Thursday, September 30, 2021

The Why, How and What

Why I started designing my game world as I do dates back to my very first efforts.  Unlike JB, I never had the least impression that AD&D was the "highest expression" ... it was the only expression worth paying any attention to.  I never saw it as "the game" ... but as the bare bones of an unfinished concept that hardly touched the vision of D&D that I imagined.  Like Gus L, I saw AD&D as "a mess" — but unlike him, I recognized that every branch of human knowledge looks like a tremendous mess when we start to learn about it.  There is no single narrative in history, medicine, chemistry, biology, education or anything else one cares to point at.  Any argument that starts with, "it's a mess" and ends with "therefore it's not worth pursuing" is an observation made by a fool.  Everything is a mess until we understand it.

I never thought D&D as written was much of a game.  I've believed from my first times playing it that the essence of what made it great came from what players were willing to venture.  I saw no reason why the only pursuits in the game should be dungeons and more stuff; obviously just becoming more powerful was a pointless will-o-wisp, since there was always something more powerful.  No, no, the genius was that there were things that players, with their imaginations, could choose to pursue ... and damn the DM and what was "planned."  My first efforts as DM were built around the notion that "my plans" were always disposable!  The greater game was in the players trying to do things.

Thus the development of house rules, so awfully simple in those early years, were meant to make the game more immersive, with developing narratives that focused on more important things than what's in the next room.  Players will immolate themselves for a game that gives them the opportunity to touch upon matters of great significance or that which is fundamental to our existence.  That is why there are maps, complicated rules about combat, trade and changes to the character classes; that is why so much of the focus of my game is on politics, religion and social behaviour ... because these things MATTER in the course of our lives; they touch us viscerally in ways that experience and treasure never can.  And mind you, I'm not talking about silly notions like "role-play" and "story," or even "problem solving."  I'm talking about the need to create a game world that incorporates the deep rooted issues that plague us as people — notions of right and wrong, what has real value, what is our purpose, etcetera and etcetera.  For the game world to be truly immersive, the players must be put into situations where there are no solutions to the problems they encounter; where the events plumb deeper than story; where the players are forced to contemplate the unfolding events as themselves, and not just in role-play.

These were not things I fully understood at a young age; but as I became educated in university, sitting down with brilliant minds and discussing the big picture; and as my own experience piled higher and higher ... I began to see in clearer phrases what I'd been grasping for.  The game of D&D as it was invented is a childish, puerile plodding repetition of simple-minded events.  But D&D doesn't need to be any more limited by its infancy as a old man is limited by his having once been born.  The constant need of most folks to hamstring the game and infantilise it is something I'd hoped once to wreck; but, nyet.  Still, the why of what I do is decades past what the game was originally meant to be.

The how is self-evident.  I write and I demonstrate the game as much as I can.  I provide examples of the game being played by real people in text.  I have a wiki that I rework and rebuild year after year, slowly but suredly adding new material.  I design maps, I design on products, I work on designing new ways of looking at the game and put those into charts that I intend to use for my own game.  I rethink and deconstruct everything.  I take nothing on face value.  I argue and teach and think.  I build up a litany of perspectives, make connections with real world disciplines and their influence on the game and research game design from its basic structures to its dizzying heights.  I educate myself constantly.  I work.

And unlike my critics, unlike those who chafe and balk at every word I say, I have the evidence of that work online, where anyone can read it and more importantly, USE IT.  People ask if they can steal some idea or scheme and I tell them, that's why it's online.  Anyone can see what I've done and what I'm doing, every day.

Whereas I have NO ONE I can turn to.  There are no blogs churning out constructive world designs, no wikis that do more than repeat the cheap knock-off material found on the WOTC's website, no innovative approaches, no perspectives on human knowledge's influence on D&D from professionals in their fields ... nope, nada, nothing.  I read a few people regularly because they have insight and intelligence, but these people NEVER offer anything concrete and useful.  No one, anywhere, can right now dredge up a url that will do more than repeat the same old hackneyed garbage that was perfectly viable 35 years ago ... and therefore has not progressed at all in 35 years!

I am alone here.  And every person who reads me, likes me, hates me, resents me, mocks me or otherwise acknowledges me knows it.  I know it too.  And I don't talk about it, because I know how that makes other people feel.

But I am alone because I earned it.  And I won't pretend otherwise.

None of this would mean a damn thing if it were not for the what.  D&D cannot be run on "why" or "how."  It has to be run on what.  What do the players see, what is the world like, what lives here, what does this thing do, what are these abilities, what's there to do?  My game world is a vast collection of whats.  Every what is a player choice, or a place to go, or a reason to act.  And until a DM begins to accumulate a sufficient number of whats, the game is a cheesy, pasteboard, pretentious smidge of what it might be.

Stories are not enough.  The world's knowledge and set of options are not made up of fictions, but of non-fictions.  Your family, your passions, your education, your decisions to travel, your intentions and aspirations, your limitations, your aptitudes, your failings, your resilience and willingness to keep heading on no matter how brutal and difficult life gets ... these are NOT fictions, they are non-fictions.  They are the facts of your existence.  Until the game world incorporates some of these characteristics that you have into a milieu that can draw upon and enhance these things, the game is as disposable as Monopoly.

Dungeons, Dragons and Fairy Princesses are delightful and all, but taken unto themselves without anything concrete to give them weight, they are fatuous.  They are playthings.  WE are not children.  Our souls are not satisfied by a child's playtoys.  We need more.  We need things dense and rich enough to properly fill our bellies.  The "what," therefore, has to be all the parts of the world that we reckon with consciously, with or without our leave, because we are not naive.  We are not blind.

D&D, like any art, has the potential to shrink these things to a manageable size, so that we can roll them around, contemplating them, considering them ... so that when we are ready to walk away from the table, we have a tool or two more to tackle these real issues in real life.

Those who want to hammer D&D into a flawed, insipid escapist fantasy are simply people who haven't yet learned how to live.  I pity them, but I haven't the wherewithal to condone them.

Wednesday, September 29, 2021


First, from Gus L on B/X Blackrazor's blog:

"AD&D is a mess.  The DMG is a mostly random set of poorly collated notes and sometimes conflicting mechanics.  The majority of AD&D's decent aspects are found in the first three LBBs. Sure the extra spells are nice but the combat is a broken mire of Gygax's obsessive maximalism and his strange ahistorical weapons obsessions (e.g. spears are bad because primitives used them, but every type of polearm must have a distinct statline). OD&D (The first 3 only - again Gygax ruins stuff with his weird house rules).  It's precisely because it's not a compleationist mess that OD&D functions -- yes it has voids, but voids are unavoidable, and at least OD&D has a solid simple base set of rules to help referee's fill them. AD&D requires at least as much work to function ..."

Then from Jomo Rising on my own blog.

"What would happen if these questions were on a post introduction page of the DMG? Would have been nice to read a useful examination of human attitudes in that tome."

Not going to deconstruct these comments.  Jomo's, from earlier today, made a connection in my head between the two; I'm going to talk about that.

We're very familiar with these.  The endless argument between this vs. that, expressed with great personal feeling but little hard evidence.  The proverbial sentiment that this or that thing should have be covered in the original books, and maybe will, someday.  These things speak of a kind of dependency: the need to associate ourselves with one thing versus another, the need to belong, to adopt a flag for a position with which we choose to identify, that gives us the emotional support of believing that while we are alone in running our independent games, we're still a member of a collective that we care about, that we feel passion for ... and that we feel duty-bound to defend, because what it says speaks for what we believe.

The idiocy of this is hard to see, even when the light is shining in our face.  To shake readers out of their groove, I'll link this bit from Mitchell and Webb, and write out most of the dialogue, as I think it applies here.

Colin: well, I'm going to let you off after what we did to you last week.

Ray:  I'm sorry?

Colin: I said, I'll forget that you're a Spurs fan after what we did to you.

Ray: What-what you did to me?  You didn't do anything to me.

Colin: We're a man down, you blew the penalty, but we wopped you in extra time.  That 90-second minute mate, oh you had it coming.

Ray: Perhaps you've mistaken me for a profession goalkeeper or something, but I wasn't actually on the pitch, you know.

Colin: We're gonna troll you in the lead ...

Ray: We?  WE?  You weren't on the pitch either.  As far as I know, you were in the back bar of the Red Line, watching the game on the television with your mother.

