Saturday, October 30, 2021

Driving Force

One aspect of a good life is the gladsome energy of multiple things capturing our attention from one moment to the next.  Having work to do that we enjoy, being a part of a family engaged in various activities, looking forward to something wonderful in the near future, remembering some delightful accomplishment in the recent past ... and making plans for something we might do someday, though we don't know when.  Amidst the maelstrom of activities, even accompanied by its due ingredient of stress, there's never a moment we can't lean back and think on five or ten things that please us.  Jimmy will be starting university in January; we had a really good time on the weekend going out with the boss, of all people!  Our better half is really getting on with the new vocation; the notes I was making for my next book are beginning to flow like water.  There's just something about "being busy" that offers a day-to-day rush ... especially when things are going well.

Of course, they don't always go well.  There are times we're ready to scream.  That we would like to get off this ride.  I don't want to minimize that; we've been there.  Some are there right now.  I don't include myself with them, not at this moment, but I've been there a lot the last five years.  So I know.

Point is, with all respect to Curly, a good life is never about "one thing."  There's so much to do, so much to talk about, so many other experiences to enjoy.  A slow, plodding life, where nothing changes, where every day is the same, with nothing new in it, is a hell.

With my last post, I promised a discussion of momentum.  By definition, "momentum" is the quality of motion of an object; the impetus and driving force gained by the development of a process or course of events.  Note, it says nothing about "moving faster."  Momentum is not about speed.  An object moving one inch a millennium has momentum.  Yes, true enough, we want the campaign's velocity to move something faster than that, but the subject here is "impetus" and "driving force."  How do we create those things?

The module-adventure addresses the question by providing a clear direction for the players to follow, indicating which is the next step among hundreds of actions to be taken, until the module's end is obtained.  However, the module takes place in a temporal void.  The characters have no past or future outside the module ... only a now.  This gives them nothing to contemplate regarding what they'll do after the module's finished, nor what consequences might arise in their future from what they did before they began this module.  This is akin to working a job without any memory of what we might have done before the shift began, and without a guess as to what we'll do after.  Presumedly, perhaps, we might look forward to another day of work ... but what takes place between the days of work, the days we spend right here at our desks, doesn't exist.

Sounds like hell.

Like the metaphor, the module-adventure promises that, when we're done this adventure, there will be another adventure to come.  Of course, we may not even be the same characters for the next adventure.  Begging the question, what matter is it if we die or not, right now?  What is there to mourn ... and what is there that we can possible gain, apart from distracting ourselves from other things we might be doing.

One tactic that attempts to circumvent the "void" that exists before the adventure starts is the encouragement of writing character backgrounds.  These are meant to provide the characters with nuance, giving the players something else to think about — for example, the performative qualities of "acting out" the character's background story in front of the other players.  Unfortunately, however, the backgrounds are necessarily sterile, since they are created disjuctively from the campaign — specifically, they lack consistency or mutuality with the DM's vision, or the vision of whomever wrote the module, or even more on point, with what is going on right now during the GAME.  As such, backgrounds are a tacked-on accessory, like a kitchen sink bolted to car's trunk, or a player showing up to play golf in a full clown suit.  Backgrounds don't actually interfere with play ... but they don't better the play either.  At best, they create an entirely separate game for the players to act upon within the "now" of the module-adventure.  And when this separate game is played, the module's momentum is necessarily put on hold — while we listen to the player act — until we can pick up the adventure again following the performance.

As an aside, the "solution" of module-adventures to the question of providing impetus has spawned strange meta-games that also have nothing to do with D&D and role-playing.  For example, the writing of one-page adventures for the purpose of winning contests in which the best written one-page adventure is commended.  The actual play of the module — except possibly by the judges, who are defacto biased — is NOT A FACTOR in determining the winner ... only the perceived, unproven playability of the module.  Dungeon mastering is not a writing exercise; it is a playing exercise.  But this actuality is lost in the praise granted to things that have won contests and not by virtue of what they have done to improve the quality of a D&D game.  What, we should ask, is the inherent benefit of limiting an adventure to one page?  We may as well ask what the inherent benefit would be in limiting a bowling night to three frames, a football game to a total of 12 downs maximum for either side ... or sex to a period of eight minutes.  Recognizing that it wouldn't be the sex itself that's experienced for that period of time, but a description of eight minutes of sex.

Prior to a D&D campaign, where none of the players have yet entered the game, the aforementioned void exists.  Likewise, to some extent, the lack of a future.  This is all the more reason why the first minutes of the game are critical for giving the players an impetus to play.  The easiest way is to provide the module-adventure; but as we've seen, this is a short-term solution that provides impetus but NOT driving force.  In physics, "driving force" is the force that puts an object in motion; colloquially speaking, however, driving force has come to mean someone or something that has the power to make things happen.  A player participating in a module-adventure is acted upon by the setting; we want settings that are acted upon by the player characters.  This means that while it's inherent upon the DM to get the campaign in motion, the goal is to build a perpetual momentum ... enabling them to adventure continuously without stops and starts, where everything that happens provokes more things that will happen in the future ... while simultaneously building a course of memories and moments of pride for the players to reflect upon amidst the actions they're taking at any given time.  In short, we want the players to "be busy" with their character's lives, enriched by all the things they have to think about.

One critical element of this ambition is dispensing with the as yet unmentioned flaw in the module-adventure.  To explain that, I need to briefly speak about Chekhov's Gun

"Chekhov's Gun is generally regarded as a brilliant principle for writing tight narrative. The Russian playwright Anton Chekhov wrote:

"If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired.

"He elaborates that if you don't plan to fire your firearm in a subsequent act, then it doesn't belong in your story, and you should remove it entirely.

"The widely accepted interpretation is that nothing should be present in your story unless it's serving some critical narrative purpose. Judicious application of Chekhov's Gun can rid your story of elements that aren't doing anything for you."

Dungeons & Dragons is NOT literature.  It's not a story designed for a reader; it's not intended to produce a theme or an object the audience needs to grasp.  It doesn't possess an "audience."  D&D is a game.  It's intended to be played by participants in a setting that in no way seeks to provide a model for behaviour or an ideology, belief or virtuous template.  Therefore, it's the antithesis of Chekhov and every form of narrative writing that exists ... particularly as it isn't being written, it isn't being invented by a single voice and there's no editor to decide which fair action in the game ought to be taken.  The guns can exist without being fired, the adventures can exist without being pursued.  There is no dramatic structure that need be recognized, no necessary fall, no certainty of resolution and no single point of climax.

Yet there are all these things in a pre-written module-adventure.  There have to be ... because the narrative is a finite piece of writing, where everything in it is assumed to have a purpose, even if it's to waste the players' time until the next part of the narrative is met.

With a momentum-rich infinite game, ten threads of possible action — ten Chekhov guns — can be invented and provided for the players in the first ten minutes, none of which ever need to go off for the game to function and move forward.  In the ten minutes after than, we can introduce ten more, and then ten more and ten more again.  The players can reach out and fire whatever gun pleases them; there is no right gun and no wrong one.  There are certainly no necessary guns.

However, once a gun has been chosen and fired, we're off to the races as far as DMing goes.  The direction and angle of the bullet, once put in motion, perpetuates a series of events that, once enacted, cannot be undone.  Every action has consequences and the consequences are final; but the consequences produce opportunities, littering guns everywhere for the players to take up as they will and evoke new, desired consequences according to their proclivity.

The tendency is to read the above and suppose that this shooting of guns and creation of consequences accords itself to ONE NARRATIVE.  It does not!  No more so than my writings here create consequences for my workplace activities, or the visits of my grandchild, or the next venture I choose to explore, or any of a hundred activities I might participate in over the next year.  My fist fight with you at a bar has a set of consequences, but these don't affect the discourse I have afterwards as I describe the events to my partner.  Her reaction is an entirely different set of consequences.

In the novel The Three Musketeers, D'Artagnan inadvertantly annoys and obtains a duel with three separate men in three separate instances, to be fought one after another.  Because it is a novel, the separate men naturally know each other, creating the humour of D'Artagnan happening to insult three men who are close friends and companions.

In D&D, the same result could happen, except because there is no novel, the three men need not know each other at all; there is no motivation to assure that our player character makes a single friend of the three challenged men; and the consequences to befall the character depends on how the character deals with the odd situation.  D'Artagnan, in short, is not required by a narrative to like musketeers, to want to be a musketeer or to refrain from killing musketeers.  Such matters are left entirely up to the player.  There is no writer to say different.

All this leaves us with the nagging difficulty of how to make guns of the Chekhov variety?  How, dear Alexis, do we create opportunities for the players to make choices upon?  And how, for the love of all that's decent, do we decide what the consequences are when a player does something?

