to others who also hold spaces of their own.   These will see the players as a threat; and they will use their minions to test the players, and if possible, eradicate the players.  The players alone, being relatively few in number, cannot rely on themselves alone.  They will need friends; they will need support networks and goodwill.  They will need to play a long game to obtain these things.  They will need to trust NPCs.

This requires seeing every NPC as a potentially rich, motivated character ... which I can make of them, step-by-step, as the players deliberately seek to know them better.  Faithful NPCs can be retained; questionable NPCs can be reconsidered or ejected.  But none of them are necessarily as simple and bald-faced as a stock character made for a two hour film.  A D&D setting sustains itself for hundreds and hundreds of hours; there's time to let the actors be people.

The End of Wholesomeness

I don't subscribe to the boy's version of D&D ... the notion that "We're on an adventure!" and that it's full of "fantastical and heroic" things.  I don't find D&D to be either mysterious or arcane.  The word "magic" is not magical for me.  I have never, ever, thought of D&D as a "game of the imagination" — though I know others think of it that way and occasionally I've been willing to pander.  I don't ascribe the word "imagination" to it, because in essence all things are of the imagination, including paying my bills, expecting the local safeway to carry enough Oikos yogurt in the form I like this week and the existence of Bulgaria — which so far I've been forced to accept on the word of other people.  Since I think constantly — a habit which others do not seem to acquire — I use my imagination constantly, applied to every part of my creative and interpretive existence.  I don't see exactly why I should think D&D is special in some way.  I use the same brain for it that I use for everything else.

The colloquial meaning of "magical," distinct from its application to witchcraft and spellcasting, is to see things as "beautiful or delightful in such a was as to seem removed from everyday life."  I suppose I would see actual magic and spells as that, but that's not how I see the long lists of written spells, items and abilities in D&D.  I see these things as cold, hard, functional metrics.  They work in a specific, practical manner relating to the rules of the game.  I get no fuzzy feeling in my gut, no lightheaded giddiness in my goiter when these things get used.  This is not to say the spells are lackluster or boring, but to explain that I think of them with the same interested presumption as an immunologist has talking of viruses infecting liver cells in such and such a manner.  Completely fascinating; zero sense of the supernatural.  It all seems very day to day for me.

There's nothing "arcane" in a game system that's been in existence just forty years.  There's nothing mysterious when everything is written out, explained and prescribed.  I may concoct a series of events that will enact the literary structure of a "mystery" for the players — but surely they know I have all the answers and that the thing itself is hardly mysterious in the sense of whatever happened to Amelia Earhart.  The game is as enigmatic as a magic trick; it's not a real mystery anymore than it's real magic.

Likewise, there's nothing "heroic" about sitting around a table and pretending to sacrifice a player character that doesn't exist; or in pretending to save a pretend princess.  These pretentious claims to having achieved something of great excellence and merit seems very silly and adolescent to me; of course, once I too indulged in such notions, but I'm no longer 15 and I see no reason to wax jejune about something that's long gone.

As such, I just don't relate to D&D on these notions ... the very notions that are hammered daily on blogs and press releases with relentless banality, often using the same phrases so often as to become saws and old chestnuts.  I hear someone cry excitedly, "On to adventure!" and think either that they're clinging desperately to their youthful innocence or that they're desperate for attention.  Whichever it is, I can't help rolling my eyes.

I'm experienced.  Best to think of me as the grizzled sarjeant doing his seventh tour of Vietnam, whose well past posturing.  I don't give a fuck about all that.  "This is a war, soldiers; get yourselves together, get on the bounce, quit griping and mind that you live 'til the end of day.  I don't wanna see no heroes, I want you head outta your asses and none of you do something stupid.  Let's get on with it."

Naturally, this doesn't fly well with a lot of players.  They want warm and fuzzy.  They worship a string of fantasy writers who churn fantasy content on a grade 6 to 12 level and that's just fine.  They don't want to be soldiers.  They don't want to play in a world where politics, nature, cruelty and indifference are vastly more powerful than magic — because, in my world, magic is a tool, not a force.  No matter what you have, no matter what you can do ... there are always others who can do exactly as much or more.  And if they're organized and you're not ... well, you can kiss ass or kiss dirt.  That's up to you.

I think the most interesting thing about D&D is the game world.  A thing that's staggeringly complex, huge, momentarily intimate, funny, absurd, unexpected and outlandishly dangerous ... everything that exists in the real world, in fact.  To be clear, what I like about D&D is that it happens in the real world, between me and my friends — and that this dynamic allows me to create all the happenstances of the world and watch the players fight, survive, fail or succeed according to their wherewithal, intuition and pluck.  Those things are real ... and infinitely more exciting and challenging than silly knights and princesses.

Let me put it another way.  A long time ago, Hollywood used to make westerns where everyone wore a clean shirt, where all the men were clean-shaven and the women were honourable.  These westerns surrounded simple story lines where a stalwart, decent sheriff protected a town with decent townfolk, or a group of heroes rode into a town to rescue it from a group of bad guys.  The line between "good" and "bad" was just as sharp as a D&D alignment chart ... and I'll grant, some of these movies are quite good; I can give you a list, if you like.  But they were all ruled over by something called the Hays' Code ... a set of moral principles that have been dead and gone from film for nigh 50 years now.

But those same moral principles are upheld and STANDARD among D&D producers and players, because it's perceived that children are playing this game ... and we mustn't invent anything that might bother the children.

In the late 60s, starting with Spanish, Italian and other European directors, who didn't give a shit about the Hays' Code, westerns started getting made where the "good" guys and the "bad" guys became harder and harder to tell apart.  Everyone had beards, most of them didn't wash, the women grew to be as vicious and vindictive as the men.  The protagonists in many of these films were brutal, cold-hearted murderers ... and the films became less and less about defeating the bad guys, and more about what it meant to be alive during the period.  The characters climbed down off their pedestals and became human.  And while many, many people hated these movies, and what it did to an iconic American fable, the truth is these movies were better.  They weren't fantasy.  They were real.  Watching them, we got the sense of what it was really like to carry a gun, and be shot, or hanged, or live in those difficult, brutal times.

That change didn't just reveal itself in the western, either.  It appeared in cop films as well; and in movies about relationships and lovers.  The change had happened a decade earlier in books, investing high-quality literary works with pulp fiction themes, enabling us to investigate ideas like abortion, racism, rape, institutional slavery, crime, genocide ... all subjects that were banned in my parent's time and had to fight for their right to be found on bookshelves.

This is where I want to be.  I'm not interested in running Gunsmoke and Bonanza.  My characters do not adhere to the boundaries of 1950s film noir.  I am not running the Children's Hour.  I'm running an adult game, for adults.  With adult themes and adult situations.  My game world is not imaginary, it's industrial.  It's not heroic, it's hubristic.  It's full of people who want to give aid and build support, organizing together for protection and mutual support; because the world is not just dangerous for the players, it's dangerous for everyone.

The people of my game world are the hardest puzzle for old-school Hays' Code players to interpret ... because, like a 1950s western, they think everyone who isn't a bad guy or a good guy is a stock character.

And they are so, so wrong about that. 

Monday, August 30, 2021

Ere the Kickstarter

It's been two months since I teased the menu.  Sigh.  Sorry about that.  What with one thing or another, hesitancy being a part of it, getting ducks in a row has been trying.  In any case, the kickstarter has been filed and is awaiting review.  I'm told I'll get a response by Thursday Sep 2, and they'll let me know the official start date at that time.  Perhaps it will be this week; I don't know, I haven't done one of these before.

I'm awaiting art for the menu, still, and investigating with the printers/cover manufacturers on the cost of embossing that art into the cover, which would be extra rich and cool.  All things going well, we might be able to begin sales before the kickstarter is completed, as I have banked monies waiting to move ahead on that.  The kickstarter would make me feel more positive about not going broke on a boondoggle ... which I still do not think this is, as it feels so damn fine when I hold it.  I've made arrangements to send a copy to JB of Blackrazor to review it, but that hesitancy again is keeping me from letting go of the only copy I have.  So things are happening, even if it appears weeks are going by without word.