Colin: ... I'm telling you Ray, the way we're playing these days, we're gonna be unstoppable this season.

Ray:  For God's sake, shut up!

Colin: Twelve points ahead with a game in hand, you don't stand a chance.  We've got it in us to go all the way.

Ray:  Can I ask you a question, Colin?  Do you remember when we were chasing the Germans, and we were punched through the windscreen, but then we fell under that lorry ... but climbed back onto it and beat the driver up?

Colin: What?

Ray:  When we were chasing the Nazis.  They'd stolen the Ark of the Covenant and we were trying to get it back.

Colin: You've lost me.

Ray: In Raiders of the Lost Ark.  It's a film I like, so I've decided that myself and anyone else who likes it was in it.  Taking part.  Do you like Raiders of the Lost Ark?

Colin: Not particularly.

Ray: Oh, you're not one of us.  Right.  Well, at the end, we're tied to a stake stuck in the ground, and then you lot open up the Ark of the Covenant and the wrath of God melts your face!

Colin: No.  You can't do that.

Ray: Yes I can.  I really like that film, so I'm in it.

Colin: It's not the same.

Ray: It's exactly the same!  I've as much claim to be personally involved in Raiders of the Lost Ark as you've got to be in whatever it was your football team did last week.

Colin: You don't understand football.

Ray: Well, I'll admit, I don't quite follow how you, a man who lives over 200 miles away from the Home Ground of your chosen team and claims some deep attachment to a bunch of overpaid hired hands from all four corners of the globe, who temporarily wear the same coloured shirt as you're currently wearing.  But then, maybe I'm a bit slow.  It must be brain damage from all that boxing I did in Raging Bull.

People who had no part of creating individual versions of D&D, who weren't there, who have no ideas what decisions were made in the room, or what the agendas were, except in the words of singular individuals who "recall" what happened there, doing so with all the same "truthiness" of any person who's part of a group yet wants to sing their personal praises and importance to that group, or the importance of people they like ... these people who invest in all that nonetheless, unknowing, as a FLAG they carry into fight after fight of this version of D&D vs. that ... confound the shit out of me.  I, too, must have been hit too often in Rocky IV.  I am the Russian, after all.  Likewise, people who WISH, fervently, that more had been covered in the books, that more of this or that detail had been sorted out, who can't for the life of them figure out that perhaps adding that content WAS included, perhaps brilliantly, perhaps insipidly, but the battleground of publishing, editors, money-men and market research gutted it out of the final product.

In the end, why, WHY, give a shit?  Anchoring yourself to one system, no matter what the reason, when six or seven hundred mainstream systems have been built and marketed — and ten times, hell a hundred times that as a number of off-mainstream content — is a recipe for ignorant, stubborn, dissonant mulish stupidity.  Any soul who's run any version of D&D for more than a few years ought to recognize that EVERY system is trash, as written.  EVERY system is insufficient.  EVERY system sucks.  Why give a shit?  Why continue to fight and troll and quibble about one pile of fecular material over another.

Get rid of your goddamned flag.  Run the game of D&D.  A version of the game that you make, that you've rewritten, that works the way you think it ought to ... and steal from every other system that offers you something you can use.  What the hell are you fighting for, when you stick your head up hoping to sell your version over someone else's?  What the hell are you thinking anyone else is ever going to do for you?  Why don't you put all of that crap aside, stop identifying yourself by someone else's shit game, and start identifying yourself by YOUR game.

I run the Alexis D. Smolensk version of D&D.  It is a Frankenstein's assembly of parts that were never intended to function as a single body, and I don't care.  Nor do I care about your version of D&D, or your version, or the version of that dude over there.  I'm not waiting for some doofus working for some company paying minimum wage to tell me how to answer a question about what a DM ought to do, or how weapons in the game ought to work, or how important this or that part of the game ought to be.  I'm free.  I am a one-DM revolution.

And you're a fucking moron if you don't start thinking for yourself.

Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Revisiting the Kickstarter

I got a couple new supporters for the Kickstarter today.  Let me say thank you.  Both to the ones today and those who have already pledged.  I have some promises from others that I'm relying on.  I'm past two thirds now; there's 24 days to go.  Most tell me the first half's worth counting on, not the second half ... and I suppose that's true for some folks.  Me, I don't give a damn.  Seems to me people are always telling me what is and what isn't true, while most of the time being wrong.  I'm more sure today that I was last week that I'm going to get there.  Nor is that "positive thinking."  Hell, I don't believe thoughts make reality.  I believe in reaching out, communication, answering questions and doing all that I can to make things happen.

Just now, I'm thinking about taking the leap and setting the venture in motion.  That would mean having product in my hand before the kickstarter ends ... which seems less and less like a risk every day.

Meanwhile, I'm not beating the reader over the head every day, as I've seen many bloggers do.  From my perspective, its best that people remember why they support me.  By writing.

For now, I'll leave it here.  I'm struggling to keep this blog positive; yesterday's post was a brief expression of the bitterness I feel about current events.  Sometimes, I'm overwhelmed.  Feelin' a bit of that now.  If I write something this minute, it's going to be filled with resentment.

Best I let that go.

Monday, September 27, 2021


I'm watching the 2021 film Worth on Netflix, with a woman walking in front of a wall of people who have been lost:

There is no wall for covid deaths.

Saturday, September 25, 2021


Let's return to the discussion of dungeon masters and constraints.  To set up my position, I'm going to pose a list of situations that a DM might face; and in each case, understand that after the situation described, the question being asked is, "If you're the DM, what would you say and do?"

1.  A die is rolled and a player's character dies.  The player grumbles about the character's death, saying, "It's not fair."

2.  A player rolls a die in a critical situation and gets a result that's disasterous.  The player seizes the die, shouts "fuck!" and hurls the die at the game table.

3.  During the game's running, one player begins copying their old character sheet onto a fresh sheet; this results in having to take extra effort to gain the player's attention on multiple occasions, as the player's input is required for play.

4.  Over several sessions, one player makes a habit of questioning the boundary of rule after rule, clearly seeking ways to "get the most" out of the language used to describe each rule while apparently overlooking the rule's spirit or game purpose.

5.  One of the group's players makes a special effort to move away from the party, to investigate places or speak with NPCs separately from the others.

6.  One player wants to use his character to kill another player's character.

7.  One player acts contrary to the general party's wishes on the premise of, "My character wouldn't do that."

8.  At multiple opportunities, the character seizes on a word or phrase used by the dungeon master and inserts a reference from a film, TV or a meme as a joke.  The players usually laugh.

9.  A player brings his significant partner to a game session; he or she doesn't want to play, or watch, and instead spends the session sitting across the room interacting with their phone.

10.  While in the town square, the party encounters a large crowd waiting for the local Prince to address them from a balcony.  When the prince steps into view, one of the players wants to shoot a magic missile at him.

11.  An opportunity arises to "switch the rooms" so that the one the party chooses is essentially the one we want them to choose.

12.  After giving the party three of a certain kind of monster, they destroy all three without effort through terrifically lucky die rolls; there's an easy opportunity to have three more of the same monster arrive.

13.  With creepy regularity, a player's die rolls are absurdly lucky; there's no evidence whatsoever of cheating.

14.  A character repeatedly makes tactical decisions in combat that minimizes personal danger while fellow players find themselves bereft of someone watching their back.

15.  One or more players speak in excessively purple English.


I'm not going to give answers.  That sounds like an evasion, but I feel it would be redundant to do so.  We know the answers.  Even those who would take a cross-grained view on one or more of the above scenarios knows what the cross-grained view isn't ... because we were raised in schools with rules, and attended events and places that had rules, and watched media that pounded these rules on a drum.  We know perfectly well what we should say and the foundation of this society's code.

This doesn't mean we would obey that code, however.  Some won't obey it on principle.  Others who would cheerfully support someone else to sustain the code will shirk from doing it themselves, from lack of confidence or the memory of too many emotional cuts and bruises.  Others would argue for the code, except they don't know how; they don't know what words to use or how to defend the integrity they believe in.  Others feel they could, but do not, because they also believe it's not their place to be the social police.  Others pretend not to care, one way or another.

But all of them know what to say and do.