25 or 30 thousand words and we've at last arrived at the crux of everything: "I want to be a DM; how do I know what to do?"


I'll try to answer that question.

I need a little more time to think about it.

Thursday, October 28, 2021


I left the last post promising to talk about complexity.  Just as we're astounded by great big things, we possess a similar awe towards intricate, mysterious things we don't fully understand.  Who hasn't kicked an ant hill so as to watch in wonder the ants scurrying around in what looks like panic?  As children, we explore this effect multiple times, making smaller or bigger dents with our foot in an effort to learn what's going on.  It looks cool; it looks utterly baffling to our young eyes.

The most interesting thing in the universe to my 13-month-old grandson is the cellphone.  He has no idea what it is or what it does, but everyone has one, familiar voices and unfamiliar noises come out of them, they play pictures and we, the adults in his life, appear to be utterly obsessed by them.  Since our phones are padded in leather and rubber, password protected and the floors carpeted, it's relatively safe to put one in his hands.  He can't do anything with it ... but once he has one, he absolutely does not want to let go.  If it's taken away from him, he cries in anger.  He understands perfectly how important these things are, and like a good primate he wants to take part.

It's a good trick if, as a DM, we can entice players to get this fascinated with some part of D&D.  It can be done.  It requires an intuitive understanding of what appeals to humans ... or, in designer terms, how an object obtains the behaviour we want from the user.  Cellphones, among many other things, are exhaustively designed to capture our attention in the worst way.  Yet this is part of a pattern going back thousands of years, which can be found in thousands upon thousands of little tricks and bits of aesthetic designed to inveigle people to get interested in what we want to sell, or build, or organize as a society.  Making early cars with cut glass and flower vases to hold roses; opening the door of a bakery to let the smell of bread waft down a street; building wooden roofs over the tops of towers to encourage watchmen to be more watchful; lamplighters making the streets feel safer at night; putting a crown on the pharoah's head; anything and everything to make something ordinary feel unordinary, and thus exceptional, attractive, envy-inducing and mouthwatering.

Judging by the literature, the best way of doing this in D&D is to have "a really good dungeon."  Expanded subclasses!  More character options!  New spells, artifacts!  Expanded rules options!  Puzzles!

Seriously ... 2020's Tasha's Cauldron of Everything advertises sincerely, in capital letters, "MAGIC TATTOOS."

Okay.  This isn't going to be a post bashing the WOTC.  But the reader's got to admit, game design in the subject field has gotten ... tired.  This is not the path to a better game.

A better game is built from giving the players things to think about during play that arise outside their natural focus on the setting and the rule system.  The setting is a vessel, it is not the substance of the game; while constant chafing against the rules by the player, with the DM allowing this chafing to go on and on and on, distracts from the game and prevents the experience.  These recent posts have been struggling to explain the vessel ... why it has to be so big and of such material and what the stopper is for and so on.  But acknowledged that very little has been said about the substance of the vessel except that it needs to build a certain degree of fear and excitement that will capture the players' imaginations.  This isn't enough, by far!  The game world is not a setting; it is not rules; it's a set of events with momentum and PURPOSE, presented in a manner that encourages the players to forget their chairs, their dice and their character sheets.  We can talk about "bumper cars" for months, but until we capture this fundamental of needing the player's ATTENTION, we're understanding nothing.

So ...

As much as I begrudge giving any concession to Critical Role, they've made one tiny leap in the right direction ... a direction that was plain as day in 1978 but which was lost amid really, really bad fiction writing in the Dragon magazine and the lack of video.  A direction that was plainly evident in the lasting footprint that emerged out of a terrible but very popular animated TV show between 1983 and '85.  It's called "role-playing."  Here's a sample from Critical Role [starting after 3:55:00]:

"She lifts the blade and throws it to the ground with all of her strength.  And {roaring} screams!  And falls to her knees and just crumbles.  She's shaking.  Her teeth are gritted.  You can see the tears and the mucus and spit all mixing, and she is just punching her fists into the ground, one after the other ... her eyes wide and tense with fury.  And just see the seething years of pain and anger, all coming to a head at once."

Ech.  Yeah, I know it's supposed to be so impressive, especially with Mercer just pushing so, so, so very very hard to shove the words out through his ovaries ... but.   Purple prose "is overly ornate prose text that disrupts the narrative flow by drawing undesirable attention to its own extravagant style of writing.  This diminishes the appreciation of the prose overall."

Role-playing is "a" path towards increasing the game's complexity ... but the over-reliance on role-playing to sell every part of the game is a trap.  When the DM's scheme for building attention begins with taking something small and making it bigger through role-play, the law of diminishing returns applies.  At first, a scream is enough to convey frustration and inner torment.  Then, it's falling to her knees afterwards.  And when that's not "strong" enough, she's shaking.  Soon enough, the DM's shaking as he delivers the lines, working harder and harder to make this bigger and better and more memorable and deeper and more profound and holy fucking god the earth splits and the dead rises and god's finger appears and ... and ... and ... and.

Role-playing is phenomenal.  It absolutely is.  But it's not putting on a performance for the fucking academy awards.  Mercer has to take it there because as a DM, he's got one option card and he's playing it for all it's worth.  He's got to make it bigger and bigger because the people he's selling are NOT PLAYING.  They're spectators, in their living rooms and bedrooms, watching actors play a game in which they are not personally invested.  This looks like it will work great, if it could be done in real time with real players ... but in fact, if you try it with people living in the real world, you're going to get laughed at.  Possibly — possibly — if you've got the players already immersed in your game, and you've really built it up, they might let you get away with it.  But chances are, you eat the scenery like this, you're gonna look like a fool, and they're not going to let you forget it.

Role-playing, like acting, works best when it's short, creative and unexpected.  Let's take a series of examples.  The players have just reached the edge of town as the sun is rising; wounded, weary and looking for rest.  They enter a tavern/inn and we describe it thusly:

a)  A fellow behind the bar asks what he can do for you.

b)  A fellow dressed as a bartender stands behind an oaken bar; he asks, "What happened?"

c)  A fellow dressed as a bartender sees the party, sees the party and rushes out from behind the bar.  "MAVIS!" he shouts over his shoulder.  "Fetch water and bandages!  We've got some hurt men here!"  Coming up to the party his face is awake with worry and concern:  "My god, my god!" he says.  "What's happened?  Who's done this terrible thing to you?"

d)  A fellow in an apron holds a steaming cup of coffee.  He coolly blows on it and says, "We don't serve your kind here."

Which do you go with?

"a" is short but it lacks all creativity.  "b" is better, but it's not especially creative.  "c" is creative all to hell, but it's cliched, a little anachronistic in a pre-20th century setting and it's definitely not short.  Hell, it's practically telling the party how to react.

"d" is creative and most of all, it's unexpected.  We naturally assume an inn is a refuge.  It's a slap in the face, provokes a confrontation and unlike "c," which gives the party a crutch and drains the scene of any fear of excitement, "d" is a threat.  Best of all, "d" is short.  There's no room for overacting.  There's a description and a phrase.  We get right to the point.

Of the three requirements, the weakness in role-playing is the belief that "creative" is the most important thing.  No, it isn't.  Short is.  If we go with "a," it's short.  The players don't care that we failed to be creative or unexpected, because we're already onto the next thing.  We speak, the players speak.  Big bang boom.  Momentum.  Anything long kills momentum ... and anything that kills momentum reminds the players they're in chairs with pencils in their hands in front of character sheets.  The players in Critical Role are "actors" ... they're paid to make big "o's" with their mouths and put on a show of being all impressed; but the audience is just waiting for the next thing to happen.

[in all honesty, it's the players' acting, and the dead air while it goes on, that makes Critical Role unwatchable for me.  It's like Gandalf saying something and then waiting 20 seconds for Frodo to reply; it makes me wonder why I'm not looking at porn or something]

Our fascination with ant hills and cell phones, the smell of new cars and the crowns of monarchs does not rise from the sensory elements of these things.  Yes, the ants are moving very fast and new cars smell pretty great, but there is a lot more going on there than what we see or smell.  The smell is proof positive of something we've just done, that's spectacularly difficult to process:  we've just spent $34,000 on a new car.  There are very few things in this world that most of us will ever spend more than $3,000 on.  When we do it, it doesn't feel real.  But that car smell ... that breaks through our confusion and our resistance to what's happened, making the moment substantial and genuine.  We realize we've just done something BIG.  It is not the smell.  When we sell it that way, arguing that the reason we buy a car is for the smell, we sound like morons.