As far as purchasing the menus go, I haven't many options.  Using Amazon costs $29.99 per month, +8-15% per product sold, so not very desirable since we'd like to keep our profit margins as thin as possible.  There are online products that would let me process credit cards, but I'm not familiar with their set-up at this time, Stripe for instance; but I know from watching others not to invest in something like that until actual sales are coming in.  Lots of people think starting a business means setting up to look like a full-fledged 20-year-old company from the starting gate ... and end up spending a bunch of money on products they don't need, sometimes bankrupting themselves.  Trust me, I'm thinking about it.

Paypal is simple and practical, though I know some people don't like paypal.  I've set up a bank account that people can e-transfer into, if they prefer.  People can pre-buy if they want to, but I don't know why the hell you would; supply isn't limited and you might as well keep your money until I actually have the product, sometime in mid-to-late September.  The price is going to be dear; the item is a work of art, not some slack piece of trash, in a faux-leather folder that will maintain it's attractiveness for a decade.  I'm asking $45 + $20 shipping ... that last should surprise no one, for as I said, it weighs more than half a kg (1.3 lbs.).

Kickstarter did not provide a space for describing "stretch goals," as in what happens if I raise more than the $3,000 I'm asking for.  I don't think that's going to happen, but then the hew and cry of angered internet villagers with pitchfork railing against creators daring to take in more than they ask for weighs upon me.  As such, I've decided that if the numbers climb, I'll be ready to create additional meaningful content to reflect that, in the spirit of this project:

* $6,000.  I'll create a second menu with specifically D&D themes, such as monster haunches, sweetmeats, creatures that are served alive, enchantment effects that aren't just magic items for purchase, things that humans can't eat and yet can be eaten by specifically elves, dwarves, etc.; as well, logically, items that will affect different races in different ways.  This won't be an easy project but it will be easier than the next one.

*$12,000.  I'll create a third menu based mostly upon pre-Columbian foodstuffs, such as sassafras and sarsparilla, maize, peppers, okra, cacao, potato and various beans, derived from Incan, Central American and Native America sources, as best as I possibly can ... and to fill out the menu I'll mix that with authentic Creole and a 17th century Carolingian cultural menu, favoured by pirates at the time as a general theme.  This is going to take considerable research, more than what I can accomplish on the internet; and I can see from some investigation already that the origin of many items is a cherished dispute by many between whether it comes from America or Africa, or even Asia.  The best I could promise is that it will definitely not be European.

*$24,000.  A truly impossible number, but if that happens then I'll take the menu for the Jousting Piglet and create a functional, fully illustrated and kitchen-proven cookbook for (almost) every item in that menu.  I have no doubts of my being able to make any of the foods there; they're all real, from legitimate sources, and about half I've cooked before.  The beverages, however, are going to be a real challenge.  Obviously, I think we can forgo recipes for Absinthe and Grand Chartreuse, among two or three others, but with a budget I'll locate someone who can teach me to make mead or spirits.  I live in a city with multiple distillers of both beer and spirits so this isn't out of the question.  I've worked in hotels and restaurants for a total of 15 years, some with a 5-star rating, so I'm confident I can cook anything, and even make a dozen attempts at something to make sure that when the recipe is attempted by someone else, it will taste good.  I'll get a competent photographer to film it and the final book will be elegant and gorgeous.

Very well, that should do for now.  I'll keep the reader posted on the kickstarter's status.  I should get around to publishing something more intrinsically about D&D soon.  After all, I don't want to spend all my time selling, like other bloggers have gone.

Saturday, August 28, 2021

Safe Words

"The Miracle of the Andes", that's what they called it. Many people come up to me and say, that had they been there they surely would have died. But that makes no sense. Because until you're in a situation like that, you ... you have no idea how you'd behave. To be affronted by solitude without decadence, or a single material thing to prostitute, it elevates you to a spiritual plane, where I felt the presence of God. Now, there's the God they taught me about at school, and there is the God that's hidden by what surrounds us in this civilisation. That's the God that I met on the mountain."

— opening narration to the film, Alive (1993)

For those who don't know, in 1972 a plane bearing a Uruguayan Rugby team and their friends and family suffered an airplane crash into the remote Andes Mountains; 29 out of 45 died.  They were stranded for 72 days against the worst odds imaginable, in a sea of ice and rock, deprived of oxygen due to altitude in below freezing weather.  I won't say more, in case the reader would like to find the book or see the film.

Listening to the opening monologue a few minutes ago, having decided to watch the film again, I was struck by the dualism of the two gods spoken above.  Unquestionably, the first god is also the D&D model.  People tend to imagine gods — including the Christian god — much along the Greek model: as persons with agendas, sometimes good or bad, but always ambitious in some manner, whether it's to obtain sex with a herder girl or convince the locals that, "Yes, no kidding, I'm real and I'm you're god."  It's no great observation, since it's been written about constantly for thousands of years, but we see gods in our own image, with our own foibles and our own needs.  Even the Christian god needs a motivation we can understand: "he loves us" — though he has a helluva way of showing it, not to mention he's pretty damn picky about who constitutes "us."

Much better, however, than the narrator's other "God": the unbelievable force of concentrated, indescriminate death and indifference that lies outside those parts of the world we've managed to tame.  The God that lives in literal space, surrounding the earth itself in every direction, who waits patiently for silly fools to prance forth in thin metal and fabric suits mere millimeters from the worst environment imaginable ... no environment at all.  We don't represent that god in D&D, except possibly with the dice; and it's at precisely that point that the game gets "too real" for comfort and we have to back away and impose nerfing traditions to mitigate the raw, cold, brutal seriousness of the "god on the mountain."

What a bunch of pansies we are.

I had choices to pick from for this image.  Ones where, unlike the one above, the climber wasn't tethered.  This stuff is porn for climbers.  The more dangerous, the more absurd to commonsense, the better.  Pitons slip.  Rope breaks.  People die every year.  Actual death, mind you ... no fudging.

We gamers can't even comfortably imagine death, much less face it.  We have no desire at all to be elevated to a spiritual plane, even metaphorically.  There are no gods of nature in D&D.  Even the very bad ones, the gods of chaos, have an agenda ... and though its unknown, an arrival time as well, like a train that's perpetually late.  But nature is right here, right now.  It's ready to kill you today.  And it doesn't care.  Not a tiny bit.  We matter as much to nature as the particle of dust landing on the tip of your nose, just now.  The particle that could kill you — if it's the right particle.

Doesn't sound much like a game.  Doesn't sound "fun."  Sounds dismal.

Yet what is that girl doing up there, courting death?  What the fuck is that all about?

Well, now, you see ... our bodies are built in this weird, designed format, tailored by a constant interaction we had with this horrific natural god for literally millions of years.  That includes a lot of years before we were "surrounded" in this civilisation.  There was no civilisation.  There was only this solitary indifferent god — in a very non-metaphorical way you understand, because we hadn't invented metaphors yet.  All we had was our biology ... and to keep us alive, to permit the birthing of children that would keep the species alive, our biology developed a strategy that enabled us to cope with constant, terrifying spiritualism on the order of that plane crash turned up to eleven.  All. the. time.

Part of that strategy included flooding our body with intensely pleasurable drugs during moments of extreme danger.  Just think about how fucked up that is.  Your body chemistry is actually designed to reward you for courting life-threatening situations.  And judging from those who push the envelope in this regard constantly, the effect of this "drug" makes you feel god-like.

Take a moment and think about that combination of words.

Why in particular do we associate feelings of fear mixed with invulnerability with the word "god"?  Hm?  Any guesses?

I'll give you a hint.  The feeling occurred millions of years before the word did.

That's right.  We invented a word that captured the feeling, and now we use that word when we have that feeling; and we ascribe that word to other imaginary entities that we associate with being invulnerable and laughing in the face of danger.  True adventurers, if you will.

But you don't have to climb upside down to tap into those feelings, or drugs if you wish; like nature, which you're a part of, those drugs are right here, right now, locked into tiny vessels inside you just aching to be flushed into your arteries and veins.  Want to learn how?  Want to learn when and why D&D enables your imagination to jack you full of god-like chemicals?

