Thursday, June 30, 2022

Map, June 30, 2022

To publish the map, it's come to where I have to compress it to 46% of its original ... and at that, the image is 17 mb in size.  On average, I add an area about the size of Rhode Island; each month, somewhat more than the area of Indiana or Portugal.  This is done in concentric circles moving around the outside, which I like because it reduces the amount of repetitiveness as I move from mountain to plain to mountain.  The most interesting part of the creation process is the sea coast ... but the only coast I've reached so far is the Black Sea.  Yet it will be months before I reach the Adriatic and the Aegean.

I'm not going to put up sub-maps this month.  There's nothing especially interesting to highlight that's new, I'm sorry to say.  Mapmaking can be a slog.  If someone wants to see some part of the map expanded, I'll do so; we can perhaps make that a regular feature, since the full map is just going to grow until it's next to impossible to read.  One expanded area per customer, I'm afraid.

My daughter feels I should create an atlas.  My best concept for doing so would be to publish a bunch of discontinuous areas for game play purposes, because (a) much of the map is geographically wrong; and (b) it's not a self-contained region, such as a map of Britain might be.  This makes its best selling point the relative detail of the outlay ... but even at that, it's just lines and dots.  Being me, with my perspective, it seems less "artsy" than other fantasy map images usually are.

Until next month, then.  I'll return to the series I've been writing soon.

Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Let Them Fix It

I have regrets as a DM.

Let's go back and review, first, why the consequences from the players actions need be "undesirable."  This is not always the case.  In the long run, of course, we want desirable results to occur from their actions, when they've worked hard for those desirable results.  The "undesirable" results come from totally banal actions, like picking up a ring or opening the wrong door.  Things anyone can do, that aren't the sort of thing we reward.

But, coming round to my regrets, if we award undesirable consequences for banal actions, won't that cause players to become unwilling to perform banal actions?  Surely, they'll view the ring, or the door, and say, "I'm not touching that.  Let's go back to town."  Yes.  Yes they will.  Can I get an amen?

Let's be perfectly clear about players who measure every action they take against a scorecard with two columns that read, "Easy" and "Hard."  These people are cowards.  The name of the game is ADVENTURE.  That is, to be bold, to be daring, to risk, to submit oneself to chance, accident, to commit to a perilous undertaking.  More to the point, to do so blindly, with no guarantees of success or victory.

Merlin tells Arthur, "Seek the Grail" ... and Arthur does not turn back and say, "What's in it for me?"  Agamemnon gathers the Greek Heroes together to siege Troy and recover Helen and does not get back in reply, "Uh, seems like a long way."  When asked to go with Gunther to Iceland, Siegfried does not say, "But wait; won't the DM wreck the ship and make us die in the sea?"  No.  Fuck no.  Pick up the ring, you fucking coward.  It's right there.  Don't quibble about the consequences; stand up to them.  Be a mensch.

My regrets arise from my spending too long trying to sell those last four phrases passively, when I should have chucked such persons out of my game.  After all, I have only so much time to waste before death.

Yes, it's true that avoiding unforseen and unpleasant consequences sounds like the goal of "good play," but I tend to think it comes down to the exchange that we find in the film, Big Trouble in Little China.

"A brave man likes the feel of nature on his face, Jack."

"Yeah, and a wise man has enough sense to get out of the rain."

There's only so much space in adventure games for wise men.  Truth is, unforseen and unpleasant consequences, handled adroitly, result in great triumphs and riches.  Don't we know this?  Or is it just that we're so certain of our inability to handle things adroitly?

Enough about that.  We can take it up in the comments section.  Instead, let's examine the three choices presented at the end of the last post.  These were not my choices; they were the choices the party settled on: 

"The party can simply slink away ... but of course, that's the coward's route and even the most boorish of gamers don't like that label. They can own up ... but, again, Medieval game world, not a liberal mindset among authorities. That's one to hesitate on. Option three? Go back and fix it themselves. Except that now, with evil bad things running all over the neighbourhood, could be there are too many for a party of 1st levels to handle."

I must definitely counsel against 'fessing up.  No, no, no.   Through humanity's pre-Liberal history, execution was popular because it ensured the criminal would never commit the crime again.  There wasn't much worry about punishment as deterrant: no need to deter anyone, we have a sharp axe and we can keep going as long as the executioner's arm doesn't get tired.  This mindset remained firmly in place up until someone invented a beheading machine that never got tired, thereafter enabling a resounding experiment in the effectiveness of murder as social reform.  Since my world happens long before 1789, let it be understood that the best minds believe firmly that executing the party for "waking up evil" would be authority's first order of business before going off and ridding the evil.  After all, we can't have this bunch of boobs waking up some other evil in another place while we're resolving their first blunder.

Personally, I like that my game world's politics and ethics practices a very non-Liberal mindset.  This encourages the players to pursue a lack of ethics freely, if they wish ("everyone else is doing it"), while positively forcing them to live in an alien culture.  The more alien I can make the game world — and retain it's familiarity — the better.  I frankly think it helps to remind people that "complaining about the feels" wasn't always an option on the table.  The game as "safe space" is NOT my goal.  My goal is the world as fucking decadent unreasoning nightmare hellscape ... mixed with good people who yes, will offer you a cheerful dinner if you're a traveller and you knock politely.  Because it's nice.

Option two, then.  Slinking away is wholly practical.  There's a lot of world, communication is very bad everywhere and starting fresh is always, always, always possible.  The 17th century is very local.  But ... if you don't stand up to this thing here, you're just going to have to stand up to something else, somewhere else.  The reason why we used to use the phrase, "A coward dies a thousand deaths," arises from the coward seeing death around every corner, in every face, behind every door and yes, in a gold ring laying on the floor.  Sensible players always recognise that in reality, there's no actual place to run that isn't the same as here.  So if we must die, doing it here wears out fewer shoes.