Role-playing is the smell.  But it's not the thing we just did.  The thing we just did is whatever made us wounded, weary and looking for rest.  The confrontation of "d" is not interesting because the bartender's an asshole.  It's the deeper juxtaposition of doing what we just did, surviving, then having to come back to town and face this stupid bartender.  Leaving town to visit a dungeon is a culture shock, like leaving home to vacation elsewhere; coming home is, again, another culture shock.

And remember, as DM, we've been there the whole time.  We're a witness to everything the party's done.  We are proof positive that they did it; we even know better than they exactly what they've done.  Yet still we've got to find the wherewithal to push all that from our minds and interpret the bartender's point-of-view ... the perspective of someone who's never visited or seen a dungeon.

After a fashion, with the players aware that we're a witness, it's doubly insulting that we're not in awe of what they've done, that we have the temerity to minimize it in such a cold, slighting manner.  Even as the players answer the bartender, they're thinking in their minds, "Holy shit, Alexis can be such an asshole sometimes."

Exactly.  So we've got what the party did, what the party is doing now, what they're encountering from the setting, what they're thinking about the setting, and what they're thinking about me.  That's five layers of thought processes going on, at the same time.  Six if I interrupt the narrative to suggest that some kind of check has to be made to see if the most wounded player is about to take a turn for the worse before he or she gets treatment, rolling a die in the open as I bring up the matter.  Seven if I remind them about something else that was going on in town before they left for the dungeon, that they wanted to address when they got back.

Layer after layer digs the players deeper into the three points of momentum in play: what has happened; what is happening; and what might happen.  Get these going, and the player will become entangled in the narrative rather than what "characters" they're playing or whether or not they're "winning."  Those things fade into the background.

'Course, there are players who won't invest in the narrative.  Who insist on maintaining their constant, overarching indifference to what's happening or why it matters.  I wrote a post about those people, but let me reiterate:  D&D is not a financial venture.  It is not a better game if "everyone" gets to play.  Popularity with players is not a "feature."  Critical role needs it to be, because Critical Role is a media program.  But our games need only be popular with a very small number of people.  We don't need all our fingers to count them.

Still, I believe anyone with an open mind, who has time to play and feels they can trust the DM, can be lured away from the indifference of one-shot adventures that lack culture shock, levels of complexity and narrative, or long-term consequences for short-term actions.  I believe that by maintaining a firm level of discipline at the table, thus subverting those bent on derailing the game, coupled with a patient build of momentum layers, even die-hard genre-savvy players can be converted to this Other D&D.

It's only that very rarely do we get the chance to try.  It takes patience to convert a non-believer; it takes time and sacrifice from the other players as they wait for the non-believer to believe; it takes patience on the DM's part to make it happen without losing the non-believer's trust; and it is made worse by so much non-belief propaganda being out there in the zeitgeist, with which we cannot compete.  Still, had we the time, and the patience, and the wherewithal, and the bond of friendship, yes.  I believe anyone can be a believer.

With our next post, we'll talk more about momentum.

Sunday, October 24, 2021

Go Big

I collected some things from storage last month, things I haven't seen since my finances collapsed in 2016.  That was a frenzied move, where things went directly from my apartment's storage to the locker storage without looking.  So there are things I haven't seen for ten, even twenty years.

One of those things is a map, in an old cardboard tube, of the world I drew in 1981.  The game world I created in High School, when I was 17.  I thought, as long as I'm talking about creating a "big" world, I should assemble the six parts of the map, take a pic and post it online.  Alas, however, two parts are missing.  I don't know when they went missing.  I didn't know they were missing until today.  Here's what's left:

The full map measured 47 by 57 inches, all hand drawn and invented from blank paper.  The missing section in the upper left, the NW, filled in the coastline and consisted of a bunch more towns; beyond it, a field of mountains.  That's all I remember.  The missing piece on the right was a long peninsula that reached vertically to the section's bottom, completing the sea.  I can't remember anything about it's content.

Here is a close-up of the northeastern corner:

And the west:

And the south:

To my eyes, it seems terribly juvenile.  The color has been enhanced to make it easier to read online, but in fact it's done in number-2 pencil ... so, not very dark.  Nevertheless, the reader can imagine the effect this had on my readers when I unveiled it, posted two reinforced pieces of drywall (as one was not enough) so it could be portable.  I was still living with my parents and they were not the kind to let me post it in the gamesroom, where I used to run my players.

They were, to say the least, stunned.

It was my first experience with building a large game world.  Without realising it, I stumbled across something I would write about in my How to Run book 33 years later (p. 262):

"... human beings are hard-wired to see beauty in those things that have obviously required time. The Pyramids are merely large piles of rocks (with profound mathematics that are usually overlooked). They are staggeringly huge piles of impossibly large rocks — so the viewer is left in awe, wondering how it could be possible that so much rock is thus stacked. Size alone is enough to produce beauty . . . so long as the work in it can be felt."

What it boils down to is this:  we're making or designing something the players "know" they can't equal.  In all probability, they could equal it; but they think they can't.  This fine line is the difference between having and not having respect.  My players back in 1981, being as young as me, and not having spent 10 years remaking maps (which had been my favourite hobby before discovering D&D), were in complete awe.  The labels not being straight, the inconsistencies in the trees, or the mountain shapes, didn't matter.  In fact, I'm quite sure the reader's thinking, "Oh, but those things make it look more genuine ..."

Horseshit.  The compulsion to explain away flaws and faults, because the work's big and impressive, is the hard wiring that makes us look at any big thing with wonder.  The stones in the pyramids are not perfectly neat and straight, whatever the mathematics of the structure as a whole; there are flaws and mis-alignments, with endless wear and tear, both natural and artificial ... but none of that matters.  It's very big.  It's very old.  Every failing is seen as an enhancement.  Every shortcoming is forgiven.  We don't give it a second thought.

I'm endlessly reading DMs online talking about their players, saying things like, "They don't listen; they just want to go off and do their own thing.  Whenever I want to introduce something new that I've written, they're not impressed.  It's like pulling teeth to get them to do something together."  And so on.

Setting up a D&D game with three small rule books, a thin folder filled with pencil-scratched papers that we never actually see, a D&D screen bought from a store and a dice bag is not very impressive.  If you're the sort of DM who buys hundreds of dice, no doubt you've noticed there's an emotional effect to taking them all out of their box and spreading them out in a sea, even though you'll never use all of them.  I used to get a kick from taking out the six volumes of AD&D, along with printed rules of my own in duotangs, and dropping it as a single bundle on the game table with an enormous thump.  I knew those books cover-to-cover, which I can tell you is impressive as hell to people who can't memorize a poem.  Like a priest, I once was able to repeat whole paragraphs from the DMG from memory — which is a time-saving measure when running a game, I can tell you.  I didn't need a DM's screen; I had the combat tables memorized, including the weapons vs. armour tables, and would let the players double-check me when in doubt.

This made me seem smarter than the players, harder-working than the players, more committed than the players ... and most of all, smarter, harder-working and more committed than any other DM they knew.  When I introduced an idea to the campaign, I didn't have to fight for anyone's attention.  I didn't have to struggle to impress them.  My authority wasn't challenged.  And when I made mistakes ... just like with any impressive thing ... I was forgiven for them.

I didn't have to be an asshole; I didn't have to make threats, or worry that if I was rude to a player they'd have a fit and storm out.  If I was running Carl and Dave, and you chose to talk to Eddy, I could whirl on you and say, "Shut the fuck up, will you?" in any tone of voice I liked ... and everyone, including you, would accept it, because there was no game like my game.  You were welcome to leave.  I was ready to boot you.  But you didn't want to leave, and I wanted you to stay; moreover, I wanted to recognize this wasn't the time to be bored and talk to Eddy.  This was the time to pay attention to what Carl and Dave were doing.  That's why every player I had swallowed down the rules.  Because when it was your turn in the spotlight, you got to play in absolute, respectful silence, with your fellow players on edge wondering what you were going to say or do next.

That feels great.  And when I had 14 players playing, and ran them just like this, your moment in the sun, with your thirteen peers hanging on your every word, and me too ... it felt like you were a rock star.

This is the fruit that comes from drawing those hard lines I was talking about.  One person's commitment — the DM's — taken to the highest possible level, produces unexpected and unfathomable results.  I never had any trouble with a player bellyaching that their character wasn't as good as their peers.  I can think of one incident with a player who was unhappy with his ranger's charisma; he'd decided to use it as a dumpstat, so his charisma was 8.  When he got to 8th level, that charisma was becoming a real disability.  But he knew whose fault it was; he knew it had nothing to do with his peers; and his peers felt his pain.  This bullshit nonsense of "balance" that emerged in the 1990s came out of lazy DMs producing low-energy games that inspired competitive pissing contests between players that built resentment.  The solution was to boot the selfish-minded shit stirrers.