Before we credit anyone with integrity, we need to know two things: first, what convictions do they hold; and second, do they have the courage of their convictions?  Will they act upon what they believe.

In talking about constraints, I made the argument that a DM is expected to ensure the constraints of the game are observed, despite also being the individual who sets the game in motion.  I explained that this was theoretically possible because the DM had "nothing to gain" by the matters of the game falling one way or the other.  But of course, we know the DM has plenty to gain that has nothing whatsoever to do with the game played.  The DM gains status, title, authority, the entitlement of expecting to be heard, the power of life and death over the player characters, the thrill of dictating terms to other human beings who must accept those terms.  In terms of personal gratification, the DM "gets off" on being the DM.  The game is peripheral.

Is that the DM's role?  Is that aspect of the role something we factually support, or is it a "necessary evil" we can do nothing about and must tolerate.  Is the evil "necessary," however, or is it just a condition of having to play with certain persons whose character bends a certain way?  And while we're at it, is there a way to tell the DM's motive here?  Can we ascertain within reason that the DM isn't an egotist in it for the "brags," rather than someone whose motive is open-handed and concerned? 

Certainly there exists a tribal standard that both excuses and exalts DMs who are self-righteous social pariahs, running players like enhanced lab rats through their intricate dungeon mazes.  We ought to recognize that a considerable percentage of players — probably much more than half, perhaps as much as 9 in 10 — have never played a game with a selfless DM.  Which explains the constant gamesmanship I encounter with players who come from outside my immediate circle of friends and acquaintences, who approach the game with an attitude like, "If the DM's going to fuck me over with rules and judgments, then I'll get as much of my own back by pushing every inch I'm able to push."

Let me stop a moment and define "integrity" as a DM who calls the game's rules and outcome honestly; who addresses those questions at the start of this post as we know they ought to be addressed, without meanness and fault-finding, but also with directness and impartiality.

What does that look like?

To get a sense of that I want to deviate somewhat and speak about the habit of setting personal "win conditions" that are not, in fact, part of the game.  Any game, I mean, not just D&D.  My experience with these shows up most universally in the way I and others play certain video games.  For example, playing Don't Starve, my daughter avoids setting up a camp, preferring to remain constantly on the move and getting through each night by methods she's shown me.  When I play Oxygen Not Included, I like to treat chlorine as an extremely toxic, poisonous gas, which must never be allowed to float free in any part of the base, even in the tiniest amounts.  I waste all sorts of time chasing down one little bubble of the stuff.  In Two-Point Hospital, I refuse to use ghostbusters; I prefer the dead to haunt the place until they evaporate of their own accord.  In The Sims, I start with one person, get rid of all their money at the start and then play without their ever getting a job; they have to survive on what they can scavenge, or grow, or paint, or whatever the rules of that game calls for.

These win conditions don't change the presented game in any way.  The same constraints that were there before are still there.  The D&D example would be to refuse to buy armour, or to fight only with my fists ... though in most systems, that wouldn't play very well.  Take note: the goal is not to change the rules of the game.  For example, it would not mean giving experience for talking one's way past monsters instead of killing them.  There is no experience in the game, the original game, for talking.  This doesn't mean we can't talk our way around monsters, only that we don't invent "new rules" to account for new win conditions.  That's not how it works.

This last, however, describes most of the changes that have happened to the game.  People want to play differently, so they invent new rules, elminating the old constraints, to reward a new kind of play.  The new rules, however, are never as well thought out as the old rules, and in fact reward the players for LESS risk and LESS effort.  It's no problem to talk our way around a monster when the DM agrees that deserves a reward; all we need do is say what we think the DM wants to hear.  In other words, flatter.  Any half-wit can do that.

Maintaining the game's constraints as a DM means believing and supporting those constraints are right and valid.  It means the DM views the win conditions of the game and the constraints on that game as one and the same; they exist in lockstep.  The player's actions, the player's wants and needs — the player's decision to play the game differently — does not change the rules which contrive the game.  The rules do not bend to the players ... and they do not bend to the prejudices and tastes of the DM, either!  Both players and DM agree to bend themselves to operate within the constraints of the game ... the DM most of all, because the DM is there to compel others to bend exactly as the DM bends.

And here is the key.  DM's are not "cruise directors."  They are not umpires.  They are not judges or dictators.  The DM is the Game's Champion.  The one who puts aside personality and feeling, sentiment, personal belief, gain and all that additional crap found in tyrants.  The DM girds on a sword and goes to battle to defend the game, the actual existing body of rules, holding them as more important than self or any player at the table.  We sit down, we agree to play, we settle the rules between us, we agree that this or that will be the standard ... and then one individual acts as a crusader to defend that standard.

This is not what most DMs do.  At all.  They don't believe in the game.  They don't trust it.  They certainly don't live by it.

Friday, September 24, 2021



Grrrrrrrr ...

I want to write more about the "DM as innovation," but getting distracted by a comment, I feel I have to write this to clear my head.

Earlier I read this post at B/X Blackrazor ... which I'm not going to talk about now.  I only want to call out these words of JB describing basic games as "specifically written as beginning instruction manuals for new players."   Just that.  This is why they were written.

Then I want to quote this passage from page 6 of Mentzer's 1983 Players Manual:

"Aleena can’t find Bargle, and is starting to look worried. Suddenly, the sound of a spell comes from a far corner of the room! The cleric turns and runs in that direction, waving her mace and shouting. the black-robed magic-user appears in the same corner as the spell noise, with a glowing arrow floating in the air beside him. He points at Aleena; the arrow shoots out, and hits her! She wails and falls with a sigh, collapsing in the middle of the room. The glowing arrow disappears."

Yes, I grasp that this is an "example of play."  Yes, I understand the text above is super-imposed next to game rules.  I get the "cleverness."

As someone who did not learn to play the game from someone's text example, but from direct contact with other players and a DM for many months before reading through any complete book, I have a very different perspective on the "importance" of Mentzer's flavour text.  That is, it isn't important.  In fact it's a wrongdoing.

No one, absolutely no one is going to accept this, especially if they read the above words at a young age.  For most, the text makes D&D "come alive."  It translates just what player characters feel, helping new players comprehend what the dice represent, awakening their imaginations.  These are not just die rolls, they are moments of tremendous drama!  Etcetera.

No one, absolutely no child, needs to be taught this.  There are no examples of this kind in the rules for the Game of RISK, yet I'm quite sure every one of my readers has memories of soldiers freezing to death in Irkutsk or drowning between North Africa and Brazil.  All of my readers, I'm sure, have made the sounds of soldiers dying as little pieces of wood or plastic (depending on how old you are) were killed off in large numbers.  We have television, movies and books to teach us how drama works.  I'll remind you that D&D came into existence because the inventors of Chain Mail could not keep themselves from anthropomorphising little chits of cardboard.

What Mentzer's little play does is tell you what to think specifically, in the prejudiced framework of Mentzer's imagination — and NOT YOURS.  You were never given the chance to invent your own framework.  Mentzer jumped in and did it for you.  And today you think that's fine, because it's all nostalgia to you, and you've been programmed to think that's fine, you dumb, brainwashed prat.

Why should Aleena look worried?  Because women look worried when they can't find someone?  Why doesn't she get mad?  Why does the sound of the spell come "suddenly"?  Do spells get passed suddenly?  Or ought they to take time, like the rules of an earlier version of the game, AD&D, says they do?  Should the cleric run?  Is that the best action?  Did you even question that when you read it?  NO, you didn't, because this is the format of how a book is written, and in a book, when the characters do something, you take it for granted.

Only, THIS ISN'T A BOOK!  It's a game.  And it's not supposed to be teaching you how other people would play, it's supposed to be teaching you the rules so that you can figure out, like a blank slate, how YOU would play.  Would you "wail"?  Would you "fall with a sigh"?  Isn't that up to you, not Mentzer?

As an adult, you're completely convinced this has had no effect on your thinking process — except I can show you libraries full of psychology research that says yes, it does.  As a child, you had no frame of reference for this.  You couldn't decide if this was a legitimate way to teach this game or not; and as an adult, shoving this shit at your children, rather than just teaching them the rules without this shit, you think you're doing a good thing.  But then, at least they have you as a frame of reference.  In my day (and I'm a fucking ridiculous old man), we didn't have parents to give a frame of reference.  We didn't have a voice to ask, "She wails?  What gooey girlie sexist bullshit representation is this?  Don't girls grunt too?"