Get rid of your safe words.  Ditch the screen, roll the die in the open.  Ditch the fortune points and any namby-pamby harnesses.  Let yourself feel scared.  Get a hitch in your throat.  Experience some trembling in your fingers as you reach for a die.  If you fall, you fall.

At least you'll live like a god.

Tuesday, August 24, 2021

One Day ...

A story without names.

Not long after high school, when my high school sweetheart and I parted ways and I was devastated at the discovery that love did not conquer all and had very little reason to go on living  because I was stupid-dramatic and saw everything in earth-changing rubrics — I got involved in a relationship with a professional dominatrix.  Money was involved and it wasn't; that is, I ended up spending all the money I had but I wasn't charged by the hour.  I was not a client.  The relationship was outlandish, occasionally terrifying and deliberately self-destructive on my part.  In some degree, it ended amicably, without shouting or recriminations ... and we did not see each other socially again.

Occasionally I would see her at a club or in a movie audience, or even walking around downtown — and for the record, not because she was a streetwalker but because even high priced dominatrix escorts meet friends and shop.  We would see one another, not say hi, but vaguely acknowledge each other before pretending the other didn't exist.  This went on for years.  Then, without notice, this stopped happening.  Years went by and I stopped seeing her.  I didn't push the affair out of my mind or anything; I've never hesitated to tell stories about her because, hey, they happened and I'm good with it.  They're just things that happened.

"Well, you're pretty young, Mr. ... Mr. Thompson.  A fellow'll remember a lot of things you wouldn't think he'd remember. You take me. One day back in 1896 I was crossing over to Jersey on the ferry, and as we pulled out, there was another ferry pulling in, and on it there was a girl waiting to get off. A white dress she had on. She was carrying a white parasol. I only saw her for one second. She didn't see me at all, but I'll bet a month hasn't gone by since, that I haven't thought of that girl."

 — Mr. Bernstein, Citizen Kane

If this was 1941 when that movie was made, or even 1983 when my affair took place, that would be the end of it.  Like Mr. Bernstein, I'd be writing that I never saw the girl again and how sometimes I wondered what happened to her.  Of course, if this was 1983, I'd be writing this on a typewriter and not the internet, and you'd never read it ... and this is the point.  Because the internet does exist and unlike Mr. Bernstein, I'm not limited to my memory.  I know the girl's name, though she's a little older than me and is of course a woman; verging, in fact, on being an old woman, as I verge on being an old man (if the D&D parlance is to be respected).

Which means, occasionally, as we all do I think, it's possible to spend a lazy morning poking about seeing who's out there and what they're doing.  Only this particular search has always been foiled, because I was never able to find her.  I've thought for years, maybe she died.  Maybe a client made her so rich she doesn't have to spend time on the internet.  I laughed pretty hard when Eminem admitted in 2009 that he didn't know there was porn on the internet.  Makes sense.  When would Eminem in those days have had time to look at the internet?

A bit sad, sure, but then this was a long time ago.  I bring it up partly to express my perspective of having been around awhile ... and having done things unsavoury, strange ... and yes, shameful in some people's eyes.  Would you know it to look at me?  No.  No, I look like a run-of-the-mill gamer, a little fat in the pot, wild eyes, scraggly hair, grunge clothing.  No one would connect me with those six months in Toronto when I was a rabid Rocky Horror Picture Show fan.  Or those years in my childhood dealing with the alcoholism and intensive racism of my extended family (though not my parents in those two categories, thank gawd).  Or my anti-nuke days, or when I worked a summer as a roadie or walking around my Canadian high school dressed like a Brit Punk.  Nope, those things fall away when I grin and open the door for someone, or help pick up their groceries or chat about gardening with the woman neighbour over the fence (which happens to me now).

These things have been true for awhile.  So there's no reason to write about it now, except ... I found her.  I found her today.

She's well.  A long way from here.  Working for an NGO that's helping to feed immigrants from overseas.  She did an interview talking about how she got started and why she likes it ... and watching her talk, I recognize her smile, her facial tics, the way she still pulls her hair back from her forehead and the little movement she makes to hide her teeth (she always felt her front teeth were too big), and how she forgets to hide her front teeth when she starts talking.  Definitely her.  And no one would guess what she did when she was only 22.  Maybe she's forgotten it; maybe she stopped letting herself think about that years ago.

It is among the stupider things that people say, when they think we can't change.  That we can't move on. That we can't learn new tricks.  That things we did 40 years ago amount to all that.  Nothing is fixed.  Nothing is ever done that can't be accounted for, or moved past, while yet acknowledging it without shame.  We are not fixed.  We are not measured by what we are right now.  When we want to change, we can.  We always can.

Monday, August 23, 2021

This is What Losing Looks Like

"Canada withdrew the bulk of its troops from Afghanistan in 2011, with the Infantry Battle Group withdrawn by the end of July (handover of battle space completed 6 July around 09:00 Afghanistan Standard Time), and all Canadian Forces personnel and equipment withdrawn from Kandahar by the end of December 2011. In September 2008, Conservative leader Stephen Harper pledged this, saying a decade at war is enough, after having extended the withdrawal deadline twice previously. He acknowledged that neither the Canadian public nor the troops themselves had any appetite to stay longer in the war and said that only a small group of advisers might remain."

Canada entered that war in a pique of stupidity following the 9/11 attacks in late 2001.  A considerable portion of the country was against it, but a combination of fear and hot-headedness seized this country just as it did the United States.  We rushed into that war; the first contingents of regular Canadian troops arrived in Afghanistan in January 2002, just four months after the attack.  It didn't matter that Afghanistan itself wasn't the culprit.  It didn't matter that others throughout history had pursued enemies into Afghanistan and discovered to their humiliation that it was a bad idea.  No one in power was thinking, no one was listening and history was set to repeat itself.  It's like the program was written and locked in, then took 20 years to run.

Canada abandoned America.  There's no other way to put it.  We did not stand with our brothers, we choked and ran.  We tried hard to convince the Americans to run with us but they wouldn't do it.  Obama saw the writing on the wall, knew it was going to end like Saigon and calculated he didn't need the bad press.

This isn't going to be an easy post.  Afghanistan at present isn't tea and cupcakes, so if you'd rather skip the abuse and recriminations that are going to follow, then I suggest you stop reading now.  I've struggled for a week on whether or not to write this post.  I'm doing so because it matters more to me that I describe the issues of the day as I see them, exercising my mind, than pleasing my readers or even my patreon supporters.  This is not a time for coddling.  This is a time for plain talk.  So let's have some.

Let me say up front that I understand why America got into this war; I understand why it stayed in this war; I understand the desire to forestall the consequence and I understand the profitability of remaining — which is a helluva motivator for a world market that is heavily centered around weapons manufacture and sales, not to mention the exploitation of weaker, foreign soil by multinational companies supported by first-world technologically superior nations.  Cominco looks at America, points at Bosnia in 1997 and says "Kill!" and American boots are put on the ground.  Shell Oil and British Petroleum don't like how things are going in Egypt in 1956 and the British dogs dutifully do their duty.  Did you know that Vietnam was producing a million barrels of oil a day in the 1950s?  Probably not ... because it is never mentioned.  The less you know.  Saddam Hussein doesn't play ball with the American oil industry after 1988, after he's installed as dictator in 1980, in order to fight Iran, and of course Iraq becomes a thing.  There's money to be made.  Fuck the locals.  We call it history.

When we want to get out of Iraq, however, we withdraw geographically into a friendly country that conveniently borders Iraq.  Things don't work out entirely in Somalia?  No problem, all the surrounding countries are friendly.  Bosnia we handled, so we didn't have to get out.  Korea gave us no trouble, we secured a big safe block with seaports.  But the invaders did have to get out of Vietnam and it was a total shit-show.  Because when it came time to leave, it had to be done by plane.  No friendly surrounding nations, no seaports with big honking ships we could load with thousands of people.  Nope.  Planes.  And as convenient as planes are, they are shit for moving refugees.