Instead, we rebuilt the whole fucking game.  Three times.

From the beginning, there were two paths among the early players of the game ... back when I was making and presenting the map above.  Some would look at that map and try to duplicate it themselves.  Naturally, they'd make changes and have their own ideas, so their maps turned out differently.

And there were some who wanted to buy the map.  Because that road was easier.

Since, it's been a push-pull between "making" and "buying."  The buyers, obviously, look like the winners.  The buyers can chat endlessly about the nuances of specific popular modules, even those printed 40 years ago; the buyers can rattle of the names of module-writers and coo about the time they got to meet such-and-such at a game con in Wisconsin in 2006.  The buyers can flood the internet with their favourite pics from their favourite books and modules; they can show their vast, library-sized game collections of all the RPGs and supplements they've collected since 1978, and oooo!  What a big collection it is.  The buyers are buying the biggest amount of respect they can buy.  No doubt, there are players who sit at Rod the Fodd's game table, surrounded by $50,000 worth of posters, books, movie memorabilia, the beautiful set of curule chairs and magnificent video-inclusive game table they have, plus the framed t-shirt Dave Arneson wore at the first game-con in Chicago in 1975, complete with cheeto-stains ... and the impressed players sit in this room and think to themselves, "If I ever quit this game, I will never get to sit in this room again."

Hey.  That's power.  Fodd can push and pull his players with every bit of pressure I can bring to bear, unquestionably.  At least, he can do it with a certain kind of player.  The kind who thinks these stuff is worth this kind of money.  And who doesn't care that everything is still being read from a book ... though they remember the last time Fodd tried to make one of his own adventures.  Shit.  Hope that doesn't happen again.

The makers are totally the losers.  No one outside the party can talk about their stuff, because only the party sees their stuff.  No one knows their names.  Whatever they're doing, it sure as hell isn't affecting the mainstream.  How could it?  In fact, do we even know there are "makers"?  Do these people even exist?  Are they just a rumour?  Because obviously, if one of them has ever died, there's absolutely not a yearly anniversary for it.

I am a maker.  I've met others, particularly at game cons.  They stand at my table and describe their game worlds.  They buy my books.  Then they wander back into the zeitgeist, never to be heard from again.  They're like ghosts.

I think the makers are happier.  In making something, there's a remuneration that's difficult to explain to a buyer.  In the early 80s, I'd sit in my room and let my eyes roam over the map above, contemplating the place names and lines ... and I'd feel the aesthetic inherent in the map.  It felt exactly as if someone else had made it.  It's a feeling that every maker has when they've made something important in their evolution as a designer or an artist.  The Greeks invented the muses to explain it.  They argued that it feels like I didn't make it because I didn't; for a brief time, a muse inserted herself — all the muses were women — into my consciousness and made the work for me.  That's why I can't remember drawing the lines, or where the ideas came from, or how the thing seemed to have formed on its own account.  And why now, as I stare at it, I'm in awe too.

Well, I'm not in awe now, because I've created better things; this was a long time ago and I'm jaded.  Yet I see a glimmer of what I felt then.  Certainly, there was nothing in the Dragon magazine or in any of the artworks I saw in the various books by TSR to compare with it.  As a 17-year-old I was way past all that shit ... which no doubt is the reason why I've felt so superior to the buyers and their bought goods all this time.  I mean, I was pretty young; and measuring myself against what I could find in the real world is what a young man does.  At that age, we're looking for a way to judge our importance.

Add to that a host of players dutifully showing up at my games, listening to me, asking me questions, having them believe whatever I said ... that sort of thing will go to a young man's head also.  Especially when the pattern then repeats itself decade after decade, right up to the present, when I'm still miles ahead of my worldly competition.

See, the world may not see what the makers are making, but their players do.  They see the scope, they see the intricacy, they see the passion.  Moreover, the maker and the players see what the world is doing ... and if they're in the same place I am, they see what I see.  That you can buy stuff, but it's all shit.  Now, maybe we can't convince the buyers; but the buyers do not represent this side of D&D.  This is the Other Side, that I'm talking about.  The side that's going to go on making and playing D&D, and teaching it to others, whether or not we're ever "popular."

All this said, size isn't everything.  Size is just the first thing.  With our next post, we'll talk about complexity.

Saturday, October 23, 2021

Resolving the Kickstarter

So, the Kickstarter succeeded, raising $3,500 at the end.  Took some courage, some investigation into something I haven't done before ... in all honesty, there were moments I had my doubts.  It truly felt like more that 45 days.

I know how this is going to sound, but I want to get this point across:  you contributors who jumped in with me on this project, you're a part of this just as I am.  I owe my success to you — not only in this venture, but in every venture that follows ... including those I haven't invented yet.  You've helped provide a foundation upon which I can build a better process for my delivering game materials.  The menu has been a sea change; I've been in conversations about things we can make, along with more books, to supplement my writings online.

The thing that has helped me push on, through my various struggles and especially of late with covid, is my feeling that I'm never alone.  Patreon is always there, intelligent comments seem to appear at moments when I most need them; and it's a comfort knowing that whatever I write, there are always people who are listening.  There are a lot of people who really care about these posts — and who care what I'm doing and want to say.  Knowing that you're willing to back a project I've invented means a great deal to me.  Just as I know these posts and ideas mean a lot to you.

Now, to business.

I have folders coming, expectedly, in the first week of November.  As I live in a very large city, the printer I use has no trouble managing my workload, and I've tried and tested their work.  Another in-city printer is responsible for the coasters, telling us they have a 5-7 day turnaround time.  The pig logo for the menu has been reworked by a graphic artist and we have full rights to its use.

I am in the midst of building up two more pages for the menu, with additional items; I have every expectation these will be done around the 2nd-3rd of November.  I'll be shipping out the first six menus to those six backers who pledged $200 or more.  I'll take a week to track those shipments and see how they fare, then send out 13 menus to those who pledge $100.  I'll have coasters with a logo matching the menus good to go for the 20 people who pledged more than $50.  I'm arranging for printed labels.

All of these will be sent by mail.  I've looked into faster service and making arrangements with Amazon, but the numbers I'm getting are totally impractical for this number of sales.  After everything to my supporters gets sent off, I'll be ready to sell additional copies through this blog — which I'd rather do than go through Patreon.  The latter is still an option, however.  I'll have to see.

For those who have pledged more than $50, I'll need addresses for sending the materials.  Please provide an updated, full address to my email at:  I'll need your "backer name" so that I can confirm your address against your pledge.  I know nearly all of you, so if I don't hear from someone, I'll do my best to track them down and send a private email request.

For the moment, I can't think of anything else.  Any questions?

Friday, October 22, 2021

Countdown to Zero

The Kickstarter is done.  It's official.

Thank you to the multiple souls who increased the amount this evening.  You're amazing.

I should start shipping out materials in 10 to 14 days, depending on when I get products from manufacturers.  I'll write more in the morning ... for the time being, I'll be heading off to bed.


The Whole World

There are places in the mountains west of Calgary, in the summer, high above Banff, where one can climb two or three thousand feet and stretch out on bright green grass — soft and crisp-smelling, enriched with mountain air.  Laying back, head resting on a pack, fresh water from a cascade at hand ... there's a tremendous sense of reclining on the top of the great ball of the Earth; as though feeling the footsteps of every person as they walk below.  The sensation is just like that described by hundreds of holy voices throughout the centuries — of being one with the universe.  Of knowing one's place in it.  And being at absolute peace.

With the last post, I briefly described putting yourself "in the place" of the events going on around the characters.  With this post I'll talk about what the "place" IS ... because that's what worldbuilding is.  It's the conscious decision to fabricate a fantastic setting from the foundation up ... including the beams and timbers, the struts and braces, the contained shell, the pasteboard interior and even the air itself.  Everything; every molecule, every living breathing thing that walks or swims or crawls; every individual's motive and dreams, every natural horror ... and multiple steps beyond, up to and including the passage of time.

Measured by the limitations of a mortal flesh-and-blood vessel, impossible.  Estimated in hours spent immersed in deep affection for the project, who gives a damn?  If all I succeed in accomplishing is a tiny fraction of the world that happens to be a living thing — energetic, graceful, beguiling to the player, engrossing and unforgettable, why would it matter at all how much of the world I sought to make reached the drawing board?  We think so small.  We rob ourselves of transcendence.