It's hard, I know, to comprehend how cultural and socialized signatures get shoved through this kind of thing.

"You pass through one empty room, and then find the bodies of the cleric and the goblin in the next.  But you see dark, quiet shapes in the darkness beyond: it's the ghouls!  Quickly, you put the cleric's body over your shoulder and run for your life."

By the time you get to this narrative on page 7, the rules descriptions have evaporated.  Mentzer is just writing fiction at this point, and bad fiction at that.  In any case, the above doesn't describe any parties I've ever fucking played with.  Run?  From ghouls?  Are you kidding me?  And what about the freakin' rules about picking up a cleric?  How much does the cleric weigh?  How much shit is he carrying.  Even at 16 someone playing would have asked this.  Does Mentzer take the time, obstensibly with this book "teaching" children how to play?  No.  He's too busy getting his time in the sun, soaking up all of page 7 with his novelist fantasies.

But it's okay.  He's telling you what to feel.  What to think.  What D&D is "all about" ... from the prejudiced point of view of one man who we don't fucking know from Adam in February 1983.

This is the sort of shit that makes me lose it.  Particularly as I realize that this is a sacred cow, beyond reproach, that no one's allowed to disparage, ever, for any reason, A-fucking-men.

I'll remember to genuflect after I press publish.

Tuesday, September 21, 2021


I've written about contraints before, but they're worth reviewing.  Constraints are arbitrary limitations created to make an activity more difficult that it would be ordinarily.  As an example, I like to use golf as an example.

If golf is described as getting the ball in your hand into the hole three hundred yards distant, the obvious solution is to walk three hundred yards and put the ball in the hole.  However, anyone can do this, so we invent constraints.  We say you have to put the ball on the ground at your feet and then use a stick to hit it into the hole.  Sticks evolve for this process, producing odd shapes that are, nonetheless, practical.  We make a constraint that the ball needs to be a certain size.  Golf is originally played along a grassy beach with pools of sand, so we make constraints about how the ball is hit in "sand traps."  The ball gets trapped, so we make constraints to describe under what circumstances it can be untrapped.  Thereafter, as elements of the game are invented, constraints are also invented.  Since golf is substantially a game between equals, the equals agree to observe a certain set of "official" constraints by unilateral agreement.  "Clubs" are formed that encourage members to adhere to these agreements.

Contraints form the game's functional design, e.g. the way the game is meant to be played.  The game's behaviour is the way it's actually played.  The constraints say you can't kick your ball out of the rough.  Observation shows that if you kick your ball out of the rough when no one is looking, and its new location can be reasonably explained, then it's okay to kick your ball.  Those who follow the constraints call the practice, "integrity."  But it must be noted that those who kick their ball also identify themselves as having "integrity."  The difference is that the second group is lying.  Usually, the second group believes that no one can tell.  The second group is almost always wrong.  Everyone knows.

Role-players are often snobs about their game being compared with "sports" (if that's what golf is) — but games theory makes no such distinction.  In fact, games theory makes no distinction between games and war, or games and business, or really anything human beings do where constraints are involved.  Civilisation is built on constraint.  You and I sit in a restaurant and we agree to observe the social constraint that we will not stab each other with steak knives.  Yes, of course it's illegal; but more than that, we probably agree that stabbing each other with knives for any reason ought to be illegal.  Not everyone feels that way, obviously.  Quite a lot of people, both in and out of prison, feel differently.  But we'll go out on a limb and say that YOU don't feel differently.

That constraint began as our pre-human ancestors began to gather in clans, some 60 million years ago (sorry, Mr. Bible, you didn't invent "don't kill people" — nice try though).  Turn against a member of the clan in this way and the clan will kill you, or ostracize you, which is a way of having nature do the killing.  This was policy when we were still animals, when we weren't even lemurs yet ... we can watch lemurs carry out this policy today just as their ancestors did back then.

Society is made up of thousands of these constraints, which together allow us to live together in relative peace.  We ask our human folk not to steal, not to sleep with our spouse, not to cheat at games, not to fling snot during meals, not to poop on the street and so on — all with the express understanding that we all have to live together and it's nice when the place is kept clean and civil ... thus, "civilisation."  As more and more people decide it's okay to kick the ball out of the civil rough, metaphorically speaking, these agreements start to break down, followed by what we call a "decline" of civilisation.  Historically speaking, this is a good thing to avoid.  But we don't need to follow down that road further.

In most table-top games, there is a turn-feature that makes it practical for individuals to maintain the constraints put in place, through policing adjacent humans.  Golf is a difficult game to police, because the human-per-square-foot ratio is scant.  Chess, by comparison, is much easier.  All the pieces are on the game board.  None are kept in uncertainly defined piles, like in Monopoly, or in easily manipulatable, overturned thin cards, like with Poker.  Still, if someone wants to cheat at a game, there's a reasonable expectation that someone else will see the cheating and call it out.  Preferably without guns, but there you go, another argument for civilisation.

As games grow more complex, particularly as they increase the number of players, it becomes necessary to designate observers apart from the players to ensure the constraints are respected.  With respect to war and business, and politics also, even though we employ hundreds of thousands of observers, the task is still impossible.  We employ millions of observers, and give them actual policing authority, and still they don't manage the problem.

Baseball, a much less complicated game, can be played without an umpire.  When it became official, however, because there was money in it, the game started with one umpire.  This number has increased since.  This is how it goes when players won't respect constraints AND when it's desirable to establish standards for wins, losses and a host of statistics, which enables someone to compare a player from a recent era with an ancient one.  Not that I think this really works, but it's very important to baseball fans to believe it works, and so every effort is made to ensure that it does, as close as human observation allows.

The true innovation in D&D, the first role-playing game, is the invention of "dungeon master" — a participant who both sets the game in motion AND ensures the constraints of the game are observed.  This is sort of like the pitcher throwing the ball and then teleporting to stand behind the catcher, to call the ball — and assuring the call is accurate by the revolutionary idea that the DM has nothing to gain by calling the ball wrong.  This is meant to put a constraint upon the DM, asserting that the DM must be impartial.  Unlike a baseball umpire, the players can, if they feel the DM lacks integrity — that is, the DM keeps kicking the ball out of the rough — remove the DM from play, ostracize the DM and establish a new DM.


Unfortunately, the teleportation trick is so difficult to master, so impossibly complicated to learn, and so inconvenient a learning curve for those willing to try, that DMs are often empowered to kick balls wherever they goddamn please, in full view of the players, who must accept the total lack of integrity because if they want to play, they cannot access another DM.  So, in fact, while the function of the DM is crystal clear, the behaviour of the DM is a bloody disaster.

Most of the time.

Therefore, the solution for how to ensure the longevity of D&D, or any other role-playing game, is perfectly clear:

1)  Encourage every participant around your gaming table to attempt DMing, even if this means initially simplifying the game to the level of 1974's Chain Mail.

2)  Give them sufficient practice to get better.

3)  Instead of using computers to simulate DMs, so that users can play, create simulations of players, so that users can DM.

Do these three things and D&D will never die.

Monday, September 20, 2021

Shooting Myself in the Head

Looking at the Kickstarter, which is ongoing, I am, um ... worried.  Good, strong start, and if I'd asked for $1,300 I'd be home now.  It's possible some don't know that if I don't make the $3,000 that's asked for, I get nothing.  I'm sure most know that.

Now, there are some who perhaps hope that I get nothing.  And perhaps the pool of people who support me is a small number, too small for this to work.  I accept that.  But if I can't get an ask this small off the ground, then I find myself re-evaluating this whole thing.  Not just the menu, but all of it.

I've banked on the menu being the lynchpin for a host of plans to follow.  Without backing, I'm very concerned with going forward ... since who knows what the market would be.  If it weren't for Covid, and I could arrange to attend some game cons, I think I could pull through even if the capital were tight; but I've run the numbers and without this support, I'd be crazy to go ahead.  I'd be risking more than my online presence and reputation.

I'm going to suggest something that is a risk.  A great many of my readers already support me through Patreon.  Right now, that support would be better placed on my kickstarter than on my Patreon.  Therefore I'm asking ... and damn, this could be burning down my future ... that you stop supporting me on Patreon and put that money towards my kickstarter.