So while Afghanistan was a great place to exploit, it is surrounded by non-friendly countries and NO PORTS.  It is the dumbest, shittiest, least-friendly country to invade and yet, we did it anyway.  Out of stupidity and hurt feelings, like a bully that is punched once in the face, screams and goes apeshit, only to run straight into a wall because he isn't looking where he's going.

You know, it another historical time period it was traditional for armies to stand within shouting distance of one another and taunt each other.  This was done because the army that loses its temper and rushes first is the weaker opponent.  It is far, far easier to kill an enraged, out-of-formation army that's rushing at you than it is to rush at a well-formed, calm, ready enemy.  This is a lesson that America absolutely refuses to learn, possibly because it lives out in the boonies where it didn't have a long history of swordfights going back thousands of years.  The collected entities that the Americans call "Al-Queda" (there is no real organization by that name, but it's convenient for PR journalism) provoked America into a war.  They taunted them.  They blasted two ugly buildings that New Yorkers didn't particularly like and killed less people than die in a day's car accidents and as a result, America spent that nearly eight times as many people again (counting suicides) fighting a war they were never, ever going to win.  Not to mention hundreds of thousands of casualties over there, the firming up of anti-American hatred, and the millions worldwide having to cope with the war dead.  All for the sake of some giant, heartless corporations who made a pile of money remorselessly spending both the dead and the living.

This is what LOSING looks like.


But no, I'm not done.  While watching the news decry the fuck-fest of trying to move people by airplane and rushing about laying the blame on anyone and everyone, as though that's a useful task ... we're also hearing endless tirades about the horrible, awful things the Taliban are going to do to the Afghan people who helped the Americans in their noble quest to steal money from the country through a hate-justified invasion.  Again, let me remind you:  AFGHANISTAN did not attack New York in 2001; some people in Afghanistan did.  Some of those people were Taliban or got help from the Taliban.  But most of the 21 million people living in Afghanistan in 2000, including many, many self-identified Taliban, were utterly innocent.  That didn't matter.  We saw red, we invaded the whole country, we pointed guns at the whole country, we dismantled the whole country's government and installed our own, while forcing the multiple tribal groups of the area to self-identify as "Afghans," again at the point of a gun, while preaching at home that we were making THEIR country better for THEM.  This is called Hubris, with a capital fucking H.  And if we could, just for one gawddamned minute, stop thinking about people falling out of towers and recognize what a FREAKING FUCKING ATROCITY we committed against innocent people, we might realize why the "Afghan Army" folded in two days and why the plan didn't work.  At all.

I know this is hard for Canadians and Americans alike, but even when we think that our political system is Special-F-Great, this really doesn't mean a lot to other people when we go there and point guns at them, telling them where the bears shit in the woods.  ESPECIALLY when they don't know what the metaphorical bear even is ... which these people, with their own culture and their own values, don't.  These people think other things matter ... and even if we think those other things are bad and evil and disrespectful to our culture, that doesn't matter once we've gone that extra step to bring guns with us and wave them around.  We've burned our credibility to the ground with that bonehead play.

We lost.  We invaded and we lost.  This is what happens.  The invaded people take their country back.

And what's next?  What happened when the Cambodians under the villain Pol Pot pushed out the Europeans?  What happened when Mussolini fell in Italy and the Italian people took their country back?  What did the Russians do when they pushed the Nazis out of Russia and Poland?  What happened when the Americans forced the Nazis out of France?

Don't hit this link if you've got a weak stomach, but have you heard of the Ugly Carnival?   Quote,

"Immediately after World War II, the French people cut the hair of French women who had relationships with Nazi soldiers and humiliated them.  Some of these women were raped by Nazis.  These pictures remain from those sad memories."

Point in fact, however; the French men who collaborated with the Germans; the local fascist authorities who ran the small towns throughout Italy; the various entities, such as the Ukrainians, who threw their lot in with the Nazis in their attack on Russia, weren't humiliated by having their hair cut off.  They were executed.  Because when someone invades your country — and let's again be clear about that when we say YOUR country, not Canada's country or America's country — and it takes ANY number of years to win it back, you don't really give a fuck that the collaborators you're killing were just trying to do what they thought was best.  They're COLLABORATORS.  That is a crime.  According to Dante's Inferno, the WORST crime, since it's reserved for the very bottom level of Hell.  It's called Betrayal, people.  Betrayal of your country, betrayal of your belief system, betrayal of everything sacred.  Try to take all your shit-nonsense about the GOP or the Dems stealing the country and multiply it by 20 years of constant factual evidence that Someone NOT from Your Country actually came in, blew up your capitol building, actually killed all your fucking senators and your vice president, then put Donald Trump on the fucking throne and propped him up.  For 20 years.

Picture that.  Then imagine how very, very, very little you care that the invading country's press is whining up a storm about how hard it is getting all the collaborators out by plane.

I don't think you can do it.  It's almost certain, even when it's plain as Blue Jeebus, you can't see yourself as the bad guys.

But we are.  We are the bad guys.  And this is how it plays out when the bad guys get justice.

Enjoy it, Loser.

And think about how, if we had taken other steps, and NOT invaded Afghanistan, there might have been a chance of selling enough ipods and android phones to the Afghans to convince them that western celebrity culture is just more fun than Islamic fundamentalism.  Because that's how the culture war is being won everywhere else.  That's how the Chinese are going to win in Afghanistan over the next 20 years.  That could have been us.

But our dumb, blind rage fucked that up.

Thursday, August 19, 2021

Breaking Through This Block

I'm in a funk.

For me, that means not wanting to do much of anything.  Such moods strike from time to time, typically lasting for two-three weeks ... sometimes less if I can create the right circumstances to shift myself back into gear.

These used to worry me in my teens and twenties, but I've learned enough to recognize what's going on.  I'm not "bored."  I'm not having a crisis of purpose or doubt about my abilities.  Creativity is like a gas pump — it goes dry.  A great big pump can fill up dozens of projects and make them run a long time, but sooner or later if something doesn't come along, that gas won't last forever.  That's where I am just now.  Dry.

There isn't any reason.  A creator can go crazy coming up with reasons, blaming it on some convenient recent happenstance, world events, injustices, job changes, someone else's job changes, relationship troubles, the relationship going well, the season, Christmas, the weather, a new pair of shoes ... oh, there are lots of reasons.  I believe firmly that this is a "blame game" ... and that there's no one and nothing to blame because, in fact, we sometimes just need time.

If the pump metaphor doesn't work for the reader, then try this: any creative endeavour will necessarily make use of what we've heard and what we know.  Call this input, or "gathering."  It takes a sufficient amount of input to create output.  We can call this output "creating."  Get locked into a mode of constant, rigorous output, and the time taken creating is not time gathering.  If we don't gather, the supply needed to create is starved.  So one day, for no particular reason, we go to the pump and it's dry.

My problem today, and for a week now, is getting the pump filled.  If I had a contract at the moment, it wouldn't matter if the pump were full or not; that's doable — but from experience I know it's unpleasant and stress-making.  I'd rather get myself pumped before I'm put on the spot again ... and get to creating for my other projects besides.  And so ... reasoning that others relate to this, I decided to outline a few strategies that I've employed effectively in the past.  While getting a blog post written at the same time.  Let's go through them.

1.  DistractionThis is almost useless, but it's the easiest strategy and therefore a good place to start.  Sleep is a distraction.  Getting a good meal is a distraction.  A few hours with a video game, a movie, a night out, walking the dog ... all distractions.  Any creator will say that when getting stuck on a problem, put it down, do something else, then come at it fresh the next morning.  This works.  It really does.

Problem is, when the pump's dry, it doesn't work at all.  It's six nights sleeping on the problem, its 30,000 steps walking the dog, its a dozen movies and three dozen meals, and nothing's changed.  Wednesday we spent from waking up in the morning until bedtime playing ONI, so that all we feel is very, very guilty.  But not in a mood to work.  Thing is, the "distraction" is what we're doing when it begins to dawn that this isn't a problem that can be cured through distraction, like all those tiny problems.  This is bigger.  As such, the distractions have to be more productive.