Ah, but let's scratch all this and find the beginning.  A big bang.  There is a point when I decide to make a D&D world.  In the beginning, nothing is begat.  It is an idea: "I will build a world."  This is sometime in late 1984.  I decide to abandon the world I've been designing for four years.   Making that earlier thing, I've gone again and again to libraries to study the time period and the tools and equipment that appear in the books.  What's feudalism, what's a pole arm, what's a galley, how are towns laid out, what is an earl or a thane, what are kobalds, chimerae and lamassu?  I have these books that make reference to all these things, which I can find written about in plain old books that have nothing to do with D&D, from which I can learn so much more than what the original writers tell.  The game's inventors award things like ballistaes and vampires but a few hundred words.  There are whole books about these things.

Armed with knowledge more than game books, I contemplated what sort of world I could run.  There was, however, only one world with which I had more than a passing fancy.  It's all very nice to have a collection of books from Moorcock or Howard describing a fantasy world ... but compared to the whole knowledge available for all the world in which we dwell, these collections are a pittance.  And besides, they are drawn from the same world I speak of.  Why should I follow in the footsteps of others and their visions, when I'm perfectly able to concoct my own in the same fashion they did?  Can I not invent a character?  Can I not imagine a storyline from start to finish?  Am I not composed of the same brain, body and culture as any fantasy author?  Of course I am.  So I discarded any idea of shrinking my potential world to the tiny frame of a book writer ... however many books they wrote.  I could go to any library in the city, find the historical section of Earth's history and find a hundred times the total compended work of Moorcock on one bookcase.

I'm still reading through this material.

Fine, then.  My own world.

I had already created a completely fictional map, drawing in mountains, towns, forests and so on, giving my own names to rivers and plains, seas and deserts, just as we've seen a hundred times.  People were so pleased with the map I drew of my world, they asked me to draw new ones for their world.  I created three of these totally fictional continents for other people, making $150 an effort, which wasn't peanuts in the early 80s.  But I realized how non-sensical these maps were.

If I imagined a desert called "the Devil's Elbow," what in my imagination can I base that desert upon?  I can infest it with monsters; I can propose profound sandstorms with blasted stinging insects and lightning; the landscape can be full of black and red sands that bring sleep, disease or death ... but am I presenting something that can't be done better with a like fantastical desert called "The Great Western Erg" within the Sahara Desert, a real place?   I'm merely crossing out a name and writing in another name, whatever place, people or dreamscape I'm imagining.  There ought to be a better reason for making a world, than to copy a world that already exists, that could simply be modified as a D&D world.

What's more, I can imagine myself in any part of the real world.  I have film and books and personal accounts of people who have been, collectively, everywhere.  There is hardly a place in the world where I cannot find a photograph; thanks to Google Earth, there's no place in the world for which I cannot find a map.  Yet this is more than the convenience of having details pre-written for me.  I have climbed a mountain; travelled through a desert; canoed a river; camped in a forest; argued with musty librarians; dined with members of the criminal classes; experienced hypothermia in a freezing rain; been abandoned in the middle of nowhere in the dark of night.  I've lived.  And when I say, "put yourself in the space," I'm acknowledging that the reader has lived as well, and can imagine lying on a grassy meadow on a mountain side he or she has never seen, in a country never visited, because we know what that looks like and would feel like without needing to have ever been there.

Here is the place that we start the world from.

But this only covers how we see the world.  How does the world see us?  It's an interesting question.  Take any module or description of the game world and we'll find a description from the player's perspective: "As the orc advances on the party, it snarls and waves it's weapon."  Even flavour texts regarding factions or cults are careful to include party-relevant details: "The Knights of Meeg-la resent persons who break the codes, and will hunt down and kill any of the ilk."  But in all verity ... how does the orc see the party?  Do the Knights spend all day and all night resenting those who break their codes?  Where is the real grist that makes the Dungeon Master's perspective when running non-player characters who meet the party?

These are, however, perhaps too precise as examples.  Let's take, instead, a whole town.  Now from the first half of this post, we have the name and location of the town on the Earth's surface; from that, we can postulate what the town looks like and even feels like in the 11th, the 14th or the 17th centuries, depending on how much we've read about real towns and history in the area.  As the players approach the town, they too have in mind the part of the world they're in, and either a little or a lot of background from which to reason out their behaviour.  If they know little to nothing about a town in, say, 14th century Spain, and choose to believe that it's exactly like a present-day town in Indiana, they're going to land in trouble pretty quickly.  And I've had that happen, with players supposing the central square operates just like a tourist kiosk along the Canal Walk.

This is not, as I've said, my problem.  My problem, from the viewpoint of a DM, is how does the town view the players?

In some games, the group of adventurer's entering the town would be viewed as a spectacle.  The eyes of the townspeople would follow these strangers as they moved along the avenue, perhaps feeling threatened, perhaps a little hostile.  Who are they?  What are they doing here?  And perhaps someone from the town would come forward, to create a little role-play, to ask the players who they are and what they want.

This isn't the game world I imagine.  A "town" has five to ten thousand permanent residents and at least three times that many day visitors who arrive with goods to trade, cart goods in from the hinterland, are there to visit family or bring messages, and who are generally passing through on their way to another place.  In this kind of atmosphere, "strangers" wouldn't be noticed or thought odd.  In our present world, 5,000 people is a lazy bedroom community filled with ex-farmers or folk who service a few industries — where the strangers drive cars and have no reason to leave the highway.  This is not a medieval town.  What we can deliver with a single truck takes scores of people and animals to haul; while fueling cars can be done at a pump, we need warehouses full of feed for animals; what are nice clean streets for us are full of mud and gong, requiring an army to drain and fill and collect.  What's more, they packed 5,000 people in an area we barely press 300 to live in.  Being cheek and jowl, without being able to see further than five bodies deep through a crowd, is ordinary.

As such, I don't build game scenes with strangers noticing the players arriving — certainly not to a town, at any rate.  In my game world, "adventurers" are a common sight ... because I see them as no more than armed groups of mercenaries or press gangs, or a dozen other sorts of group sponsored by some part of the culture to wander around in small groups for some purpose.  There's no such thing as "adventurers" — the word, in my game world's parlance, has no meaning.  They're landless squires; ruffians; brigands who haven't broken the law around here; outriders on the king's business; bounty hunters; or something else.  While the party may not see themselves this way, outsiders can't tell the difference.  They're armoured, they have weapons, they lack heraldic symbols and they have plenty of money.  "Who cares what their business is?" thinks the townsperson.  "It's no business of mine."

This is, unfortunately, too vague to be real practical advise to a worldbuilder, so let me take another step back.

In deciding what sort of world I wanted, I chose to create one that would be largely indifferent.  I wanted a very big world, with millions-upon-millions of people and hundreds of petty states, in a time period educated enough to be "worldly."  In a 13th century world, it's believable to have someone return from China and be all the rage in Europe, with hordes of new things to tell the population about the magical land of China.  But a 17th century world is perfectly aware of China; there are Chinese newsheets being printed in Paris for Chinese readers in 1650 — though, admittedly, it's a small audience.  The educated persons know all about the whole world; though it can still take years to get from one part to another.

I wanted a game world where science had ceased to be a big mystery.  My world has magic in it, though the magic has been invented much the same way science will be in the 18th and 19th centuries.  Magic in my game is very limited by 5e standards, slightly limited by AD&D standards; and a character can still get burnt at the stake as a witch — though not out of ignorance, but because having magic is not an excuse to wave it around like a gun.  Use too much magic in town and a stronger, more capable spellcaster will emasculate you and arrange for a nice public roasting.  This is how I chose to have my game world see magic: as a dangerous weapon that's fine for use in the bush, but rude when used too much in public.

These decisions matter.  They provide a large, visionary framework for the intrinsic little details, such as how knowledge is acquired and imparted to others; or how the state functions; or how cabals and factions compete to control power.  The better I comprehend the huge, sweeping functions of the game world as a whole, the better I can visualize how one solitary NPC acts within the grand tapestry.  Knowing the ebb and flow of the macro-economic trade system for the game informs me as to how a single teamster fits into the maelstrom, and how that teamster would respond if the players desired to hire a team and wagon.  It makes perfect sense in my head because I have an overall vision of how a teamster, who would be in great demand in my gameworld ordinarily, would be more interested in continous work than a one-time job, no matter how lucrative.

But this is how I see my gameworld.  It's not how a gameworld necessarily has to be.

Would-be DMs must decide precisely upon what vision they perceive for the world as a whole.  Getting into the particulars of a single adventure or happenstance is a trap; it gets you through the business in the short term, but lacks any offer of a grand plan.  As a result, there is no tapestry in the work; only a frayed patchwork quilt made of rags and whatever came to hand.  This is well enough as a blanket to keep us warm, but it hardly serves to impress anyone.