In fact, I'm asking that you find the will to give me two months support that you would normally give me on Patreon, through Kickstarter.  In the meantime, I'll ask you to reduce your Patreon support to $1, keeping your account alive.  I will not change your status if you do.  Then, on December 1st, if you would kindly renew your support on Patreon, I should have reached my goal on Kickstarter safely.

That's the plan.  Of course, the plan could have dire consequences, but I'll cross that bridge when I come to it.  If my Patreon dries up permanently, well ... I'll certainly have some thinking to do about that.  Right now, the Kickstarter is the focus.

Thank you for your cooperation.

Sunday, September 19, 2021

Focusing on the Process

So ...

Addressing the primer that's called for, that we'll write without pathos, including all the bits, how in blazes do we "focus on the process"?  What in creation is that, assuming whatever we suggest has a snowball's chance in hell of being agreed upon.  Putting it in terms of how hard this would be, how do we prove that someone fucked the Virgin Mary?

Me, I take that on faith.

Look.  Forget the hokum about D&D being a game of adventure, action, fantasy, magic, character, story or even role-playing.  These things get incorporated into the way we play, but none of them are strictly necessary in the game's play.  We do not need to run an "adventure"; any series of events will do.  Action need not occur.  We can easily throw out the fantasy and the magic and set the thing on a 14th century farm.  The "character sheets" are a set of statistics ... play doesn't require these things be augmented by a personality.  Whatever series of events we want can occur; in play, they may produce a history, but there's no reason to think they will make a "story."  The last ten days of my life haven't.  And finally, describing the physical actions of a fictional stick figure, while rolling dice to determine success at attempts being made, does not constitute "role-playing."

We incorporate these things as part of our behaviour ... but these things are not structurally part of the game.  It is folly to argue that we should adjust the game to suit our behaviour, when in fact we have adjusted our behaviour to suit the game.  It's the failure to understand the nature of this cause and effect that keeps us going round and round.  Without knowing what causes what, and what results from what, we're hopelessly unable to start an a priori position on anything.  It's all posteriori with us, which is to say, straight out of our ass.

Which is why I keep going back to game theory, wresting my focus back to basics, not just in relation to one game or one human activity, but in how D&D relates to all games, all human activity.  There I find that D&D is a simultaneous game with elements of turn-based strategy; a game built around imperfect information, and extensive form game with infinite action space.  It is many other things besides, but we don't need to go into all that.  The point I'm making here is that D&D is an absurdly, incomprehensibly complicated game ... which is why, the first thing that most players want to do with it, is get rid of the complexity and reduce it to a measure their brains can handle.

The complexity is why a "beginner primer" for D&D is a terrifically STUPID idea.  I've been asked repeatedly to write one and I've repeatedly refused.  It's flagrantly impossible to explain in words how a player has an infinite number of possible actions from which to choose at a given moment, especially when the perameters of the given moment change fluidly as multiple humans engage emotionally, existentially, triggered by the trajectory of their thoughts, their play and whatever they've witnessed on the fly.

The only rational means of learning D&D well is through demonstration ... throw the baby in, hope it swims.  It's how I learned.  I recognize it's not how most people learned — though in the beginning, it was.  I understand that a great many people learned through obtaining the books and then trying to understand the material, cold, without the benefit of demonstration.  Many received their education in groups that played puerile or stripped down versions of the game.  More learned from workshops that were more interested in finding children something to do than caring at all about the game's quality.  A vast number today are learning through Adventurer's League, or through copying the babblings of Critical Role and other Youtube products.  Of course this is a ghastly mess.  If you happen to be someone whose initial introduction to the game included half the bullshit encountered online, your chances of pulling out of that tailspin are commensurate with your chances of finding a normal life after being raised by religious fanatics.  I wish you luck.  But understand, I'm not the one that fucked you up.

Of course, a great many don't believe they're "fucked up."  They believe they're "doing their thing" — which is fine.  I can't do anything about it.  It's fairly obvious, however, that when they attempt to write anything about the game, or how it's played, or what purpose it serves, they universally descend into sentimentalism, nostalgia, egoism and multiple paragraphs of "filler words" like fun and story, which are never defined but are dogmatically absolutist.

If we cannot describe what we do better than this, then we don't deserve respect.

I don't worry about persons in my direct orbit — those I play with — because I know they're going to play a game I'm familiar with, on the level I like to play.  And with regards to "what is D&D?" or "Are people forgetting how to play?", I never need to worry.  D&D will exist, as it is, at least until the day of my death ... and since I have zero reliance on the wherewithal of others to produce the materials I need to play and expand my campaign, then every other DM in the world can die of a terrible disease and I'll still be here, playing, building, advancing my ideal of the game.  Teaching it nose-to-nose to other people.  Doing the good work.  Hammering the hammer, ringing the bell, singing the song.

Go ahead, try and write your primer if you want.  Write it any way you want.  It might make you a buck; I don't doubt it.  But as something useful?  C'mon.

Still out of charity, I'll give you another clue.  D&D is about constraint.  It is all constraint.

Now go write your book.

Saturday, September 18, 2021

All the Bits

"Play invites us to draw an overdue conclusion that the potential meaning and value of things, anything — relationships, the natural world, packaged goods — is in them, rather than in us.  Play is not a kind of self-expression, nor a pursuit of freedom.  It is a kind of creation, a kind of craftsmanship.  By adopting, inventing, constructing and reconfiguring the material and conceptual limits around us, we can fashion novelty from anything at all ... the task of the craftsman is not to generate the meaning, but rather to cultivate in himself the skill for discerning the meanings that are already there."
 — Ian Bogost, Play Anything

Going back to the decision most of us made when we played D&D of getting rid of paying attention to encumbrance and food, random events, the drudge of slogging through "bookkeeping play" at the table, we were taking a step that felt like improving the game's running.  We didn't see any value in these hum-drum details; they didn't feel purposeful or interesting, certainly not as much as plumbing a dungeon's depth, fighting off a horde of orcs or burning down the local tavern.

But while we thought we were making a good thing better, we were, in fact, robbing ourselves.  Mind you, the majority wouldn't think so.  But I shall try to explain.

When people imagine playing professional baseball, they picture making great plays, hitting home runs, winning games, the camaraderie of the team, meeting fans, being looked up to and obtaining immortality.  But these are the outward, visible parts of baseball.  Dreamers don't fantasize about the bruises and permanent physical damage.  They forget that even good players fail seven out of ten times.  They don't imagine themselves making errors or about the crippling stress of enduring a slump, not knowing if the ride's going to end or reach into one more season.  They don't hear the hate in their daydreams.  They don't understand that playing professional baseball is about a lot more than glitz; and they don't see that a professional ball player obtains a character through the hard time that compliments and strengthens what they are in the good times.  Hardship and difficulty give meaning to things; or, to address it as Bogost does, within the hardship we find the meaning that gives us the strength and mindset to become truly great, in ways that mere accomplishment never can.

Those are strange words for some: "mere accomplishment."  We tend to perceive accomplishment as the end-all; but accomplishment is fleeting.  Wellington lived 21 years after defeating Napoleon.  Amundsen lived 13 years after obtaining the South Pole.  Einstein lived 50 years after his first four groundbreaking papers.  And while these men accomplished many, many other things in those remarkable lives, they themselves had to invest themselves in more than what they had accomplished, or what they might.  We cannot pat ourselves on the back year after year.  There are deeper, more resounding things that feed our souls than what we've done.  Those who cannot find that meaning, like Presley and Monroe and Jackson, tear themselves to shreds.  Accomplishment alone is a horrorscape.

When we cut out the "boring bits" from our campaigns, we seek to compress time so the game includes only the parts we really want to play.  We have only a few hours on a Saturday to play the game, and so it follows that we shouldn't waste those hours.  However, by striving for the "good bits," we erase parts that would have been shared tests of resilience, innovation, catharsis and evaluation.  In short, the unpleasant, uncomfortable parts of life that bind groups together emotionally.

Imagine that, in our marriages and in raising our children, whenever we came to the difficult or unpleasant bits, we could just push a button and jump past those.  I'm not saying the button solves anything, only that it bypasses the emotional nuisance of having to experience other people's troubles and pains, in favour of only enjoying "the good bits."  Life might be less disagreeable, but it would also be empty; the partnerships and attachments we have would mean little or nothing, since we'd deliberately failed to share.  Inevitably, we'd start hitting the button more and more often as we enjoyed the trials of having to live with ourselves and others less and less tolerable.