That leaves option three, and the core of this post.  The party feels they have to do something, but the problem seems insurmountable.  What now?

DMing the problem according to my model means letting the players run their show.  If we put the emphasis on the right syllable, then, the title of the post goes ... let THEM do it.  This is not the DM's problem.  When the players turn to me and ask, "How do we do this?"

— I'm free to answer, "I have no idea.  I'm creating a river in Bulgaria.  Let me know when you figure it out."

Of course, we're not exempt from describing the world, so we can do that.  In the scenario I was running for the players, the killings produced a traditional local response: find out what the evil is, track it down and kill it.  Evidence of this movement appeared everywhere.  The town called for volunteers, the local nobility was called in, spellcasters interviewed survivors, etcetera.  The players were perfectly free to "join up" with the search parties — which they eventually did, temporarily — or sit back and watch the show.  Eventually, they decided to leave word of their guilt second hand, so they wouldn't be subject to immediate punishment, telling the Stavangers where to search.

The party headed back to Mimmarudla.  They fought some bad guys on the way — "froglings," based on "killer frogs" from the old Monster Manual, but toughed up — and then searched around the original entrance before discovering a second entrance which the froglings had opened.  This led them into a secondary dungeon, which they barely survived, finding a passage to the sea at the bottom and escaping.  None of them were sailors and they got lost at sea ... but the Stavangers showed up and slaughtered all the inhabitants in the upper dungeon.  Then the party were rescued, forgiven for their mistakes and proclaimed heroes.

What was my part, and what was the players' part?

The players chose to send the message.  That wasn't me.  I gave them someone to send the message to, but it was up to them to come up with the idea.  I'd written the idea off by the time they'd made that choice, but I looked at how the Stavanger's would view such a message, told in just that way, and it seemed like a safe bet for the party.

They chose to go back to Mimmarudla.  The first entrance was overrun with creatures and no safe, but they made up their mind to search around.  So I invented a second entrance because that seemed like something an underground bunch of humanoids would do.  Any prairie dog knows one hole isn't enough.

They chose to go into the entrance.  I set them up several encounters in a row: giant frogs, stirges and eventually a very strong dog-humanoid that nearly causes a TPK.  The party did not turn back.  They kept going.  When they came to an option of going upwards or downwards — the former requiring that they overcome a wizard locked door, which they could have done with a ring they'd found on the froglings earlier — they chose to go down instead.  I had decided before the choice that "down" had a way out, if they were brave enough to go out in a sailing boat they couldn't operate.  They were brave enough.

So the party had lots of chances to retreat, and they didn't.  They'd made up their own minds and they followed through with their plan.  They nearly died but they pushed through.  Seems to me that one of their number did die, or got very close, I think it was Embla.  They didn't get greedy.  They didn't bite off too much.  They acted like adventurers.  They deserved a reward for that.

Afterwards, one of the players took the position that I'd engineered the whole thing myself.  That I'd "manipulated" the party, creating the situation from the beginning so that the players had no choice except to follow the footsteps I put down.  It's easy to see things that way.  It's easy to perceive, once all is set and done, that the ending had been the most obvious solution all along.

Case in point, Dickens novel A Tale of Two Cities.  I assume none of you have read the book, but yes, spoilers follow.

At the end of the book, Charles St. Evremonde, also Charles Darnay, is sentenced to die by guillotine during the post-revolution in France, for the crime of being nobility.  At the last moment, a look-alike Englishman by the name of Sydney Carton willingly takes his place, so that Charles can escape and marry Lucie, his love.  At first glance, and especially for those who have not read the book or are not good readers, this seems like a cheap plot convenience and is described by many as such.  Dickens himself included a passage by Carton in the book itself, in which the resemblance is mocked.  Indeed, the sequence is mostly all that anyone remembers of the book, "proving" obviously that Dickens had written himself into a corner that he could only get out from by employing this cheap chicanery.

The book is not about either Darnay or Carton.  It's not about the French Revolution or "two cities."  Like all great books, it's about the reader ... but it's completely missed in that the reader has no idea that he or she is the subject of every book, just as you, Dear Reader, are the subject of this post.

Throughout A Tale of Two Cities, the storyline investigates the subject material of resurrection ... namely, everyone's.  The poor are resurrected by the revolution, Dr. Manette is resurrected from the tomb in which he's lived as a prisoner, the knowledge Manette has, locked in his silenced mind, is resurrected and used as the thing that ultimately sentences Darnay to death, though it's not Darnay that's committed the crime but Darnay's father ... whose actions are resurrected in order to bring about Darnay's sentence.  Carton is a drunkard and a person of no worth, whose friends "resurrect" bodies from graves in order to sell them as cadavers.  Over and over and over, the book repeatedly addresses the subject of resurrection from every angle, as something which we yearn for but cannot have, or have every reason to fear, because of the consequences of that resurrection happening.

The end is not Carton's demise so that Darnay can live.  The end, if one reads the book, is Sidney Carton's resurrection.  He climbs the platform and sees himself — for now Carton is Darnay, ready for beheading, and Darnay is Carton, 

"... a man winning his way up in that path of life which once was mine.  I see him winning it so well, that my name is made illustrious there by the light of his."

Carton had no chance of making something of his life, but now he sees Darnay making something of Carton's life, and it fills Carton with joy.  He looks around at the horror, the cruelty, the barbarism,

"... The Vengeance, the Juryman, the Judge, long ranks of new oppressors who have risen on the destruction of the old, perishing by this retributive instrument, before it shall cease out of its present use.  I see a beautiful city and a brilliant people rising from this abyss, and, in their struggles to be truly free, in their triumphs and defeats, through long years to come, I see the evil of this time and of the previous time of which this is the natural birth, gradually making expiation for itself and wearing out."

Resurrection.  He sees resurrection.  His resurrection.  And yours.