2.  Work.  Obviously, you're not creating something deep and intense so this means doing the sort of work any human can do.  Unfortunately, the work you do at "da yob" is either sucking out your wee daily provision of creativity or your will to live, so that's no good; nor is housework, errands or fetching people and things; these things are ordinary and dull and won't motivate you.  You need a knock to your spirit; a shakubuku — the breaking of negative patterns in one's thoughts, words and deeds.

You do this by spending more time with yourself, not less, while minimizing distractions.  Yes, this means meditation ... but given that most people don't meditate regularly, starting now is a bad idea.  A better method is to go on a long walk, by yourself.  Physical exercise works too, but chances are you won't do it more than an hour, and I'm saying a looooong walk.  Three or four hours.  Long enough to make your feet really hurt.  Long enough you have to sit down once or twice because you're tired.  One that makes you think about everything.

Truth be told, sitting in one place for three or four hours will do, but ask yourself: can you sit in one place, by yourself, out of your home, for three hours?  And not start a conversation with a stranger?  Because that's a distraction and the idea is to be with yourself.  Assuming you can stand yourself.  The walk just gives the added sense of accomplishment ... and in a time of not feeling like getting stuff done, accomplishment is a plus.  So push to accomplish distance.

3.   Go through the motions.  This is what happens if I get a contract in the next few days (which is likely).  With my campaign world, there are dozens of projects I can pursue that don't take much creativity; though they are boring.  Many of these I've transferred to the wiki, such as spells, monsters, descriptions of places and such, all of which involves minimal encyclopedia-like writing, editing, rewriting the words of other sources, etcetera.  Off wiki, I can work on maps or the trade system; and with these things, I mean specifically jobs that require no more effort than plugging numbers into boxes.  The world being enormous, and the various systems I've devised to express the world, means that there is lots and lots of pure monkey work that doesn't require a brain, only an effort to be accurate.

In earlier days, before progressing past such things, I used to invent encounter tables, equipment lists, treasure lists, pre-prepped NPC characters (wasted so much time with that) ... even copying sections of the game books or from other materials.  This sort of work was at least "constructive" in a sense, and would often give me ideas of some more complicated notion to pursue.  Such moments of insight were the gas pump being filled.  Copy enough text from an encyclopedia or technical book and ideas are bound to sprout, since what's being done is "gathering."

Lately, though, it's harder for me to feel motivated to go through the motions, as described here.  Much of my game design has become complicated enough that it demands seriously problem-solving and creativity to move forward ... the thing I don't have just now.

4.  Make something bigger and better.  This is the best strategy, since it produces the best immediate evidence of accomplishment.  Take something that already exists, like a map or a table, an existing description or a dungeon, and expand it.  If you have a map that's three feet wide, with an 1 inch = 20 miles scale, start on a project of making that map nine feet wide.  Guess what could be used to fill in the enormous white spaces that appear and thus intensify the impact and value of the map.  If you have a dungeon with nine rooms, and three pages of description, expand it to twenty-seven rooms; expand your description.  Deepen your tables; multiply them.

The benefit is that you've already created the skeleton for a much larger beast than you've got.  You don't need to invent new ideas; you only need to advance your understanding of something you've already got.  You're taking a story that you've already written and exploring the characters on a deeper level.

You may find these things difficult or impossible to do.  That doesn't matter.  Try anyhow.  Remember, the goal is not to make the expanded version, the goal is to get us back into a creative state of mind.  The goal is to kick aside the ennui.

There is a fifth strategy and I'm doing it now.  Talk about your lack of motivation with others.  Explain it in depth and why it troubles you.  This helps too.  I'm feeling just now like maybe there's something I could do this evening.  I'll give it a try.


Tuesday, August 17, 2021

Old Man River

A little more than 10 years ago I wrote that I hadn't had strega in years.  After an impromptu celebration  among friends, where we agreed we were all suitably safe from covid, and the numbers here in Alberta are low in terms of dire cases (though overall cases are distinctly up), I am a little the worse for wear of strega as I write this.  So I won't be writing long.  It was an excellent, generous Italian restaurant and I'm sure we helped the owners pay their bills somewhat this month.

The kickstarter is slightly hung up because to set one up, you must give supply the online bureaucrats with your bank account number and transit information.  I can't do this until I set up an account that has no contact whatsoever with my daily transactions, which has meant waiting until tomorrow to for an appointment to do so.  After that, I should be able to complete the requirements, but even then Kickstarter wants 8 business days before it goes active.

Having the Italian restaurant's posh menu in my hands this evening, I felt amused that my own menu is yet slightly upmarket.  I could scale the upfront cost to me downwards — purchasing a less expensive cover — but somehow, I feel disposed against it.  The providing company is in Massachusetts, near Fall River; it's rather whimsical that I'm buying the product from them not for a restaurant, but for a make-believe product that could, conceivably, continue to sell by the score for several years.  I imagine how the Fall River company might look on that: this strange fellow in Calgary buying a hundred covers, then another hundred, then another and another, as if I had a growing chain of high-class restaurants out here ... which obviously I haven't.

I can't wait for the company to ask about this and then to tell them the truth:  I've created a make-believe fantasy menu for a role-playing game.  What a lark.

There's a parallel, I think, to the restaurant my friends and I descended upon tonight.  Monday nights are notoriously quiet in the industry, but we made a reservation, then descended liberally upon the place and obviously gained the good will of the owners.  Much of the strega I drank tonight was free.  It was only a whim that I asked if they might have it; and the owner was both stunned and thrilled, exclaiming, "I haven't had anyone ask for it in years!"  She then proceeded to dust off a bottle (I don't think really, but makes a better story), which we polished off.  Except for myself, none of my friends had tasted it.

It's interesting how our decisions to do something nice for ourselves translates so plainly into the benefit it brings others.  Take this Fall River company.  I decide to invent something new; I need someone to provide the soft, faux-leather materials; I launch a kickstarter to help buy my first hundred, plus printing and shipping; and this company that knows nothing stands to gain every bit as much as my buyers will, as the "river" rolls from entity to entity.  Naturally it follows that the employees in Fall River will benefit as well, as their children will, and the local grocers and renters I suppose, and whoever else, because I decided, "Hm, I think I'll make something."

It's this "making something" that gets lost in the equation, where so much emphasis is put on selling it and buying it; or worse, on "trading" it; but let's not get into all of that.  Anyone can find it in Adam Smith and Marx, if they care to read.

Me, I'm merely sated, warmly happy, confident I'm on a good path and uncharacteristically optomistic.  It's a feeling I hope lasts well beyond tomorrow.

Wednesday, August 11, 2021

Proposals for at Least Three Years

I'm readying myself — not enthusiastically — for the troublesome bureaucracy of Kickstarter, to initiate support for the menu I promoted earlier.  Woah, it's been a month.  I've looked into advice about Kickstarter and I believe we've satisfied two main points that virtually everyone agrees is the right approach:

1.  Don't go into it broke.

2.  Have the product already completed (as far as possible).

Done and done.  This last month we have sought means to raise nearly the equal of money I'm going to ask for, $3,000.   We want to be sure that (a) we have enough product, whether or not we raise money on kickstarter, to begin selling, and (b) that we can overcome unforseen costs in shipping, packaging, extra costs with ordering more of what we need to bring this together and so on.  We want to get started with our pants up, belted and with suspenders.  Therefore, we expect that if Kickstarter fails — that being a real possibility — we can still somehow go forward and make this work.  And if Kickstarter succeeds, we can feel more sure of ourselves, increase the viability and creative content of the product, and potentially bring out a second and even a third version in similar vein, with distinct aesthetic differences.  At the moment I haven't imagined a fourth version yet, but I have perfect clarity for what no.2 and no.3 would look like.  That brings us to ...