Most resist the idea that figuring out encumbrance or calculating consumed food does anything to bring a party together.  These things are just boring.  There's no message or "craftsmanship" to be found ... only the irksome necessity of calculating numbers.  This perception involves a certain blindness, one that fails to recognize what we takeaway from a night's gaming.  We presume that the best bits, the truly memorable bits, involve those moments when we overcame the deadly monster or deposed the evil overlord.  It certainly seems that way initially, when we harken back to groups and games that have become only memories.  But I think if a moment is taken to realize the source of our emotion for those things, it's the time spent with our friends, not the time spent as player characters.  It's the eternal discussions about why we hated something that pulled us together as friends, moreso than the accomplishments.  The "good bits," in fact, included every bit of that time, even the bad bits we couldn't skip past ... because we were changed by every moment we had together.

On the other hand, if we keep removing the bits that seem bothersome, there's less and less that's left.  The game steadily loses its flavour as it's purged of every inconvenience ... until what's left seems vain and hollow.  Eventually, playing at all has a taint of futility.

This is very hard to see.  We don't want to remember the days we sat by our child's bed, worried to death about a 103 fever, or the day we watched in alarm as our little one rolled into the MRI scanner.  We don't want to remember those long screaming matches we had with our spouse, or those four days when one of us moved out of the house, threatening a divorce.  We want to believe it was all balloons and days at the beach.  What's very, very hard to understand is that value and meaning is found in the bad bits, not the good bits.  Love is understood and embraced in moments that are the worst things.

In the small, petty troubles that we include in games, we practice how to overcome the bigger problems of real life.  We learn that success is found in endurance, and in the acceptance of the unpleasant things.  We learn that by addressing those things with an understanding that they're not going away, we become inventive and practical, improving our outlook.  We grow into better human beings.  We find a certain joy in doing the dishes, buying the groceries, putting up the Christmas decorations, doing our taxes, lending a hand to a stranger, taking time to help out at the local church, and all of the things we must do regularly.  Some of us do these things with resentment, wishing for the moments when they can do what they want ... and some of us do them like its a craft we're learning to acquire.

It's a matter of outlook.

Friday, September 17, 2021

The Game Made By Incompetents

Shown here is the front page of Hasbro's rules for Monopoly.  Hasbro is incidentally the owner of the WOTC, and therefore of D&D.  The full rules run four pages, this being all that's necessary to explain and understand the game.

In the rules, you will NOT find a discussion of why people play, what immersive qualities the game offers, whether or not one should be a bastard, additional comments suggesting means by which individuals can surreptitiously rob the bank or recommendations that if you do not like the rules, you should just go ahead and change them.  We will also not find advice on how to get along better with other players, the personalities of players, what sort of people like the game, that monopoly is a game intended to teach you the evils of money or anything else pertaining to the mindset of the participants.

Those things are, absolutely a part of the game: but they have NO place of any kind in writing the rules of the game.  In writing the RULES of anything, one follows the advice of Aristotle:

The law is reason, free from pathos.

The Greek word, "πάθος" is often translated as "passion," but English has spectacularly warped the meaning of passion into something that's unremittingly positive and desperately necessary.  This was not Aristotle's intent.  Aristotle meant that the law was free of suffering, feeling, emotion, grief, sorrow, etcetera ... all things that the law causes, but which the law, in order to function effectively, must ignore.  Failure to ignore this principle by allowing pathos to intervene with reason brings about catastrophe and blood in the streets — as history lucidly demonstrates.  Yet we will always have those who believe, in their hearts, that everyone that encounters justice should approve of what's decided.  If they do not, they will say, then "justice" must, by their definition, be wrong.

Aristotle made the statement in answer to precisely such people.

A game follows the same principle.  The participants may have feelings of general sorts, but because the game is a social activity, the rules of the game MUST function without mercy or sympathy.  It does not matter if you personally like the results!  You have chosen to play the game.

Adjusting the game's rules, whether it's done in game or premeditatively, is an acceptable practice, just as changing the law.  Most games through history are the result of a "shaking out period" in which the rules of the game are adapted from problems that arise during play.  Altering D&D so that it is less focused on resource management and more focused on interactivity or dungeoneering does not in itself break with the precedent that everyone is equally subject to the rules, which are equally dispassionate towards all.

Some will think now that I'll go next down the rabbit-hole of how the game's been diluted past being a game, but truly the Gentle Reader could write this post for me.  I choose instead to reflect upon the decision by the makers of D&D to invest their original creation with excessive, destructive and mostly useless personal observation ... useless in terms of game play.  I am well aware of the reader's likely worship of these persons, and how dearly more such pithy, personal interjections on the game's value and purpose are fervently wished for.  Many readers imagine that if more phrases and words direct from the inventors' mouths were available, somehow we'd understand better how we're supposed to play.

This is idiocy of the first order.

One reason that pathos is a disastrous means of building a functional interpersonal framework is that the more we say, the greater the opportunity for random phrases and thoughts that smash any hope of continuity.  Gygax wrote mountains of material — none of it with the least comprehension that it would be picked apart forty years after the fact by internet content makers.  Let me take a example:  the other night, deciding after a comment I made on JB's blog about the Dragon Magazine, I selected a random issue, no. 22, and went looking for letters to the editor.  Instead I found an article written by Gygax on page 29, presciently titled, "Dungeons & Dragons, What it Is and Where it is Going."  Given JB's theme of late, I found this rather serendipitous.

Late in the article, on page 30, after chattering away about things that Gygax and crew are doing, he writes,

"Does this mean that D&D will be at a dead end when the last of AD&D® is published? Hardly! Modules and similar material will continue to be released so as to make the DM’s task easier and his or her campaign better.  Quite frankly, the appeal of D&D rests principally upon the broad shoulders of the hard-working Dungeon Masters.  The rules never need improvement if the DM is doing a proper job, but of course he or she can do so only if the rules are sufficient to allow this. With refined rules and modular additions, all aspects of a long lived and exciting campaign will unquestionably be there for the DM to employ.  Will D&D dead end when its novelty dies?  That is impossible to answer.  It is my personal opinion that the game form is a classic which is of the same stamp as chess and MONOPOLY®; time will be the judge.  No doubt that there is a limit to the appeal of the game in any of its current forms.  If tens of millions play a relatively simple, social sort of a game such as MONOPOLY, it is a sure thing that a far more difficult game such as D&D will have a much more limited audience.  As the game cannot be simplified beyond a certain point, we look to another means of popularizing it."

Getting past Gygax as crystal ball gazer, whether or not you think he's right or wrong, do you feel enlightened?  Is your understanding of the game's future enhanced?  Do you see clearly what responsibilities you have to help the game along?  Of course not.  Gygax is doing no more there than tooting wind from his ass, like any politician or sales marketer, bent on filling a page with drivel that sounds good but says nothing he can be held accountable for.  And why shouldn't he?  The magazine's purpose was to sell advertising while massaging the reader's interest ... the article isn't a serious, deeply contemplated answer to the title questions.  It's an eyeball-grabbing title that encourages the reader to dive in, and at least feel like Gygax has his finger on the pulse of the industry.  Even if he doesn't actually say anything about the industry.  Hell, it's not like he thought anyone would be reading this 43 years later.

The problem with D&D from the beginning was that it never believed anything it's inventors said in an absolute sense.  No fixed, firm, concrete set of rules were ever put forth.  The makers admitted, frankly, that the game needed DMs to fill in the gaps, to fix what they couldn't do, or didn't think of ... even to the point of flat-out arguing they had no ultimate responsibility to do better, "if the DM is doing a proper job."  What a flatulent, ducking statement that is!  This is the inventor of the fucking game, and his best answer to the problem of making the DM's task easier is to argue that the game's appeal — HIS game's appeal — rests on the shoulders of total strangers pucking out money for HIS game.  What a spineless, negligent, candy-ass little coward he is, as he takes the gamer's money with one hand while callously dumping his responsibility upon others.  There's a fraudster for you ... dumps his load on you and then praises you for carrying it, while taking your money for the privilege.  And this is the man who got endless praise when he died.