It should be noticed that I don't quote the famous last line of the novel, because that last line is always quoted out of context.  There are two pages that build to that last line, which explain that last line ... but readers so often skim and skip, and fail to see all there is to see.

I apologise for the departure, but I wish to convey the manner in which humans "miss" things, including their own actions.  D&D is thick with it.  The DM has such a remarkable amount of power, that players have a tendency to perceive that everything bad that happens must be the fault of the DM ... and that therefore, everything good that happens must also be the DM's doing.  However much we strive to wash ourselves out of the framework, the players are ready to put us back there because all too often they are unready to see themselves as capable and able directors of the game.

Players must be willing to put themselves "out there," to step up to the plate and swing.  And to make that work, the DM must throw good balls as well as bad ... every one designed to be a strike, but every one able to be a home run.

The ball before it leaves the pitcher's hand has every nuance of being an "unpleasant" possibility ... but we don't know if it is or not for SURE until the player swings.

Like Carton, the player has to look past the two-dimensional construction of the situation appearing so "obvious" and recognising that beneath appearances, there are chances and opportunities, ways of looking at things, that surpass the common constructions of human achievement.

The simplicity of the dungeon-structured game has blinded players.  It's taught them that the procedure is exactly that which is expected.  But once we separate ourselves from that structure, once we let the players choose their own way of handling problems, the bets are off.  Hitting the ball is less about "knowing how" and more about gumption and resolve.

Sadly, even when a player has it, they've been trained to suppose it must have been me.

Players do shake that off, once they've played enough D&D.  Once they've had a chance to make their own decisions.  And once they have ... oh, it's not possible to go back.  No.  No, it's really not.

Monday, June 27, 2022

Have Them Set Something in Motion

Deviating from the world as "set-piece," where the module is a collection of if-then statements waiting for players to open a door, we can adopt an understanding of the world as "cause-and-effect," with the players, and not the DM's preparation, as the cause.  We're familiar with D&D's construction as three procedures:

1. the DM describes a scene.

2. the players express their actions.

3. the DM describes the effects of those actions.

And return.  The module presupposes that (3) is pre-planned, which means that options under (2) must be minimised to where the players can only do what's expected of them.  This is why the dungeon is so practical for established structured game play, because there ARE only a few things that can be done at any specific time in the dungeon that can affect procedure (3) ... simplifying the game so that even kids can run it.

Once the game moves thematically out of the dungeon, to where the players engage in a story arc that requires, say, the rescue of a princess or the restraint of a wizard attempting to end the world, (2) has to be further controlled in order to assure that expected (3) results are still those the DM has pre-planned.  This is called "putting the campaign on rails," in the sense that whatever the players give as an answer to (2), (3) is always the same.  Always.  Any deviation from the desired procedure for (2) creates negative consequences for the players until they recognise they should have done "this" and not "that," whereupon they do what's wanted and the adventure continues as pre-planned.

If, on the other hand, the game is run so that there is no pre-planned (3), then there need be no pre-planned (2).  The DM need then only be concerned with (1) ... since the procedures of (2) and (3) have no fundamental effects upon the substance of (1).

All right, granted that's probably confusing.  I'll give an example.  I make a world that consists of you, a dog and a store.  You're expected to take your dog to the store, so that I can say your dog pees on the store's floor and you get into trouble.  If you take your dog somewhere else, that's no good, you have to go to the store.  If you attempt to curb your dog, or tie the dog outside, that's no good, because I need the dog to pee in the store if the next series of events take place.  Therefore, if you curb your dog, I have to make the dog bark until you do what I want.  If you try to go somewhere other than the store, then I have to close everything until you go to the store, or make everything else so boring that you go to the store out of desperation.

On the other hand, if I don't care where you go, or what you do with your dog, then the actions you take of your own accord must, to support the game's functional procedures, produce previously unforseen consequences that I must invent in the present, directly from statements you've made about your dog — which I cannot know prior, because you haven't said them yet.

Playing this way, it means that as DM, I don't make the adventure.  You make the adventure.  But ... once you've taken an action, then I'm free to invent consequences to that action which, in turn, I can describe and to which you must take further actions.

Say, for example, (1) I describe a dungeon; (2) You state your desire to go to that dungeon; (3) The dungeon plays out as we'd expect.  You're still the cause.  You're still running the play.  I'm reacting to your statements, while you react to my dungeon.  This is fundamentally the same sort of play that is expected to occur in a common pre-packaged module ... which helps explain why it's so difficult to describe a "sandbox."  Mostly because we tend to define a sandbox as what it isn't, rather than what it is.  There's nothing about a sandbox that says it can't include all the facets of The Keep on the Borderlands as written.  That needs to be understood.

However ...

It must also be understood that when you deviate from that common procedure, you're still in control.  That doesn't mean your actions can't be pre-determined ... because you're human and we can certainly expect you to do certain things.  But it does mean that the doing of those things is on you, and not on the DM.

For example.  Bilbo is walking through a tunnel when he finds a gold ring laying on the ground.  He chooses to pick it up and put it in his pocket.  What player would not do the same?  We DMs can be fairly sure that if we put a ring on the ground in front of a player, the player will pick it up.  For future reference, we can call this "fishing."

More often than not, players won't question the effects that come from the actions they take.  Bilbo certainly did not, and more importantly, underlined for emphasis, could not.  No one could.  The repercussions of Bilbo's finding of the ring reach far past the story being told about Bilbo, as we know too well.  The fact of this makes it all the more likely that Bilbo, and any player, would certainly pick up the ring once it's seen.

Tolkein wanted the incident to occur in order to build a series of events that acted as effects to the cause.  Of course, the earlier cause is that the ring abandons Gollum, and the cause before that is that Smeagol kills Deagol for possession of the ring, with the cause before that being that a battle left the ring lost in a river, and before that being that Isildur refused to destroy the ring in Mt. Doom and so on, going back to the making of the ring and before that Sauron's reason for making the ring ... and perhaps the fact that Sauron's mommie didn't let little Sauron have a puppy when Sauron was five.  Who knows?