And let's have that plain.  The players are looking to be impressed.  Single adventures and one-offs do the job of supplying the players with a running, but they reflect very little glamour upon the maker.  The players know the effort being made — and the message that sends regarding their importance as participants in the DM's eyes.  A game on the cheap, where elbow grease is measured, gets the respect we save up for convenience store owners.  We like the convenience store and we're glad it's there; it is, after all, convenient.  But it's nothing to write about.

To impress players — and thus vastly increase the perceived value of the DM, not to mention how much latitude and attention the DM can count on when setting up an adventure — depends on building something BIG.

I'll try to continue in that vein with the next post.

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

55 Hours

Before continuing with this series of posts, put off because of the contract I'm working on to pay bills, I want to remark that the Kickstarter has a mere 55 hours to go ... and is presently holding on by its fingertips.

I've observed already the instance of some putting in a pledge and withdrawing it again, so I'm a wee bit concerned I'm going to lose this at the last minute.  Just sayin'.

It's not my goal to pound and pound the Kickstarter day and night.  I've hardly mentioned it since it passed the post about 14 days ago.  That's because this blog is not destined to turn into an advertising vehicle for game products.  I've seen this happen to many times before and it's always an enormous disappointment.  The moment someone has something for sale, they clam up and presume the offline content is sufficient.  This is never going to be me.

My feeling at the moment is only that Kickstarter needs to be observed ... and I've done that, so we can move on.  Thank you all for your pledges; I'll start making good on my pledges as soon as possible.  That comes after I have the product in my hot little hands.

Monday, October 18, 2021

Lies and Motion

With my last post, I agreed to explain how to invent stories and know which are the best in a given moment.  This post will attempt to do that.  However ...

I have no means of providing the reader with an imagination.  Nor can I come around to the reader's home, roll up my sleeves and do the reader's thinking.  If I propose research or exercise, I cannot come round and find the books for you, read them aloud, or stand with a board of education and make you practice.  Even if, technically, I can do these things, it would cost me a great deal of time and expense, would wear pretty heavily on my family and get rather in the way of my vocational responsibilities.  What's more, you're just one person.  In all fairness, if I did it for one person, I'd feel that I owed it to everyone.  It would bother me if I didn't make good on that.

So.  As much as I feel for you; and while I have plenty of empathy for why it's difficult to do research and practice things, knowing how little time you have in your life ... there's only so much I can do to help.  I hope you're able to understand that.  It's just that whole limitation of time and space thing.  All I'm saying is that you're going to have to do some of this yourself.

Okay.  Whew.  I feel I've cleared the air now.

Let's start by recognizing that the brain is a muscle.  Before it can do heavy lifting, it has to ... wait.  Wait a minute.  I've written that post.  Okay, okay.  We'll try something else.

Take 2.

Telling stories takes practice, but thankfully the readers here have been doing it their whole lives.  Unless you spent the day in silence, chances are you've told a minimum of three stories today ... and probably more like six to ten.  "Stories" include any speaking pattern where you explain something that happens — could be something you heard on the news that you're relaying, something that happened at work, or explaining what happened to someone else, or something you saw while taking out the trash.  It could be a joke; it could be the answer to your mother asking what you did this weekend.  It could be something that happened to you long, long ago, maybe a place you've been or a thing you saw, that you're telling your children or your neighbour.  You can't tell me you don't know how to tell a story.  You've been telling them since you could string words together.  When you were three, your mother asked, "Where's your hat?"  Your answer, "It fell off," was a story.

Good, that's out of the way.  Let me ask:  are you a liar?

I assume you have lied.  Maybe you presently have a stick up your ass about it, but if you tell me straight, right now, that you've never lied about something important in your life, you're lying.  Lies are stories we tell about things that didn't happen.  To tell them, we have to work a little harder, since everything that's part of the lie comes from our imagination and not reality.  That means telling lies has been better practice for your running D&D that telling the truth.  Honesty is not always the best policy.  The fellow who said that first was lying.

I like the quote from Alan Moore's V for Vendetta:  

"Artists use lies to tell the truth.  Yes, I created a lie.  But because you believed it, you found something true about yourself."

The invented stories I told yesterday about Molly and the Marshwarden (there's a trashy romance novel) weren't "lies," as usually a lie is told to deceive someone about something that's real.  But fundamentally, the part of my brain I use to create fictional stories is the same as that I use to invent lies.  Moreover, in the story with Molly's tree, I do actually lie to the players ... twice.  I said, "the tree on the left makes a little movement."  And I said, "From the corner of your eye, you see the branch above you shift."  I fully expected someone to call me out on it.

The light from Simone's lantern, on the other side of Oscar from the tree, makes a shadow pass over the tree that makes it appear to move.  And unless the night is perfectly still, and there are no night birds or bats around, it's perfectly possible for a branch to shift ... without the tree being a treant.  But I didn't say there was a bird.  That was a lie of omission.  Oscar didn't see the bird.  He saw the branch move.  But I am still definitely saying things deliberately to deceive the player characters.  That being the case, no matter what I say, no matter how I couch the words, I'm definitely lying.  I'm even lying when I say, "A treant this big would have a lot of hit points."  That is factually true.  But I'm saying it at a time and in a manner that means to deceive.  I could have easily said, "If this were a treant, it would have a lot of hit points."  But I didn't.  I said it in a dirty, sneaky, underhanded, scheming way.

This kind of lying is an art.

For those who may be shifting uncomfortably in your chairs, yes, sorry, my deepest apologies, but I am advocating this as an art you ought to acquire.  However, I will stress that if you do, you must use this power for good.  With great power comes great responsibility.  As anyone with a brain muscle can see, people are enormously stupid and gullible, even when the liar is flagrantly telling a barefaced, impudent, shameless, undisguised and obvious lie.  "Enormously" stupid is underestimating it.  So, be warned.

Isn't this the same thing as fudging dice?  Now, that's a good question, B.R. of Tacoma Washington.  Yes, after a manner, it is.  However, while fudging dice breaks a game rule, there are no game rules that say the DM or the players are compelled to tell the truth all the time.  To some here, that may seem a fine distinction, but in my defense the non-lying rule is hardly practical ... or psychologically possible.  In any case, fudging dice is done to remove consequences accrued by the player, or insert the DM's will over the dice ... neither of which allow the player's participation.  Verbally lying to the player, on the other hand, requires the player's participation, as the player must judge whether the DM can be trusted.  Some players are awfully credulous, it's true ... but so long as we're lying in a manner to make them attack harmless trees, and not so they can walk into situations causing certain death, I feel we're on the right side of intention.

Okay.  Homework.  This is a book by Maria Konnikova.  The Confidence Game: Why We Fall for It ... Every Time.  The first 41 pages are free, online, with the exception of 24, 25, 31, 32, 38 and 39.  It's a very good book, very easy to read.  If you want the whole book, it is not expensive.  READ IT.  You have no excuse not the read the parts that are free.  Aside from talking about lying, it talks about being an imposter.  A DM is an imposter; we have to pretend to be all kinds of people we're not — kings and captains, murderers and midwives.  Get educated on how that's done.

Then ... practice lying.  Pick a partner who loves you, explain that you're trying to be a better DM and that this nutjob online suggested an exercise where you deliberately lie to someone who knows you're lying.  Have the partner name a situation and give you a profession or a role ... yes, just like an improv performer.  Your brother has just been in a car accident, which you witnessed.  Go.  Tell the story.  That kind of thing.

Do it until you get sick of doing it.  Then do it some more.

Some of these things, you have to accept on faith.  I get nothing out of sending people into the world so they can practice lying to their spouses and friends, and maybe the grocer or your doctor (oh, don't tell me you haven't done that before — I don't believe you).  So you've got to trust that there's an insight here that can't be expressed in words, that you can only grasp by doing it.  If you don't do it, or you haven't got the wherewithal to do it long enough, or you haven't the imagination to do it, that's fine.  I lose nothing.  I've tried to help.  That's my end.

Let's take up this other issue: what lies — er, stories — should we tell?

This is a somewhat more difficult question to answer.  There are elements having to do with the game setting and what priorities you have as a DM, what the players are likely to go for and where your particular talents lie ... but let's shelve all that for now and keep with the fundamentals.

In describing your game world, I recommend wholeheartedly that you adopt a policy of inserting motion into your description.  If you describe a dungeon room that's totally empty, with not one thing in it, say that while the players enter the room, their shadows in the torchlight or lantern change against the wall as they come through the door.  Or say there's a three inch long centipede that disappears into a crack.  Have something move, no matter what it is.

In dynamic settings, like a city street, leave off the description of buildings or people and concentrate on the movement of wagons, walkers, vendors waving their arms, a prostitute winking at a player, someone sweeping the street ... anything and everything to compel the players to think of your game world as something in continuous motion.