The Poster

In part, we talked about and began putting our energy towards the menu because issues were arising with the poster.  The poster's perceived appeal is far less certain; it is a much larger project with definite visual issues (which I think we've solved), and as it happens, with it's size.  I cannot see any practical means to make the poster smaller than 36x48 inches, but as it happens the universe seems to have moved into much smaller sizes, presumedly because of the internet.  Seven years ago, when I wanted a poster for my book cover, for the game con we joined in Toronto (2014), I had a poster made that was 36x60 inches, without any trouble whatsoever.  I had my pick of some dozen agencies to go to; today, possibly because of covid, we're still trying to track down any manufacturer who will both make the poster in that size AND send out copies direct to customers on order.  This is easy for a poster that's 24x36 — virtually every company has a print-on-demand service for a poster that size.  I haven't found anyone on the internet able to produce a poster of twice that size under these circumstances.

This has led us to wonder if we shouldn't put out two posters, somehow dividing up the content into "soft goods" and "hard goods" ... and even possibly adding even more content to the mix and putting out three, four or even five different poster "themes," including more universal equipment lists with the minor stuff removed, posters that have more visual art and far less items (a dumbed-down version, if you will) or even posters specifically for things like jewellery, treasure and military gear.  It was this thinking that led us to the idea of producing a "menu" of items ... which then led to the thinking that by launching a menu, we could establish ourselves towards the making of other things.

That brings us to ...

A Splatbook

This is an idea I proposed on my Higher Path in March, but nowhere else.  The notion was embedded in my thoughts while I worked on the poster, but has been shelved for several months while digging into the menu's research.  Discussing it here for the first time, my perspective is this: part of my designing products has been to increase the amount of equipment detail available to the player.  For example, not merely to say that the character can buy a "woollen robe" or a "linen robe," but to specifically describe the feel and appearance of one versus the other, right there in the equipment list, to enable the player to make a visceral, informed choice about which they'd like to buy, regardless of the cost.  And since I believe in an all-inclusive equipment list, where virtually anything imagined can be realized, I have upwards of 20 kinds of cloth ... and along with that, multiple forms of cloaks and other dresswear ... and along with that, different kinds of wood, metals, cheeses, breads, horses and cows, marbles, leathers, grains, fruits and vegetables, varieties of inn accommodations, furniture pieces, house-building materials, you name it ... literally thousands of products and hundreds and hundreds of materials used to make those products.  This has been steadily built up over the last decade and has seen a tremendous boost this last year, as I've invested myself more deeply than ever in the description of these things.

This pursuit has led me into many a rabbit hole; and it's impossible not to see vast caverns full of particulars and features that are far too much content to fit into a mere equipment list ... the creation of the components, for example: how they're grown, shipped, collected, altered and ultimately sold.  All of this content makes the ingredients for a much larger volume.  This work could be collected in a massive tome, far more sophisticated than the juvenile works of the WOTC, which are more concerned with flavour text for the reader's ego than with providing scads of fascinating, adventure-building and role-play useful details, thus monumentally expanding the DM and Player's perception of the game world in a deep-rooted sense.  This has led me to think of a traditionally designed "splatbook" that would be 8x11 in., with a hard cover, two columns, reams of equipment lists with elaborations of the options contained therein without the constraint of space that a poster or a simple equipment list demands.  Users could enjoy the existing, condensed lists produced by the poster and even the menus, while ALSO having the option to dig into a dense, intentionally delightful tome (I'm told I'm occasionally witty and even make people laugh out loud) whenever they had the time to really dig.

Such a tome would have the title, A Streetvendor's Guide to Worldbuilding, as the emphasis would be upon encouraging the DM to understand the elements and specifications of the game world ... enabling a visionary approach to how the world could work and what happened there.

In making notes for this project, based on the equipment table I've used for decades, I found myself wanting to write descriptions not only for the equipment pieces themselves, but for the places they're actually sold.  We can imagine what it must be like to enter a medieval bakery, but how is a wet market or a mason's workshop organized, not to mention dozens of other vendors.  How do these things smell?  How many people work there?  How are commissions or contracts arranged with such entities?  What is involved with becoming a part of that world; what happens in the day vs. the night time?   What sort of people frequent these establishments?  These questions, I think, are the true substance for enhancing the ordinary players' strengths where it comes to world-building.  Once these matters are made manifest and tactile, it becomes increasingly easier to picture ourselves "there," and thus explain to the players what they're seeing, what's happening and most important of all, why it matters.

I believe others may have conceived of a splatbook on these lines, and perhaps of these proportions — but I also believe there's a characteristic that might have held them back, which is no doubt on the minds of many readers just now as I describe the proposal.

The task is gargantuan.

But I have a secret weapon, one that makes the research for this doable.  I'm not writing an academic historical textbook.  I'm not interested in proving any sort of accuracy by footnoting my sources.  I'm writing a game support aid, not an investigation into real-world human events or sociology.  I intend to say, right up front, NONE OF THIS IS NECESSARILY TRUE.  And why should it be?  Collectively, the RPG community spends billions of hours mis-describing walls, chests, the weight of things, biological responses, survivability rates, you name it.  A game is not founded on its accuracy, but upon the principles of that game: that it be an enjoyable, engrossing pasttime, that the participants agree upon the general consensus of the environment and that the material used for supporting the game be useful.

Therefore, I believe that much of the information included in such a book can simply be "made up" from my imagination ... just as most everything is from my actual game world, the one I've been running for almost 42 years.  In that time, I have been steeped in real-world historical texts and sociological descriptions of real life in real history, and with regards to these things, I intend to write a splatbook that more-or-less parallels the common perception of what the world was like in the "fantasy-based" past.  Said tome wouldn't be of much use if it wasn't.  But as I'm not being peer-reviewed, and as I don't care about the respect I receive from the academic community, or the other Pickwicks of the internet (I'm one myself), it does not matter to me how many rooms a "real" 14th century inn has, based on one famous surviving example from Liebesrattenschaumbaum, Germany, or what actual coinage was used, etcetera, etcetera.

This greatly reduces the need for exactness, which in turn greatly reduces the need to nitpick every unnecessary detail.  What's wanted is a clever, elaborate, imaginative and complex ruse, giving "a personal view of the D&D world," without any pretense of doing otherwise.  A comprehensible Voynich Manuscript, therefore ... which the reader can steal from exhuberantly while feeling free to inject their own personal view (or accuracy) into the content contained therein.

When such a book would be completed, I can't say.  Wagner spent 27 years writing his Der Ring des Nibelungen.  I dare say that this conceived project would be to D&D as the Nibelungen is to mythology or music.  Not the only great work in the field, but perhaps in the contention as the greatest work nonetheless.

Really, it depends on how hard I want to work on it.

Thursday, August 5, 2021

Pretending's Descendents

"Role-play" as a concept existed long before role-playing games ... and for most people, when they speak of "role-play," they are using it in reference to child psychology, group therapy or sex.  RPGs would come a very distant fourth in that contest ... we don't realize it because of the bubble in which we search the internet.

Role-playing in child psychology is a specific kind of pretend play in which children enact what people might say or do in a given situation ... which, as it happens, the child usually doesn't understand.  For example, when a child pretends to be a mother or father, they have little understanding of those roles.  But they have seen parents, and know what parents say, and what they seem to be doing ... so a child-as-mother putters around a play house, moving "pots" around on a "stove," telling the children, who are sometimes dolls, to sit at the table because dinner is ready.  If a doll begins to cry, this is usually because the "mother" imagines the doll is crying, and tends to the doll accordingly, in the manner that children witness.  Because of these mannerisms, when a real baby cries, or one day when it is time to make real food on a real stove, the child has already developed processes that enable them to go through the process.  Thus, "pretend" is a learning ritual, one in which children practice to be an adult, helping them to BE adults when the time comes.  If a child doesn't get this practice, for a variety of reasons associated with conflict, violence, discouragement, what have you, where a parent shouts at a child to "stop wasting their time with that play," the child grows up to have troubles handling even simple daily tasks.

We can take this argument a step further: in pretending to speak with dolls, invisible friends or others involved in the same role-play, the child gains insight into the perspective of others.  For example, when the child puts words into a doll's mouth, there is a "thinking for the doll" going on, in which the child presupposes what the doll might think, or ought to think, or is presumed to be thinking in that situation.