What matters is that once Bilbo picks up the ring, Bilbo has no control whatsoever upon the events that arise from that.  These events are effects ... and once put in motion, the various characters in the narrative must deal with the effects as they come.  To make it a good story, Tolkein has to be very, very careful to keep his fingerprints off the events, so that they seem to come logically one after another, without the heavy-handed guidance of the writer ruining everything.

The DM must also arrange the effects likewise.  The players take an action, there are unforseen consequences for that action ... and a series of events, utterly unexpected and most desirably for the DM, undesired for the players, begin to accumulate beyond control.

My players in the online campaign opened up the tomb at Mimmarudla and some died fighting the beetles.  Then the party went back, with new members, and killed the beetles.  They found a door, and the means to open the door, and naturally went through the door with no more concern about the future than Bilbo had in picking up the ring.  By opening the door, the players woke up an evil that had been sleeping for 900 years.  They ventured into the dungeon, killed a few bad guys and walked out, limp and hurt and all alive, with a little treasure, some found objects and a book.

No problem.  Standard D&D fare.  In common practice, the dungeon is supposed to sit there, waiting for the players to return when it's damn convenient.  After the first foray out to the Caves of Chaos, the goblins, orcs, ogres and so on don't send for their cousins around the neighbourhood, triple their numbers and attack the keep, do they?  The next scene isn't the players fighting for their lives on the parapets, surrounded by humanoids, trapped in the keep and trying to keep the monsters at bay.  No, the next scene is that the players rest up, restore themselves to full and return to the Caves, where nothing has fundamentally changed.  All the monsters sit tidily in their rooms, where they belong.

That's not what I did with the Mimmarudla party.  No, the evil emerged from the dungeon after the players left, and did not attack the party.  No.  They attacked farmers who were on the edge of the civilised area.  They killed children and other innocents.  And the party, understandably, blamed themselves.

And here again, we have a dilemma.  No one knows the party had anything to do with it.  The party can simply slink away ... but of course, that's the coward's route and even the most boorish of gamers don't like that label.  They can own up ... but, again, Medieval game world, not a liberal mindset among authorities.  That's one to hesitate on.  Option three?  Go back and fix it themselves.  Except that now, with evil bad things running all over the neighbourhood, could be there are too many for a party of 1st levels to handle.

Yep, horns all round.  Even though the party is perfectly safe in Stavanger, unharmed, healing themselves and completely innocent as far as the world's concerned.

This is the benefit of having the players set things in motion, that differs greatly from the common pre-packaged module.  If the Tomb of Horrors kills you, first time in, well, it's the module's fault.  It's the DM's fault.  It's the fault of not being ready, or familiar, or high enough level.  But you are not responsible.  Not you.

Is Bilbo responsible?  Not for a long time.  Never occurs to him, not until long after his 111th birthday.  But eventually, as the consequences multiply, he regrets picking up that ring.  He can argue it, say that anyone could have picked it up, that he's completely innocent ... but inevitably, those excuses aren't enough.  Inevitably, the only thought that's left is the wish that he hadn't gotten the ball rolling.

Do we think that the moment the ring hit the magma in Mt. Doom that Sauron had time to have his regrets for putting the original plan in motion?  For making the ring in the first place.  Was there time?  I like to think there was.

So here's an emotion that gets lost in the mix of explaining what playing is: regret.  Not fear, not resentment, not demanding the DM play "fair," etcetera ... but the simple fact of a player wishing he or she hadn't done something they definitely did.  Most of the time, this consists of throwing the dagger and missing.  "Damn, that was my last dagger."  But there's a deeper regret.  One that transcends a momentary failure from an unfortunate decision within a bad situation.  No, no, I'm speaking of a bigger mistake.  One that you never, ever get over.

I think we've all had them.  And that as I write this, it's hard to push that regret from the reader's mind, just at this moment.  Kind of floats there, doesn't it?

This is the level the game can be played on ... and played on fairly, without having to resort to railroading or forcing the players to take an action that fulfills a pre-set purpose.  No, it's possible to observe the players practicing complete and utter free will, figure out dozens of possible consequences for their actions and then go with the one that will cut closest to the player's bone ... one that puts them in absolutely no danger whatsoever, but which feels like absolute shit.

One that makes them feel like they shouldn't have bit on that hook, which in no way looked like a hook at the time ... as they feel their slimy little bodies being hauled out of the water, while a small wooden club is raised over their head.

Sunday, June 26, 2022

Have Them Find Something

After talking about introducing a new player to the game, I have in mind a series of posts for running 1st to 3rd level characters without a module.  These ideas lend themselves to a campaign game, naturally.  For each, I have an example from the last online campaign I ran; the title of this post tells the DM what to do.

The described goal here is to have them find something that's virtually unknown to the game world.  In the Juvenis campaign, the players expressed a desire to check out one of the many ancient Celtic sites located around them in Norway ... which led to the players "discovering" Mimmarudla.  In the present day, this actual place is a low hill covered with farms, adjacent to a large Norwegian town.  There's no sign of the hill having any significance at all — it would be easy to stand on top of it without recognising anything out of place.  Whatever historic significance the place had has been effaced entirely.  The page that designated it as a "Celtic site" has vanished.

I supposed the area was uninhabited and covered by forest; the players found a large stone-paved circle atop the hill in the shape with the center slightly higher than the outer rim.  When the party investigated, I explained that one of the stones appeared to be a "key stone" ... the one that holds the dome together.  They removed the stone and found the pavement concealed an hollow dome beneath them.  They climbed down, met a small fire beetle nest and three of them were killed.  More caution and cooperation in the fight would have increased their survival.