This may seem inconsistent with the subject at hand, but I'm going somewhere.  The best stories are about things that happened.  Building up a setting where the people move about with a purpose, and concentrating some of your focus on defining that purpose habitually as you describe each scene the players enter, will help spur your imagination towards the right kind of stories.  Telling the paraty that the bartender and his mate are shifting an empty barrel out of the room, while the friar is offering them a job to protect a group of pilgrims over the next sixty miles of road, reminds the players that they're in the middle of events going on around them, all the time.  It helps meld the stories they're hearing with the events they're seeing, in real time.

The measure of your DMing depends on your ability to put yourself in the space.  Don't visualize the dungeon room, the tavern or the road with the peasants like a distant object you're viewing from on high.  Picture yourself in the dungeon room, with the player characters, like a homeowner showing his property to guests.  "Over here, there's the body of a goblin, laying next to the open door.  You can see the hall down there; up until it gets too dark to see, you can see the hall curves to the left.  And over here — this is something I really want you to see — there's a pool of blood that doesn't look like a goblin's.  The water from the ceiling is dripping into it, so it still looks fresh, but it's probably a couple of hours old."

If you're in the bar, pretending to be the friar, you'll look around yourself to see what's moving; the other patrons, the bartender taking out the barrel, the serving girl ... and you'll think to include a little tidbit about the girl and insert that in as you talk: "Yes, I hoped we'd leave tomorrow ..." voice trailing off.  "Look over there, at that serving girl.  She came to me for help last week; her mother is ailing.  As a man of the cloth, I felt duty bound ... and now, as a man of the cloth, I'm asking the members of your party to do this thing for me, just as I helped her."

You can train yourself to invent phrases like this in seconds; I did it myself as I wrote the above.  I thought in my head, "now, how can I connect the girl with the players taking the friar's pilgrims out ... ah, just the thing."  It's a matter of putting yourself there; and then thinking about what a serving girl's life must be like; things that matter to her; and why in heaven's name the friar would even know her — and there it is.  Comes right together.

Picture someone else in a tavern, invent a past meeting or relationship between the friar and that person, then explain it as a story in a sentence; then figure out how that story is a reason the players should help the friar.  It's not easy, but it's the right direction.

Let's talk about another angle on this problem.  Imagine that — in some small way — every person going around doing their daily activities are themselves following story hooks.  I'm not sure that's clear.  I'm saying every NPC has a motive for their behaviour.  And that "motive" surely follows the same principle as the motive for the player's behaviour.  Think about it.

The players see A., or learn about A., and decide to act on that piece of information.  Likewise, the blacksmith is doing blacksmith things, when he sees B. go by; B. owes him money; B. is a "plot hook."  The blacksmith leaves his work, goes after B., demands his money; B. refuses, there's an argument; the blacksmith pushes things and B. runs away.  It's not much of an adventure, but it IS a story and it started with a plot hook.

Okay, let's take "B"; call him Baren.  Baren can't pay the blacksmith because he needs the money to pay off his property taxes.  He runs away, turns a corner, and slams into C. — another plot hook.  Hurrying along and slamming into someone is constantly being used for all kinds of reasons: crashing into your bookie when you're trying to avoid him, crashing into your boss when he's already thinking of firing you, crashing into Anna Scott and dumping orange juice down her shirt so she has to enter your house ... it's a classic plot hook.  Who has Baren run into?  Make something up.

We begin to realize you don't need to give the players a plot hook ... they can be hooked by watching a plot hook happen to someone else.  They're walking along when they see Baren crash into someone.  The ensuing scene plays out for the party, making sure they hear Baren's name but without in any way involving the party ... but the scene, invented as you see it, could get the party interested in actively engaging with what's going on.  A savvy party might guess that you've set up the scene for their benefit, and thus they may stubbornly refuse to get involved ... but when, thirty seconds later, they meet the blacksmith, the man they originally wanted to see, only to find out he's pissed because Baren hasn't paid him.  So pissed, in fact, that no, he's not seeing customers today.  Oh, but the party just saw Baren ... maybe they'll think of getting involved now.

This string of events can go on and on, rubbing the player's face in this Baren person in different ways, learning how Baren did this, how Baren went by here just five minutes ago, seeing Baren's name scrawled on a dungeon door two weeks later ... you can get the party going crazy with this stuff.  It's fun.

The "right" stories should reflect the present events ... just as they usually do in your own life.  When you see something happen, it reminds you of a story.  This can happen as organically in D&D, only it's the NPC telling the story that occurs to you, the DM.  Understand, however; I'm not saying you should have the NPC suddenly explain how the party should open a dungeon door or give some kind of pertinent exposition.  I'm saying the story being told should feel like the kind of story the NPC, or you, would tell if you saw such-and-such happen.  "You know, the sound the goblin made before he died reminded me of when my sister's dog was hit by a wagon ..."

This is flavour.  This is context.  This helps explain the nature of the game world.  And occasionally, we can insert something critical into a story like this and see if it blows right past the party.  Were they paying attention, or not?

Surprisingly, someone in the party almost always is.

Saturday, October 16, 2021


There are other hard lines that need to be addressed, but I suspect the last post was a bit of a downer.  So instead, let's address the prospect of introducing the players to the game world from a denser perspective.  For that, we can revisit The Fellowship of the Ring, not because it's the best example necessarily, but because among fantasy gamers it's fairly universal.

I'm steadily building several themes towards a single argument.  That parties are united through a fear of the game world; that fear is essentially the same thing as excitement; that "story campaigns" encourage passivity; and that the substance of stories skirts over the necessary details that are needed for a role-playing game world.  These matters are complex; I've written more than 8,000 words on the subject already.  It's hard to keep all this in mind at the same time ... which is why I strongly urge the reader NOT to jump to black-and-white conclusions about what is and what is not "fantasy adventure," or notions that dense game worlds will solve all the DM's problems, or even that I'm arguing the players should be thrown into the game world like a baby in a swimming pool, to drown or not.  RPG theory has been rife with simplifications of this kind, positing that what the DM does must fit into a narrow argument that can be instantly understood by a child.  My belief is that running an RPG is a staggeringly complex enterprise, with multiple disparate practices that must be incorporated to create the game's function ... and that these things cannot be done "in order of importance."  Nor can they be measured by the failure of other campaigns, run by people who most probably didn't understand fully what they needed to do.

We cannot rely on any part of running to make a good game.  Role-playing alone will not do it, nor will finalizing the rules, proposing rulings over rules, inventing a great game setting, imposing a sandbox instead of rails or changing any single part of the mechanism.  Quality is obtained by doing everything, in coordination, in the measure and according to the necessity required, with both measure and need modulating appropriately to the actions of the players and the circumstances that arise.  We cannot build a living, working doctrine of gaming by fixing or perfecting any one part.

I never advise this.  I always warn against it.  If it should happen, at any time, that I seem to be advocating such an approach, it can only appear that way because the reader has deliberately ignored millions of words that I have written on D&D and all of its aspects.

Let's have that clear.

The reader must, therefore, to understand any of what I'm attempting to explain, put aside those trite arguments we've heard made by people looking for simple answers to the matter at hand.  I wrote earlier that making the game "matter" to players beyond the transient, superfluous goal of "gaming for fun" would make "as much sense as my saying there's no D&D without a monkey, seven ballerinas and the exhumed corpse of Modest Mussorgsky."  Yet here we are, as I attempt to do so.

It's a credit to the reader, therefore, to forsake what they know long enough to be convinced of something which, presently, they do not know.  It is my duty to make it knowable.  It is on both of us — I as teacher, you as student — to attend to our roles in this manner.  Else this time is wasted.

Starting off with this post, I need to make a distinction between "storytelling" and a "story campaign."  With the latter, we invent a series of "if-then" sequences that are arranged to reveal the pre-conceived narrative to the players.  Once the players choose to perform a specific action within this program, then the reveal is given, followed by a new sequence of choices and further reveals.  Eventually, all the right choices are taken and all the right reveals are known.  The appeal comes from the story being interesting and therefore worth going through, particularly if the final set of reveals are exciting and compelling.

For the rest of this post and this series, when I speak of a "story" without specifying a "story campaign," I am describing the age-old habit of human discourse, where A tells B what happened, which B may find interesting enough to relay to C, then D and E and so on.  In the process of this storytelling, the various listeners are provided with knowledge.  We learn about A, what sort of person A is, what A did, what happened to A, how A resolved the situation and — largely unstated — how all this mattered to B, C, D and so on up the line, as each relayed the story in a manner that was important to them.