The fuckedupedness of D&D has nothing to do with what the players did to get out from under rules they didn't enjoy, or couldn't make sense of, or didn't work well in game practice.  Never forget that the "broad shoulders" of those "hardworking DMs" more often than not belonged to children, 25-30 years younger than Gygax was when he wrote the words above (I was 26 years younger when he wrote this, starting to play D&D in the same year this article was published).  The phrasing clearly proves that he didn't know or he didn't care that his game was being dumped on such persons.  His take on the game was stuffed chock full of pathos while agonizingly lacking in reason ... and we are still the victims of his and his cronies' attitude regarding the game's inception.

Covering that up has been Job #1 for the D&Dites from the beginning, who were so grateful that the game came into being at all that any factual discussion of the clumsy, amateurish, rash, neglectful and predatory way the game came into being is utterly set aside so we can endlessly argue over the nuances of one early game issue vs. another.  Such pedantry firmly and blindly ignores the fuck-you practice of the makers, who were more concerned with going to print than with responsibly taking the necessary time to set up a functional game that had a chance of lasting as long as Monopoly.  Instead, we got an inconsistent mess.  Which high-sounding members of the community explain with handwaving gestures, while inventing creative endlessly positive excuses for early D&D constructive failures, like desert herdmen willingly swallowing an argument from a hobo that his mother never had sex.

All in all, it's a little sickening.

This is why yesterday, when I explained what a proper primer for D&D should sound like, I asked that personal sentiment be left out, concentrating upon that which can be practically described.  Because when we teach things we want people to learn, we scrub out the pathos.  We reason that they will think of their own pathos when the time comes; investing students with our prejudice is not teaching.



Thursday, September 16, 2021

So, You Want to Write a Primer

A "primer" is a small introductory book used to teach people who know little to nothing about a subject.  It's commonly limited to the first textbook for children learning to read, but often the word is co-opted to suggest that basic information will be given about a subject.  The thing to note is that a primer is used for interactive purposes, in a classroom.  The teacher gives the student the primer, asks for it to be read, and then elements of the primer are discussed in class.

When writing a primer on a given subject, focus on the process; do NOT make personal judgments.  Take time to explain the learning process and do not require the reader to be a polished expert once they've read the primer.  Teach the basic terms.  Sketch the general process from beginning to end.  Give common examples that challenge or deviate from the expected process.  Provide some information regarding how success in the activity is defined.

Now, let's discuss specific applications of this to D&D.

Take a minute and write down one or two basic assumptions you have about how people learn to play D&D.

What sort of people play D&D?  How much general basic education is required?  How old should a person be?  Are games for young people similar to those for older people?

What is the purpose of the game in terms of its process?  Avoid discussing personal accounts of what it means to them, specifically.

What roles do the participants fulfill?  What are each supposed to do in order for the game to be played?

What counts as "play"?  What counts as filling time between play?  Once play is defined, how does the tangible reward system for play work?  Avoid discussing things that do not have a physical presence.

Describe some of the places and events that are likely to take place in a D&D game.  Describe what purpose these things fulfill as regards the game.  Discuss strategies regarding how these things are played well.  Draft out some situations and give examples of play that would ordinarily be expected.

Divide the game into processes, ie., equipping the party, combat, role-playing with NPCs, character creation, tangible advancement and improvement.  Give outlines for each and then give assignments for the reader to "try," to see if the reader can perform the process described.

Explain how, then ask the reader to invent imaginary things related to the game, including those things already discussed.  Examples would be inventing a dungeon room, a dungeon map, and outdoor map, both a player and a non-player character, a game map, a strategy for four PCs to attack eight goblins, negotiating for information, searching an area, etc.  Suggest methods for how the reader could successfully approach these things without giving the player instructions on what to do exactly.

Define rules the reader should be familiar with, concentraing on those related to process.  Explain the game's etiquette.

Provide a general description of a fictional session, from beginning of the session to its end, using no more than 500 words.

Provide a general description of a five session campaign, with what events occurred in what sessions, using no more than 1,000 words.

Ask the reader to write out their own version what they think a session or a campaign of their own might be like.  Do not expect accuracy or express a judgment.  Identify misunderstandings and make notes for what to address in a classroom setting.

Define a rubric that gives the reader a comprehension of what equates as "good play" vs. "bad play."  Base this rubric upon a specific practical evaluation of the reader's ability to manage the game's process.  Exempt any rubric based upon the reader's enjoyment or personal view of the game.  These cannot be taught.

Encourage the reader to find companions to play with.

The D&D Castrati

Over at B/X Blackrazor, JB has his finger in the dike trying to deconstruct what the OSR claims are tenets of early D&D and what early D&D really is, supported by this subsequent post.  Frankly, I'd weigh in with a post of my own but, sigh, I can't say I give a fuck what D&D was 45 years ago.  There's far too much pretentious bullshit surrounding the question, such as this pile of horse pucky cleaned from a stable by one Adam Dickstein, writer of the blog, Barking Alien, who claims to have been playing RPGs for 44 years, but sounds like he has yet to crack a book.

Amidst the disparaging of various internet voices (we know how these things go), JB explains exactly why wading into this kind of discussion is a waste of our time:

"... I am more than a little fatigued by individuals who started playing D&D in the last 20 years telling me how and what "old school" D&D is ... or even just what ANY kind of D&D is. But you try to correct someone's ignorance and they just tell you to fuck off because, you know, it's just an opinion and you're telling them how their particular brand of fun is bad-wrong-dumb. Please let us NOT be preached to."

Well, yes.  To someone with 20 years experience, that seems like a long time.  To a high school student, 3 years of high school seems like a long time.  I'm sure that to anyone with 62 years of experience in D&D, I sound quite ignorant.  That's how it goes.  You can't explain to a millennial that when actors used to play a sex or a nationality or a race that was not their own, that was acting, not racism.  You can't explain to a Gen-Xer that when, after the sex act, if the sex partner LIKED what happened, then it wasn't rape, by definition, because no one involved thought so.  People with limited comprehension due to their limited time on the planet will be annoyingly ignorant of how ignorant they are, and there's nothing to be done about it.  Eventually, the world will hit them in the face often enough they'll get wise, so they can roll their eyes at people dumber still.

Far more interesting is the question JB asks: "have people forgotten how to play D&D?" ... and in relation to this a list of four "usual elements":  a group of players, peril, a responsible DM and a set of rules.  JB then spends two posts infering that these things are under siege ... while the comments section of both posts he's written (with a third to come) seems to support that yes, game culture is busy shattering our former conception of the game.

Uh huh.

Okay, agreed.  People out there aren't playing D&D the way we used to.  On this front, unquestionably, 5e was a literal gamechanger.  But then, not because it's all that different a game, but because the politics of "friendly gaming" were ruthlessly beaten into the heads of 7-12 year olds, the demographic the company decided to focus on in 2014 ... a demographic that's starting to graduate high school today.  This focus included drastically changing norms regarding social interactions between gamers at game cons and stores, on a draconian level, if you'll forgive the pun.  Anyone who disagreed with the policies of safe cards and game league conduct rules were — and are — ostracized according to the ancient Greek model.  Should we wonder that these children, just now entering young adulthood, should view the game very differently, especially when their authority model dictated that any and all negativity must be expunged from a game traditionally full of negativity?  

The present generation of new players have been warped by a meat grinder that viciously slams individualism unless it follows approved guidelines ... and we're well aware that those guidelines include that EVERYONE must be included and NO ONE should ever be hurt by the activity.  So much for rules, a DM's judgment or peril.  The only thing left is "group play" ... which is mediocritized to the kindergarten level of human communication.

The fish has been caught, gutted, speared and roasted until it looks nothing like a fish.  This was the company's agenda.

And you motherfuckers, with your shock and surprise and confusion, wondering what happened to the dear old game, and oh gosh it isn't like it used to be, argued tooth and nail with me for 12 years when I told you, repeatedly and at length, that it was happening.

"Oh no," you said.  "5e is just like the old game.  5e is rich and wonderful and filled with new things."

Yep.  Wonderful and new.  Arranged for singing high-C.