Uncovering something previously undiscovered has been a heavily utilised trope that I probably first stepped into reading Hardy Boys books.  Those stories went back to the 1920s and 30s and often featured Joe, Frank and Chet poking into one hollow or another that revealed the beginning of a mystery.  In that series, it usually took a page from Tom and Huck finding Dr. Robinson, Muff Potter and Injun Joe robbing a grave in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.  It's a great tactic to have the players go somewhere they don't know, where they see someone do something that's a secret, and bad to boot.  The situation has the potential to create a dilemma for a party ... which is what's dearly wanted.

For those who haven't investigated the idea, a dilemma is an unsolved problem that seems to have two or more equally viable solutions — neither of which are desirable.  This is sometimes described as the "horns" of the matter, as our choice is to decide by which horn we'd rather be gored.  Obviously neither, but that's not a choice.

Take the Tom Sawyer example.  I assume you've all read the book, if not, spoilers follow.  As Tom and Huck watch, they see Injun Joe get into a fight with the doctor, murdering him.  Horn one, the boys realise that if they tell, it would give good reason for Joe to murder them next.  On the other and, the boys have a good relationship with Muff Potter; he's a friend to the boys.  When Joe pins the murder of the doctor on Muff, Tom recognises the other horn is to let Muff take the rap.

Unable to abandon his friend, Tom appears in court to defend Muff, naming Joe as the killer; and nearly gets a knife in the face for his trouble.  You can see the scene from the 1973 film here, if you like; the knife flies at 02:09 and young Johnny Whitaker does a good job reacting to the throw.

I was nine when I first saw that scene in the theatre, five years younger than Whitaker; he'd be about 13 when the scene was filmed.  I don't know how they did the knife.  No modern film trickery was available.  I wouldn't discount the possibility of an expert knife thrower doing the trick.  IMDb doesn't say.

The effect of building a dilemma is simple: the players see the horns ahead of time, and whichever they choose, they recognise there will be consequences.  The players discovery of Mimmarudla's secret entrance creates a very small dilemma, one that's essentially the life's blood of virtually all D&D.  "If we enter, we might get killed; but if we don't enter, we won't get any treasure."

Of course, the players always enter!  This doesn't make it less of a horn ... and in the case of three characters dying on the first attempt, going back was certainly a question on the table.  Not a hard question; after all, if Mimmarudla doesn't kill your character, surely whatever else you might plunge into will ... so it might as well be the devil you know.

It helps to understand, however, what's going on in the player's mind, even if the player doesn't understand.  There is a hesitation, especially if the player's been burned a few times.  I remember that as kids we didn't care much, because death lacks a sting when there's no real hurt.  True enough, our characters used to die in those early campaigns I played like the sea rolling up on the sand, hurtling itself forward only to vanish.

The difference for my players that day — something I didn't understand then but which I appreciate now — was a sense of not wanting to let me down.  Years of reading my posts, seeing the work I put forward, sensing they were being judged on their ability to play ... never entered my head.  We didn't care about character deaths in those old days because we weren't that impressed by the worlds we played in.  No more so than we were impressed at losing Tetris.  But ... if you make your game world impressive, if you win the hearts and minds of your players through the ambition and aestetic you've created in your game world, you raise the bar.

This makes the players really consider what it means to go into that undiscovered dark hole in the ground.  And the harder we make the access to that hole, the more tense the entry becomes.  To climb into Mimmarudla, the players had to lower themselves from a hole in the ceiling by a rope.  There were no convenient stairs, no level passage though a wide open cave.  Once they removed that keystone, they knew that no one had been here for ages.  That paints a very different motif.  Whatever's down there has been shut off from the world for a long, long time.  It won't be a bunch of bandits or goblins down there.  It won't be anything ordinary.  It's bound to be something dangerous, scary and new.  Very new.  And we the players are the first to find it.

Gawd help us.

Saturday, June 25, 2022

Personality Building

I had it suggested today that I hurry through character creation.  The exact reason for this understanding, I presume, comes from a combination of my saying I take half-an-hour to make a new character for a player and that I created an excel table that would instantly roll up all the various elements of the character background generator I use - an excel table that's out of date with my game world and mostly useless now, but exists in the internet cloud.  I answer under the link above that I'm efficient ... but it's more than that.

It has much to do with what I want from a player's character as a tool in the game world.

My sense from discussion and prevailing opinion is that many people want the player's character to possess a full-grown "personality" at the start of the game.  And that it's presumed my background generator is designed to give this.  After all, it gives a lot of information about the person, things that have happened, family, skill background, relationships, physical appearance and so on — but I'd like to stress that while these things might be interesting, and designed to be useful in playing the game — that this data is extraordinarily shallow in structure and not evident of "personality."  Personality arises from how a human person interprets the data and invents a personality based on that player's perspective and history.  How you interpret the value of cornflower blue eyes as opposed to how I do are two completely different worlds.  My vision of a character that was a farmer is not your vision.  Etcetera.

A film requires a profound and difficult effort to achieve grace, plus 90 minutes plus of your time, to make a "personality" seem even vaguely real ... and for the most part, it only becomes real when you've liked the film enough to see it multiple times, and therefore inspect every tiny nuance of the character's face and attitude, until you impress your vision on that character, just as you and I have impressed our image on a farmer.  A book requires even longer to get the personality across: tens of thousands of words, which includes the reader's active engagement with the text in order to succeed. 

In other words, "personality" doesn't come with the creation of a character, or the interpretation of a point-buy system or any other generation scheme, but with time.  A lot of time.  Time spent running that character, and deciding over time what the true nature of the character is.

The amount of time spent actually creating the character doesn't matter.  Gygax and co. recognised their own tendency to anthroporphise game chits — little cardboard pieces they used to play chain mail — which required no more game prep than taking the chit out of its bag or box and putting it on the map.  Players invent instant personalities for miniatures that have no stats, before anything about the miniature's character is generated.  I push to get a new character generated quickly because it's irrelevant how long the process lasts.