Take the example I used yesterday.  The child holds up two soldiers and makes the sounds of each talking.  For the first soldier, the child says, "I'm scared Sarge; I don't want to die."  The child gives the soldier a voice tone that sounds scared, usually some sort of weedy high-pitched timbre ... because this is the tone that's recognized from films, TV shows, read-aloud children's stories and so on.  Then the child speaks for the sargeant, automatically choosing a different tone: a gruff, deep, unforgiving resonance: "You got to fight, kid; you're a soldier.  That's what soldiers do."

Look at what's going on.  The child has no consciousness of these adjustments; they are perfectly natural to the situation, which the child has learned from a hundred sources, none of which enter the child's mind when picking voices or words for the soldiers to use.  The child employs the age difference between the two soldiers automatically; uses the nomenclature easily; and in turn, empathizes with BOTH characters, neither of which represent the child's point of view here.  In the child's imagination, there are three persons at play; after all, if asked, the child would certainly deny he or she was either soldier.

Evidence supports the idea that children learn perspectives through play outside of themselves, and that this gives them a better sense of what other people think when speaking to them later in life.  Your social intelligence, in other words, is directly related to both these ideas: that you practiced doing things that adults do, and that you also practiced thinking in the way that other adults think.

These processes acquire an understanding of conceptual relationships — the same sort that take place in any human activity, though of course we're going to talk about role-playing games.  Our ability to DM depends greatly on what DMs we've watched and are able to learn from, just as children learn how to "cook" or "play doctor."  If Matt Mercer is the entirety of our visual observation, we'll emulate his facial expressions, his voice acting, his hand gestures, whatever it is that makes us feel we're being a DM just like Matt Mercer.  Children most often do not grow up with one version of a mother or father; they see them in their friend's houses, they see them on TV, they see them at the supermarket and so on.  With role-playing games, I was lucky enough to witness half a dozen DMs in my first two years of play; and at least two score by the time I reached my ten-year mark.  Moreover, I was lucky enough to find DMs of different ages, sexes and cultural origins, so that I had different outlooks and styles to observe while finding my own style.  At first, that style was very reflective of others: if Asif, one DM I had, was cold and aloof while presenting one sort of situation, I would be likewise be cold and aloof.  If Shane was creepy and shady when describing a dungeon, I'd be creepy.  I learned to be zany, threatening, ponderous ... until like a child not thinking about the process, I fell into inventing voices and characterisations unconsiously while yet being appropriate to the situation.  I "pretended" to be a DM and then I was a DM, with no noticeable line between the two.

The more social situations available to the learner, the more opportunities there are to observe, replay and ultimately learn from the situations available.  In performing the structure of the game repeatedly, we also continuously reconstruct the game, like the endless reconstruction of conversations and situations that a child invents continuously for a period of years.  The child plays with toy soldiers, dolls, firetrucks and sandboxes not once or twice, but for hours a day, for multiple summers and after school, exploring different "disasters" the firetrucks can rush to, that the tiny firefighters can discuss and burn to death in, or different conflicts the dolls might argue through over empty cups of "tea," pursuing all the gossip that can be invented about Mrs. Nesbitt and Mr. Fairfax.

Both running and playing D&D, and role-playing games, is a practice of situated learning and apprenticeship.  The more time spent at the practice, the more reconstruction is done, the more learning is done from the reconstruction, the more the apprenticeship is advanced — even when we are apprenticing ourselves without the presence of a master beyond one we create in our imagination.  Consider the manner in which crafts are invented at all: one tailor teaches the next, but going back in time, who teaches the first tailor?  In the beginning, tailoring is all guesswork, as each generation learns more about how to make cloth, how to cut it, how to sew it and shape it, etcetera.  There is no "right way," but there is always a better way, found through methodical experimentation with a view towards the trajectory before every innovator.  The basic idea is that practice reveals ideas, which motivate, which inspire more practice, creating further ideas, so that we construct our own pathway of complex learning ... even about things that no one really knows anything about.

This expands the proposal I made with the last post in the metaphorical two words, "digging deeper."  We're not really digging, we're not really exploring, we're not really on the edge of something physical ... yet these visualisations help us understand how manufacturing something entirely from our imagination enables us to create concrete, physical products and remembered social events that are held and remembered, thus altering the present and the future as well.

All the magical, mystical, hard to grasp manifestations of human conquest begins with the simple act of picking up a block, calling it a "pan," putting it on top of a larger block we call a "stove," and then proceeding forth from that point.  Do not disparage "pretending."  It is how everything gets made.

Wednesday, August 4, 2021

Pretend Play

An easy search of the net will turn up many clever, labour saving items for D&D players.  There's no need to reach 5th level and be burdened with the trouble of choosing the "tiny hut" spell over some other ... a simple object, often for sale at the local market, solves that trouble for you.  And this is but one object; there are scores of others. 

Children's stories are filled with like things: instant boats and seven-league boots, wardrobes into other realms, turn-keys and what have you ... so the precedents are set.  These things have precedent and therefore a kind of legitimacy ... in children's stories.  But imagine for a moment that we're watching a film like Cast Away or Alive.  Tom Hanks shakes himself awake, looks around him at the deserted beach ... and then reaches for his belt, produces a magic boat and sails away.  The South American soccer team climbs out of the wrecked plane, pop a bunch of ready-made cabins into existence, complete with 200 ft. high radio transmitters, and all is well.  One sound reason that much of the world is sick to death of superhero films is that every problem is instantly solvable with magical tools, powers or what-not.  As popular as these films are, there's a certain, um, woodenness to the proceedings.  A futility, if you will.

There's a reason why I must reach back 20-25 years to find film that instant technology would certainly spoil.  A more recent film, like Gravity, relies upon the main characters lack of knowledge to impose a barrier between Ryan and self-rescue.  Ultimately, she's saved by the technology that waits for her to arrive and press buttons — which she's able to do because she's trained to do it.  Surpassing the hazard calls for some luck and remembering what to do ... with help from Matt at the beginning, who walks her through the first steps.  This is unlike Hank's character Chuck who has to keep himself alive for four years that he can do absolutely nothing about, while he waits for his circumstances to change.  Or how the characters Nando and Roberto must strike out absolutely blind into a frozen wilderness after no other choice is left.  They don't know what they're doing; they must experiment, because the way isn't clear; it isn't solved by anything except their will to keep on living.

We've moved away from such story lines these last two decades, for good reason.  We have more technology, considerably more.  Much of recent technology it is a wonderful thing.  Whereas the tech of the 20th century disunited people through institutionalisation, breaking up families and separating people thousands of miles apart, the present technology enables constant contact, amusement, easy rescue (for those who embrace this technology intelligently) and a sense of belonging.  To isolate Ryan in Gravity, the writer has to remove communications; and while the justification in film for this is logical, the go-to method of isolating individuals by removing our everyday technology, and all its back-ups, is a tired trope.  And so, to reflect our present reality, in which all the gadgetry around us makes us feel so much more superhuman than human, the mass of the population is drawn towards superhero plotlines.  It's natural that D&D players, living in the present and not the 14th century, and having the precedents they do, will flock to game technologies that transform them into Batman-in-the-D&D-gameworld, rather than making them suffer the real difficulties of explorers of the time like Marco Polo or Ibn Battuta.  I include a link for the latter because I expect most of my readers have never heard of the man; I learned about him in high school, in a school system where the accurate actions of people other than those in my home country were considered relevant for children.

We do not seek to play with a mind to conquering pre-industrial problems.  My game takes place in the 17th century ... a time with advanced mathematics, architecture, thought, comparative religious freedom, republicanism and free trade, very far advanced beyond the princesses-in-towers gameworld that Gygax conceived.  I have magic in my world, including foldable boats — but these things are incredibly rare and cannot be purchased over the counter at a bazaar that's supplied like a present-day supermarket.  There are no campfires with wooden seats — and I must ask, since it's magic, how come the wooden seats don't come with cushions?  How come they aren't plush chaise lounges, with side tables and bowls of grapes?  If we're poofing into existence one kind of furniture, why for heaven's sake can't it be something more comfortable?