Well, it doesn't matter.  Because none of these "experience-not-play" participants will have the least influence over what the game is ten, twenty or fifty years from now.  They have no creditable knowledge to adapt, no intellectual principles upon which to expand, no sense of self-advancement that's been gained, no wisdom to share, no purpose to reveal and nothing of interest to say.  They are political creatures.  Expect them to gather together and form a clique of some kind that demands "Equal Respect among Other D&D Players" or some other such bullshit, like their other political peers raised in the same infantile political atmosphere.

They certainly have nothing to do with me or what I'm doing.

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

The Elephant

If the goal is distraction, then burning down the inn makes sense.  Killing the messenger bringing the quest makes sense.  Doing anything that gives a momentary sense of control, as an escape from the weekly routine, makes sense.  The game, then, isn't serious.  It's fun.  It's nonsense.  It's a relief.  In which case, the game is like an app ... it's not something that's being played, but something that's being used.  But if that's the reason for the game, then that's fair enough.

If the goal is performance, then the alignment rules make sense.  It makes sense to tell jokes and make snarky comments, it makes sense to pretend to be something we're not.  It makes sense to outdo and outshine the other players, and talk in exhorbitant purplish dialogue.  The actions carried out are a venue for demonstrating one's perspicacity and emotional range.  For game sessions of this kind, simplification is ideal, because the performance covers over the drudgery of gameplay.  The play itself is abstracted and the game time it takes up is only as much as is needed.

If the goal is exploration and discovery, then modules make sense.  It makes sense to have a linear set of highly structured set pieces for the players to come upon, one by one, in order.  It makes sense to run short, small fights that don't hold up the process of what comes next for too long a period.  The players can hear descriptions of the next thing, each with its own glaze of novelty.  There's no need for any continuity or "big picture," so again simplicity is a feature, since what matters is that we keep moving forward, not that any of it makes sense.  And if the DM is put on the spot to provide these fresh, original rooms en masse, with the concommitant souvenirs they require that remind the players of their accomplishments, then modules are a necessity, since no one can be expected to churn out such localities, at the pace they need to be turned out, on their own.

If the goal is problem solving, then puzzles and mysteries make sense.  It makes sense to play up the "weirdness" and semi-magical astonishment of the puzzles, since otherwise they'd be no better than word jumbles and ciphers.  In deciphering the clues, the players are plunged into matters that appear to have no definite answer ... but the answer's not really the point.  The point is that the players feel immersed in the dynamics of the game, the discussion with the other players, using the brain sweat of forcing an innovation to come forward.  And if the players find the solution, they feel smart, and if they don't and it has to be given to them, they can marvel at the cleverness of the puzzle.  In such games, dice really aren't a thing, because dice are dead and lifeless, and therefore useless to solving things.

The perception that D&D possesses any of these as its goal has merit.  It's plain as day that distraction, performance, exploration and discovery, and problem solving, all have their part to play — and depending on which is given the greatest influence on play determines the sort of arguments the DM and players will make about what sort of game it should be, and what matters.  Therefore, any dialogue had between players will be marred by preconceptions set up by these four identifications ... and other less common identities besides, because I don't believe I've listed all the possible pertubations of how the game might be viewed.

If I take up a discussion of dice with a participant focused on performance or problem solving, my arguments will fall and deaf ears.  The same discussion might make some sense with those seeking destraction, but what they get out of dice will differ far and away from what I think dice are for.  As with the perspective of a player seeking discovery.  While these elements are not inconsistent from one another — a single campaign can easily include all four — the emphasis on each tends towards exclusion as its special importance crosses an eventual threshold of exclusion.

I'm reminded of the parable of the blind men and the elephant, which some readers will have leapt to on account of the post's title, while others have no idea what I'm talking about.  So, with apologies, I must repeat the parable to ensure we're together.

A group of blind men have never heard of an elephant.  With their first encounter, each reaches out to touch the creature, to learn its shape.  The first touches the trunk and says, "Aha, an elephant is like a snake."  The second touches the leg and says, "No, the elephant is like a pillar."  The third reaches up and touches the elephant's ear and says, "No, it is like a fan."  The fourth, standing by the elephant's side, says, "You're all wrong, an elephant is like a wall."  A fifth, touching the tale, pronouces that the elephant is "like a rope."  And the last, holding onto to the tusk, explains that the elephant is like a spear.

The tale is Indian in origin, and stealing from Wikipedia and the Rigveda, "Reality is one, though wise men speak of it variously."  We continuously take an extremely complicated game, D&D, unquestionably the most complicated in human history, and present cases for what the dice do, or how characters should be run, or the value of problem solving, and a hundred other features, and boil them down to positive-negativist arguments that make no sense.  Then we make dogma from these, such as "role-play not roll play," and pretend we've said something pithy and factual, when in fact we've demonstrated spectacularly what a bunch of ignorant blind folk we are.

Any single argument I've made on this blog is a waste if the other arguments that are also made are dismissed in the reader's mind.  I am not describing an elephant's leg.  I'm reminding the reader to stop speaking of D&D, or any role-playing game, variously — that is to say, characterised by its features.  If another metaphor is needed, then understand that the different parts of D&D are not labeled beetles stabbed with pins.  Every element and feature of D&D reflects upon every other feature ... and the process of elevating any one part only ensures that the game as potential is not being played.  You haven't the elephant if all you feel is its trunk.

Because it so happens the menu is the example at the moment, some might presuppose that I've created a quaint little doo-dad that's all pretty and stuff, but surely has nothing more to offer than a bit of novelty.  Au contraire, I argue.  If this is your thought, you have nothing more than the elephant's tail in your hand.

Let's take this example I posted months ago:

A restaurant is not merely food on a plate.  It is the culmination of human effort and knowledge, stretching back through a thousand generations of invention and risk.  What is it that makes these items rise to the fore and remain there for centuries as familiar, tasty fare?  Do you suppose these things are arbitrary?  Could you not sit down this moment to a fattened trout or a forequarter of lamb?  Such meals are familiar because the human pallet appreciates them, expands consciously upon them, grants them memory and substance in the imagination because we've had them.

And if you did sit down to such a meal, surely you'd recognize the trout and lamb came from somewhere; and that this somewhere is a part of the world that you can visit, touch and feel.  That, like with mustard farms, there are matters of import associated with their recovery, well-being and transport.  The very fact of these meals in the game world lends greater credence to the game world itself, manifesting itself as something that matters ... so that there is more here in the human soul than a mere list of foods.

Like anything else I've done, or written, or set as a standard for running a game, this menu has it's small place in that world's construction.  And like this blog, the goal of creating it is not just to provide substance for my world, but to provide a larger scheme of thoughts for others.  No one here doubts, do they, that I'm a teacher?  Well, I'd like more students.  I'd like to shake the game world up, by demonstrating what's possible, beyond more modules and puzzles.  Beyond the arguments that D&D ought to be simplified.  Beyond dice.  Beyond the discovery of rooms.  Beyond two-dimensions perceptions of game parts as fetishes.

The uninitiated, those who have never heard of me, picking up and holding this menu in their hands, will have their perception of the game world blown ... because the menu does not merely describe the game world, it IS the game world.  A part of it, that can be held physically in one's hands.

What other unsuspected physical objects, apart from the obvious weapons and armour, lay out there waiting to be invented?  What undisturbed imaginations might be stirred by the presence of this unique item in their hands?  I don't know.

I want to know.  I want to make it available to a great many more people than have perused my blog or understand my gaming philosophy.  For that, I need help.  A little help.  I've already had some.  I still need a little more.  So take a moment, shake $20 or more from your wallets, and let's do something that gives sight to the blind.  Let's wake some people up.  Let's expand this game.  Great things being with one little nail in a single horseshoe.  I've made the nail.

Help me get it into the hands of others.

Monday, September 13, 2021

Sure Loser

From today's Electoral

"The new Texas law that is going to force all the in-state abortion clinics to close is very unpopular nationally. A clear majority of people want to keep abortion safe and legal. By talking endlessly about women who were raped and then forced to bear their rapist's child, the Democrats have a talking point that could potentially overshadow Afghanistan and everything else and allow them to hold the House and Senate in 2022.

"However, a small group of activists don't like talking about abortions as something only women have. They want to include people who were assigned female at birth and who now identify as male but can still be raped, get pregnant, and want an abortion. So in their view, men can also get pregnant and need abortions. To their way of thinking, talking about the need for women to get abortions marginalizes the need for some men to get abortions as well."


I'm out.