[Zarious ... if your point was that I'm rushing the player, it never feels that way.  An old player knows the drill; a new player has no time framework upon which to base their feeling of being rushed.  I generally find that if the choice is put to the player in a direct, simple manner, new players are okay with answering a few seconds; later details can be hashed out in the future ... especially if the DM is willing to retcon an early character if need be.  I am willing to do that, but 99% of the time I offer, the player prefers to live with their decisions than get an out.  Must be the sort of people I know.]

Character creation has as much to do with the character's trajectory in the game as the moment of birth has to do with the person's choice of whom to marry.  We don't play well because we have a host of abilities and skills; or because we have great stats.  We play well because we think our way through problems, when they arise.  IF the player is unable to do this, perceiving game play as "the DM gets me out of this," then he or she doesn't belong at my table.  It's the player's responsibility to manage the situation and survive it.  It's my responsibility to create situations that can be survived.

Okay, so how does the player do this?  It's a mindset.  Take a look at this animate featuring Philip Zimbardo from 12 years ago.  I'm not going to quote the relevant points here; I'd need to quote the whole video.  So stop reading, watch the video, and then continue.

Hm hm mm ... hm hm mmmmm hmm ... 

Okay.  To have the nerve to plan an uncertain action with your character in D&D, recognising that several parts of that plan have to depend on the dice falling right at the right moments, you must be capable of trusting the future.  You must fundamentally believe that whatever happens, whatever goes wrong, you'll recalculate when that time comes and make it work, regardless.  Of course, you might be wrong, you might die, there's no guarantees ... but you must BELIEVE that even if there are no guarantees, the RIGHT MOVE is to plan.

If you're the sort of person who focuses overmuch on regret and failure ... if you can only view your character in terms of times you tried to make a plan and it didn't work, or all the reasons why you can't rely upon a plan because of all the possibilities it won't work, then you will be driven to the place where you put your faith in the DM and not yourself.  You'll believe that you can't put your faith in yourself, because you can't control the dice, and what the dice might do — but the DM can.  The DM can wave the dice away at any time.  So ... you'll think ... put your faith in the DM, and not yourself.

But, if you have a DM like me, who doesn't use a screen and rolls the die out in the open — so that I'll be just as imprisoned by the game's random element as you — then you're driven to this place where you think, "I'll make my character as strong as possible, so that it will survive anything."

But, if you have a DM like me, who severely restricts how much control you have in making your character strong, then you're fucked.  You're out of game options.

So maybe you choose to be hedonistic.  "If I die, I die."  You stop worrying about planning, or surviving, because the character doesn't really matter, what matters is that we're all here together and having fun playing the game.  It's the sensation of playing the game that matters, and not the game itself.

Anyone who reads me recognises this won't work in my game.  I hold you accountable for everything your character does, including how much he or she carries, or the amount of food eaten, or what you know, or what you believe.  I've gotten into a lot of trouble in the past for deliberately making the situation the character's so patently unpleasant — emotionally and ethically — that it gets HARD to find any fun in it.  Because I don't want hedonists.  Hedonists suck.  You can't build tension with them, you can't make them care ... and because they don't care about the game, they spend their time disrupting other players who do care.

Here's an example.  I had a player in the online campaign who, when he invented his character, he was given the result that he'd spent time in prison.  He took that and proposed that he had gone to prison because he'd been jilted by his lady fair, who never properly loved him.  However, I take the position that I get to decide what non-player character's do and think, NOT players, so when I maneuvered the woman into the campaign, and had her confess that she DID love him, that spoiled the great self-sacrificial cross he wanted to carry around for the campaign.  He didn't want a relationship; that's not how he saw his character.  But I saw the opportunity to make something uncomfortable and real happen, since that forces a player to rise above their petty bullshit and PLAY.  He didn't like that and the relationship soured.

If you invent a comfort zone for your character, I will fuck with it.  Nobody gets a comfort zone.

I'm a future-oriented person ... which ought to be obvious since I plan on creating maps that I expect will grow larger and larger with time, because I trust myself not to stop.  I calculated the other day how long it would take for me to map the world in my 6-mile hexes at the rate I'm going.  174 years.  I don't think I'll make it.  Doesn't want me to stop making maps.  I picture where I'll be in a year, in two years, in ten years ... with every expectation that I'll still be there.

I like working.  And for me, the best games are those where "play" feels like "work."  That makes no sense to a lot of people.  But for me, the difference between work and play is not how much fun each is, but rather, what's left over from play vs. what's left from work.

I want to go kayaking.  I rent a kayak, I get out on the water, I paddle around, it feels good.  I look forward to it, I plan for it, the day happens ... and for a week afterwards I'm tired from it.  And overall, what's left?

Nothing.  A memory.  But I already have memories of kayaking, so ... really ... nothing's left.  It's momentary.  And I know it's momentary.

D&D is not momentary.  The player with 142,908 earned every damn point and they can look at that number and think, wow.  The items they've collected, the pages they've drafted up over time, the sheer volume of detail they've added session by session ... it's concrete, despite it being imaginary.  A book is imaginary.  A movie is imaginary.  But they're real too.  It is a pipe and it's not a pipe.

That is the point.

This formula doesn't work, however, if the players don't earn their sheaf of paper.  If it's only the same one-sheet character after two years of play, then nothing's been accomplished of value; the player has never invested.  The player has never worked.  The player has never suffered.  Without suffering, it's just empty time spent.  Thank gawd kayaking hurts.  It reminds me I did it.

So, point two after being willing to plan is that the player's got to be ready to suffer.  This makes planning easier.  I will plan, I don't know for sure what the dice will do, but when they do their shit I'm ready to suffer.  Bring it on, baby.