If the reader will excuse the pedantry, there is a great deal of difference in a story like Snow White and a story like King Arthur.  While a storytelling tradition exists for both stories, we can read versions of the King Arthur story as it was told direct from the 12th century, since books of that time writing about Arthur exist.  Whereas no extant works exist for the story of Snow White until the 19th century, though traditional word-of-mouth accounts originate with dozens of cultures — tracking its variants has been a life-long task for many scholars.

The flavour of the King Arthur books from eight centuries ago are very different from the flavour of Grimm's fairy tale; yet we can be sure that if we could return to a gathering around a storyteller in 1190, we wouldn't be surprised to hear either tale ... nor should we be surprised to learn that the King Arthur tale has changed and adapted itself in a hundred ways since the original book was written.

These stories tell more than the plotlines or the characters' motives.  They describe a culture where there are princes and kings, where there is love and cruelty; where persons are persecuted and redeemed.  These stories give us a perception of parents and farms, of magic and mystery, where there are parties and revelry, where horses are ridden, where hunters kill pigs, where mining is done and men wear armour and fight for ladies, who use their love to bring about their downfall.  People go on very long journeys and believe in things and have hopes and dreams.

It is in using this pattern, studied from a young age by the man, that Tolkein seeks to tell us about his world: through the stories he chooses.  He tells how the neighbours gossip, about the little joke the Bilbo pulls, about Gandalf and how he's seen by various persons; and Gandalf reveals his part of the story later when he tells Frodo and Sam about the ring.  And then we watch a story progress in real time; a story that is interrupted repeatedly by other stories, where we learn more about the Frodo's quest and other times, places and peoples.  This compendium of bits and pieces are the key to understand Tolkein's Middle Earth.  He applies the same technique to the Hobbit, the Silmarillion and the "Unfinished Tales" ... if he had lived another thirty years, we'd have had more stories, more adventures, more substance and verve to ponder and use for further invention.

Understand that when I talk about the lives and troubles experienced by game world's NPCs, their worries about food supplies and having their menfolk at sea for a month, and the other dreary aspects of their small worlds, I am NOT speaking of a tallied list of factual details without soul.  "1. Farmer Brown's younger son knocked up the tailor's daughter; 2. The butcher is selling rat meat; 3. The Grant sisters never married," and so on.

[yes, Cavalier, I know it's a joke, but by Poe's Law, some people don't know it was].

I am speaking of the party's accumulation of imaginative, interesting stories that are NOT a parade of obvious plothooks:

"Yer the new folk round these parts, are you?  Have yeh met Molly yet?  She came down from the king's city last year; didn't adjust too well to the pace of life here at first, especially in the manner of her dress.  Made a few women in the town upset, she did.  Settled down now, though.  Not that I want to put you folk back on your heels.  You're welcome here; anybody is, that's got the will to work.  Not an easy life.  But you take ol' Molly there.  She learned, she did.  She's gotten to be quite the fixture around here.  So once you settle yourselves in, get yourselves sorted, you ought to take a walk along Bennet creek.  You're sure to meet her or her daughter there.  It's the house with the blue roof.  Stands right out, yeh can't miss it."

Is Molly important, or not?  Is that a hook, or not?  You don't know ... because I haven't told you, and I haven't committed myself to anything.  Maybe there's a secret to be learned and maybe there isn't; and maybe the secret's only available to the right player who says the right thing in the right way at the right time.  Maybe that time's in tonight's running and maybe it comes in ten runnings.  You don't know.  Meanwhile, as you consider what sort of person Molly is, there comes another story.

"Ah, you're the new owners.  Glad to meet you; Jakob, marshwarden.  You'll see me around from time to time.  Nice to see people in the Fraser place again.  Last decade or so, it's stood empty you know.  We had some out of towners living here about twelve years ago — had some crazy notion of raising mustard and selling it in the city.  None of 'em knew what they were doin' of course ... and of course they ran foul of the city's guild.  Nasty business that.  They all got slaughtered one night.  Right here.  Yep, one was layin' in the yard over there, and two were cut to bits inside.  They hanged the last one; hung her on that tree.  Don't know why they felt they needed to hang a woman.  But that's city types for yeh.  Oh, I'm sorry if it's all a bit gruesome for you.  Twelve years ago, though; and I never heard of the house bein' haunted.  You're likely safe.  Well, I've got to be off.  I'll come around in a few days, once you've settled in.  Good idea if we talk over a few of the laws around here.  G'day."

Is the house haunted?  Have I said it is?  In fact, I've said it isn't.  Am I responsible for what the players think?  No, I'm not.  One way or t'other, the players don't know ... and this is the crux of the matter.

These are not ongoing stories; they're stories about the past; about something that has taken place.  Yet there are doors open for the players to investigate or ignore ... and thus decide if meeting Molly or revisiting the interior of their new house is the beginning of another story.

The trick is to tell story after story, and to tell stories of every kind.  Stories about criminals, about lovers, about matters of business or the workings of the state ... stories about villainy, generosity, hardship and perseverance.  Stories about every kind of person in the game world ... about locals and outsiders, rich and poor, artisans, nobles, peasants, soldiers, little girls and "those who must not be named."  Stories that happened in ancient times, stories that happened to grandfathers and mothers, and stories that happened this morning.  And always with the point of view that the story may be something very important or it may be utterly unimportant.  The details may be critical to the character's survival; or the details may be incidental.  The trick is to learn which is which.  As DM, of course I know what matters.  I know everything.  I know about Molly's past, I know why the woman was hanged and not the men ... and I know where the treasure is buried on Molly's property and where it's buried on the player's new property.

But ... I'm not telling.  And because I'm not, and because the players have every reason to believe, through the stories, that very bad things can happen, for reasons that are not known ... yes, it's true.  They don't know which way to turn and what to do.

Aha.  That is not a bad thing.  Because, unlike throwing them into a setting where they know nothing, they know lots of things.  Some of which are a bit, shall we say, distressing.  We make sure to add those distressing things to the stories we tell.  But unlike the heavy hand of Lovecraft, we don't make the consequences crystal clear.  We let the players' imaginations gnaw at them.

When the players lack knowledge, they don't know if they're in jeopardy or not.  This is why actual jeopardy is not the same thing as fear.  You're perfectly capable of being afraid when there's nothing to be afraid of ... if you're convinced there is.  D&D is a wonderful vehicle for this.  We know there are dragons and magic, demonic possession, hideous monsters, horrific diseases, assassins, undead ... we don't need to advertise.  The players know these things exist; any of them could appear at any time, on any pretext.  This knowledge preys on them, particularly as things become less and less clear.

Push this mind fuckery far enough and you won't need jump scares to freak out your players.  They'll freak themselves out ... and letting their imaginations run, they'll naturally move a closer together as a consequence.  They'll even jump at shadows:

DM: What with delay after delay, by the time the party finds Molly's house, it's dark.  Your lanterns reveal a hint of blue in the roof; you're fairly sure this is the place.  Oscar, as you move around a small hedge towards the gate, with Simone on your right, the tree on the left makes a little movement.

Oscar: What?

DM:  The elm tree.  It's about five feet from you.  It's not moving now but you're sure it moved a couple of moments ago.

Oscar: I draw my sword.

Simone: Wait a moment.

Oscar: I'm just going to poke it.

Simone: If it's alive, we'd better both be ready.  I draw my axe.

DM: [shaking my head doubtfully]  If that's what you want.  A treant this big would have a lot of hit points.

Oscar: Fuck.

DM:  From the corner of your eye, you see the branch above you shift.

Simone:  I attack it.

DM:  Roll.

Simone:  A 17!

DM:  The tree gives no reaction.

Oscar:  I attack.

DM:  Roll.

Oscar:  Damn.  10.

DM:  It still manages to hit.  At that moment, a large portly woman slams open the door of the house and shouts, "WHY ARE YOU ATTACKING MY TREE?"

It really depends on how well you can massage the party's natural paranoia.  See, the problem with real, actual "peril" is that everyone knows what's going on ... so they can relax.  How does the line go?  "I prefer a straight fight to all this sneaking around."  Ask a vet.  Three weeks in a jungle without seeing hide nor hair of the enemy is way, way worse ... and what happens, automatically, is that we start to see enemies everywhere.  Not knowing is creepy.  Peril is a relief.  And peril all the time merely cheapens the value of peril.

What's wanted is for our players to struggle for a while like a fly caught in mud; then to find themselves in a "straight fight," patting themselves on the back for getting there; then to have everything go terrifically sour that the straight fight is more than they can handle — forcing a retreat back to the mundane-yet-uncertain world they left.  And so on.  Never entirely sure of their best action, muddling along, doing their best, clinging to each other for support and steadily, through the stories they hear, learning about the world.

Ah, but how do we invent these stories?  Where do they come from?  How do we know which are the best stories to tell?

That, if it's possible to explain, will have to wait for another post.