Let us suppose that you and I, and our two friends, have been asked by the President of the United States early in 1803 to strike out into the new Louisiana Purchase territory to seek a most direct and practical water communication across the continent — a continent that our particular culture knows very little about.  Now, 1803 is vastly more advanced than my 1650 gameworld, and ludicrously more advanced than Gygax's concept ... but it doesn't have magic or instant-on technology of any kind.  So for the purposes of discussing how an adventure plays out for true, it is close enough for our purposes (and besides, I know that most of my readers have no understanding whatsoever of historical events that happened outside their country, not to mention a serious lack of them inside of their country as well).

Now, if this were 5th Edition D&D, with all the resources that system offers in the way of magic that can be purchased at Ye Olde Magic Shop, where we never run out of goods though no one ever sees the deliveries, and we had the money provided by the United States of America, we'd have to wonder how it could be possible that the whole continent hadn't been mapped from the air by flying magic users centuries before.  Seriously: the expedition makes no sense from a 5e perspective.  Life is soooooo easy in terms of provisions, magic and methodology that surely America would have been discovered a millennia ago and settled completely by the 11th century.  So let's not use 5e as a resource.

If we're talking 1st Edition AD&D, then everything we need is still sitting right on the shelves, waiting for us.  The boots, ropes, poles, wagons, whatever, will all be perfectly strong enough to last virtually forever, without our needing to change them a whit from what the common people already buy.  When Meriwether Lewis arrives near Pittsburgh landing, there's no need for him to have a keelboat built to specifications — which he did — the item is right there on the equipment list.  There's no need to be selective in our weapons, either: every weapon has the same name, the same utility, the same exact proportions, whether it's made in Austria, Brazil or China.  "Preparation" for the adventure is twenty minutes of players buying equipment, writing it down and quibbling over the price before setting off, sure that anything they need on the way will be found in a dungeon or something.  There are dungeons all over North America, after all, chock full of treasure, magic items, extra weapons and of course more food.  Food, by the way, is just "rations."  There's absolutely no need to be more specific.  Rations are perfectly good in any weather, over any length of time, wet or dry.  One day's rations are always enough for "one day," no matter what we might be doing, whether we're sitting on a warm, sultry riverbank or spiking ourselves to the side of a mountain-top.  The one rule we must constantly remind ourselves is unquestionably true: "simple makes the best gaming."  And oh my, are these things simple.

Now, we mustn't question any of this.  Lewis & Clarke's real expedition was a terribly boring, dull, long-lasting slog.  No one had any interest in it, no one cared the least about what they found, there were no exciting bits and we only remember it now because we're forced to read this awful monotonous prattle because it's written about in history books.  OUR expedition across America will be way, way more interesting, because none of it will be realistic or tediously life-threatening in any way, there will be literally hundreds of illogical monsters living in illogical habitats along the way to make sure we're totally inspired and when we've completed our journey, we certainly won't bore listeners with our account of how many things we killed, how many traps we found in dungeon rooms and how much treasure we hauled away.

Because D&D is the best game in the world ... so long as nothing in the world infringes on the fantasy of the sort of game we play.  We don't want to experience anything like L&C had to experience, what with learning how to make things and do stuff, while relying on others to help us survive, learning all the while.  Plus managing a lot of incredibly dull details that only detract from gameplay.  Ugh.  We want "adventure."  Especially if it has all the characteristics of other adventures we've already been on, where we can point an object at it and make it go away.


Normally, at this point I'd call it a post and hit "publish."  The relevant points have been included and for anyone willing to read between the lines and make the necessary connections, the relationships between point-and-click gaming, movies about physical trials and children's stories can be pieced together.  I've written hundreds of posts in this form.  I've had lots of practice.

Were I to describe a pervasive feeling about role-playing games in general, that feeling would be disillusionment.  The games were so good once upon a time; the adventures so interesting, the groups so enthusiastic, the sense of having control so appealing that it's hard to reconcile how lately, those elements aren't there.  Something has gone wrong with the game; or the community; or with DMing in general; or I just don't have the time to dedicate that I had once.  And for all those reasons, the feeling is also there that maybe, just possibly, it is time to quit D&D.

What is the game, anyway?  It's cool and all, with it's pocket campsites and such, but in retrospect of the things that are going on, like my job, my family, covid, the trouble the country is getting in ... sometimes D&D seems so, well, juvenile.  We are, after all, playing pretend.  This is a children's activity.  It's a safe setting for children to express their fears and desires, without the consequences that real situations create.

As children, we start to pretend between the ages of 18-24 months.  It happens almost at once.  Usually, the pretend begins with an object substitution: common ones are logs becoming boats and cars, or sticks becoming guns.  Starting after 3 years of age, pretending becomes increasingly interactive, where multiple children pretend together that they're playing house, acting out characters from literature or video, giving the doll they're playing with an active roll in the conversation by providing their lines.  This creates relationships between the child and their dolls or stuffed animals, even bestowing personalities on one soldier vs. another, such as depicting a soldier saying he doesn't want to fight while the sarjeant tells him everyone has to fight.  These interactions are copied from witnessing adults talk in real life and in stories.  Through pretending in this fashion, the child begins to "role-play," portraying identities and traits that they'd like to have, as well as providing alteranative traits to other children or inanimate objects.

These things are hard-baked into our learning processes.  Pretending to make a phone call without the need of a physical object; using a wooden block as a phone; pretending to be another person while making the phone call; pretending that we can teleport ourselves to another place and time by snapping our fingers; or inventing a name, personality, motivation and so on for a stuffed puppy ... these are all things we don't have to be taught.  We just do them.  In fact, if a child doesn't do these things, it's taken as a clear sign that something is medically wrong with the child — that's how universal this behaviour is.

The process includes our growing comprehension with gender roles, our place in the family, our relationships with friends and strangers ... everything, in fact, that makes us "us."  It is an interesting thing that this process has hardly stabilized prior to puberty, which tends to shatter all our preconceptions about how we might deal with the unknown hypothetically, in our imagination.  So it is worth noting that if you began role-playing games when you were 9, and you have memories of those games, you ceased to be the same person by the time you were 13.  By 15 and 17, our priorities are so completely different from what they were in childhood that it's not surprising how many children play D&D and like games for hardly two years before quitting.  Post-puberty, we're changing so fast in our outlooks that in comparatively few years, we jump from playing dress-up to performing Shakespeare in front of live audiences, including the whole school; or to slamming our bodies against those of strangers in attempts to win city-wide football competitions.  It's dazzling how fast goes that gap between 9 and 15 ... try to compare that with what we may have done in the six years before turning 35, 45 or 55.

In short, nothing you believed when you were very young and playing this game can be felt by the present you all these years later.  You weren't "you."  And you are a very different person, with astoundingly different problems, not to mention different needs where it comes to activities that thoroughly occupy your emotional and intellectual capabilities.  Daily, if you're older than 18, whether seeking an education or working at a job, you're handling details casually that would have terrified us at the age of 9 or 10.  No matter how hard you try, no matter how loud you shout, you cannot dumb yourself down enough to make a simple game matter as much as you need it to matter ... not if you'll go on pursuing an activity of make believe and pretend play.

For it to have any real value, you'll have to invest that play with a level of creativity and imagination that supercedes your daily life — that is the only real path to achieve escape, if escape is what you want.  Otherwise, however you drag yourself through the rituals of throwing dice, the simpler you make the experience the harder it will be to find it meaningful.  The harder it will be for you to care.  The harder it will be to continue the charade that you do care, when in fact you don't.

The disillusionment I see is nothing more complicated than watching people "grow up."  Growing up is  a good thing, obviously.  We need grown ups to make the world function.  But the play we indulge in has to grow up as well; and that means digging deeper into making play harder rather than easier.  It means putting the seven-league boots in the closet and getting immersed in deeper subjects, such as cartography, calculus, philosophy and dramatics.

And so now I'll call it a post and publish it.