Stronger characters make bigger plans and suffer just as much as weaker characters with smaller plans.  Skill sets, class and race choices, the fallacy of "loss aversion" — making the wrong choices in deciding what the character can do — is an ideal that apply to people who think they can play this game without suffering.  Which they can, just not in my world.  I've removed those avenues.  I can't be bought, I can't be intimidated, I can't be wheedled.  And if you want to live, you'd better make a plan.

Sorry, I rushed that.

If you regret making the wrong choice with your character further down the road, because you can't do something you now think you ought to be able to do, you're playing the wrong game.  You're playing a game where you think what you do matters.  It doesn't.  What matters is how well you do it.  Whatever it is.

And if you ain't suffering, you ain't doing it well.

Monday, June 20, 2022

1% Inspiration

The perspiration is yet to start:

The sage abilities discussed on this page, not included in the teaser above, finally establish once and for all my method for characters making magic items in the game.  It's not merely an issue of spending a lot of money and buying the place where the fabrication takes place, but with deliberately seeking out certain studies early in the game that permits item creation by potentially 7th or 8th level — although to do so this early would require more than one character to likewise make plans.

I've said before that the goal with creating magic items and invoking similar profound magical effects is not to throw thousands of gold pieces at the problem and then roll dice, but to spend much time, so that only so many items can be created before the character becomes too old to adventure.  It should be supposed that yes, a player character CAN make a vorpal blade or a +5 holy sword themselves ... but that the time scale on these items should be ten years.

This includes an understanding that such items are so rare that no, the player cannot go out and adventure for such things in the space of a few months.  Ten years of game time describes how long a character ought to adventure in order to achieve a level to where they could conceivably take a holy avenger out of the hands of the 22nd level paladin wielding it.  It's not my feeling that a weapon of this kind should be found stuck in a rock at the end of a platform in a deep dungeon ... unless the nature fo the rock, the dungeon and the time it took to get here made the character pay the necessary cost to even see the thing.  Just cause we're here, and can touch it, doesn't mean the rock will let it go.

Anyway.  There's no rush to actually detail the sage abilities; I haven't any characters yet who have chosen these paths.  Study "flowers & sprigs"?  Who knew?

It helps, however, to know they're there, and how the path to reach them works.

Sunday, June 19, 2022

Players who Have Played Before

I have to be careful with this last post on the subject of bringing in new players — and here I'm speaking of players who are not new to the game, but are new to my campaign.  Having discussed the subject on numerous occasions in the past, I see little value in rehashing old wounds and mistakes made.  People make a mess of relationships for all kinds of reasons ... and more often than not, they don't get resolved because one or both parties feels a crushing load of shame, and not because there are irreconcialable differences.

Recently, I met a former player who left my campaign in and around 2012, largely because he was in a difficult place in his life and chose to abandon other activities in the pursuit of recreational drugs.  His leaving the campaign was equitable, but of course not well-respected.  He's been clean for years and years now ... and in this post-covid time, I asked if he would be interested in rejoining my campaign.  His face lit up and he expressed a strong desire to do so; and later I heard through a third party that he'd wanted to rejoin the campaign for five or six years, but simply couldn't face me to ask.  I saved his face by asking him.

This is how it goes with people.  Harsh words get spoken, the argument gets forgotten but the feelings do not.  It's one of the reasons I'm trying to change my ways and put an end to my ranting nature.  It's not that I've changed my mind on the fallacies of other DMs or that I suddenly respect or choose to tolerate what I consider wrongness in managing players or the game itself ... only that people tend to remember the hurt and not the argument I've made.  This has taken a long time for me to accept; and most people, I know, would feel too ashamed to admit it.

Anyway.  I really should stress that for the most part, I do very well with new players who have plenty of experience with D&D.  Most are tired of cookie-cutter games and want something on a deeper level, as several of my online players will attest.  There's little to be said about people like this because they are so easy to run and get along with that I look forward to their involvement.  I don't have to overly explain the character generation process, I can make a few quick points about rule changes, negotiation of said rule changes go swimmingly and overall it's less work to initiate a good experienced player from another campaign than it is one who has never played before.

The trick is, of course, recognising one of these good-and-experienced players from those who are intrinsically toxic.  A toxic player is also very good at playing; they are also very good at adopting and understanding new rules, and very often are very good at negotiating those rules to understand their stance.  Toxic and non-toxic players alike make good role-players; and they are often both pleasant and cheerful to associate with.  It's the samenesses that make it difficult to deal with toxic players ... because in the beginning, we're never sure that's what we have.

Fundamentally, the toxicity derives from two positions on the game that underlie the player's intentions: (a) winning and (b) self-aggrandisement.  In all fairness, these are the same problems that affect persons in business, in sports, in politics and in relationships.  The characteristics need not be overly pronounced like a made-for-netflix movie.  The need to "win" a situation, or "serve myself," need not manifest as a slavering workaholic fuck-you-I-got-mine perspective that is coldly evident on first glance.  It is most likely very subtle.

The need to win is more often a need not-to-lose, and more specifically a need not to fail.  Failing is the criminality that produces many toxic players ... not just the need not to make mistakes or approach the game with a "failure-is-not-an-option" attitude, but the need not to look like I've failed, or admit that I've failed.  These last two, and the inherent shame that saturates both, gets into the blood of a campaign and begins to taint everything.  Especially when "winning" becomes the equivalent of not putting one's self into a position where losing is possible.

This explains players who won't invest, who won't take risks, who won't calculate the odds, roll the dice and accept a negative result, on principle.  It's not that a negative result, in principle, is something that can't be sustained, but that there's a shame in having to accept that "I made the decision that put me in a place where a negative result was possible."  This belief in self-imposed shame is taught at a young age by fathers, mothers and coaches the world over.  I quote,

"The bizarre thing is, I did it for my old man.  I tortured this poor kid, because I wanted him to think that I was cool.  He's always going off about, you know when he was in school, and the wild things he used to do.  And I got the feeling that he was disappointed that I never cut loose on anyone, right?   So, I'm sitting in a locker room, and I'm taping up my knee ... and Larry's undressing a couple lockers down from me; and ... and he's kind of skinny.  Weak.  And I started thinking about my father, and his attitude about weakness.  And the next thing I knew, I jumped on top of him and I started wailing on him.  And my friends, they just laughed and cheered me on.  And afterwards, when I was sitting in Vern's office, all I could think about was Larry's father.  And Larry having to go home, and ... and explain what happened to him.  And ... the humiliation ... the fucking humiliation he must have felt.  It must have been unreal.  Huh, how do you apologise for something like that?  There's no way.  It's all because of me and my old man.  God I fucking hate him.  He's like ... he's like this mindless machine that I can't even relate to anymore.  'ANDREW!  YOU'VE GOT TO BE NUMBER ONE!  I won't tolerate any losers in this family!  Your intensity is for shit.  WIN!  WIN!  WIN!'  You son-of-a-bitch."

 — The Breakfast Club

Obviously, it's not as clear as that.  Not usually.  It manifests in the player being so cautious that other players are left in the lurch, unprotected.  Or the player deliberately building the character in a deeply munchkinian way, or thirsting after more and more magical items, or anything that will serve as a bulwark between success and losing ... because they cannot lose.  The feeling they have of leaving a campaign where they've lost is emotionally crippling — and reminds the player that this is NOT why they play D&D.  It's bad enough that this failure and losing are part of real life; the craving to escape that real life shame by rushing into D&D, or any escapist activity that assures success, absolutely, is their fundamental reason for being here.

The story is fun, the characterisation and situations are fun, the loot and the power building is fun, the triumph is fun ... but anything that's a part of the game that the player cannot utterly control on every level is anathema to the dogma.  Math is an excuse; the real reason why encumbrance, tracking food, the number of spells one can cast in a day, having to live with less than ideal hit points and so on is so hateful is because they're all a reminder that the character is limited, and limited equals weak.  Weakness is the precursor to failure; no matter how we cut it, "Sooner or later the place where I am weak will lead to my failing, and I just fucking cannot deal with any more failing, especially in an activity I do for fun."

In my book How to Run, I talked about the accumulated pattern recognition that's gained from running D&D over a period of years.  One of those patterns I've been made to recognise are the tunes and tones that enter the player's diction as the game is played out.  Players learn a semantic and conceptual way of understanding what the game is about, for them, which when obtained is virtually impossible to shift or change.  The desires a player expresses in the first few rolls of creating their character; the way they express what they think the party should do; the hesitation they show when meeting a particular danger; the manner in which they physically have their characters approach that danger; the way they withhold powers they possess, "saving them for later," which they perceive is good play but is often evidence of not wanting to let go of something held too tightly, "in case."  Altogether, it expresses a doubt on the player's part that things will work out, or that they can think their way out of the problem when the need arises.  They don't believe they will; or, in the very least, there's a strong feeling that they might not.  And they are simply not willing to take the risk that they might have used a power now, when they'll so desperately need that power later.

This approach of anti-failure by excessive conservation of power seems like an example of "good play."  It's very often defended that way.  A long-time savvy player will have accumulated many examples of evidence that supports this approach, ingraining it further into the player's consciousness as "the right way to play."  It is, at best, "a" way to play.  Unfortunately, it's a heuristically oriented approach, where the player has learned this habit entirely for themselves, and not within a social context.  Socially, the player's failure is less intrinsically important than the party's failure ... but the player who must win is universally incapable of making this distinction.  "The risked shame isn't the party's shame; it's MY shame.  And as long as it's mine, I'll decide for myself how much of it I want to endure."

Taking us to the place of self-aggrandisement.  Let me stress here.  This isn't about being selfish.  Nor is it necessarily about pounding one's chest and promoting oneself as being powerful or important ... though yes, let's admit it, that's been a core-rhetoric in D&D since it's beginning.  We have many famous quotes from Gygax, Mentzer and others that are boasting, strutting and thoroughly toxic.  The meme of gloating player goes well back before Knights of the Dinner Table and the earlier Fineous Fingers.  Oftentimes, old schoolers achieved a certain glee in depictions of this sort.

Just as "to win" means to not lose, being important is served by not being overlooked.  However popular RPGs and D&D in particular may become, it's still an activity enjoyed by those who are educated and possessed of a heightened imagination.  Such persons nearly always end up spending a lot of time alone, in part because they did the homework they were given, in part because they retreat to imaginative activity as a means of freedom in an environment that's not pretty.  Learning how to manage ourselves and the various details in the world have much to do with an individual's life trajectory — and a long-time situation of diligently doing school work and being occupied with one's own thoughts rarely leads to a path of "being cool" and having popularity.

Those who have a supportive family are comfortable with their level of importance.  Those who receive accolades for their schoolwork, or who have even minor athletic gifts or an ability to participate as a team member gain early recognition for their existential importance in a group.  If they're among others and an hour goes by without their gaining any special attention, they're fine with it.  They've learned, either subconsciously or through the point being highlighted by some personal event, that everyone gets their kick at the cat, eventually ... and that ultimately everyone deserves that kick.

For some, however, cat-kicking possesses something of a dearth in their existence.  They're fairly convinced — AGAIN, either subconsciously or through the point being highlighted — that they haven't had their share of attention.  And it's very, very hard for them to sit among a group of people and not be recognised a requisite number of times ... that requisite being decided in their minds, and not according to some other, more socially agreed-upon measure.

In it's worst form, this manifests as the grabbing character who must have the best object at the table, for being the strongest and having the best is surely a way of getting attention.  Toxically, it also manifests as a need to push others down, since the importance of others is a challenge to the player's importance.  Much of this stems from a certainty that there's only so much attention to go around, that it's in short supply or that it must at least be cornered to the greatest degree possible.  Time, after all, is a limited commodity; therefore it follows that attention must be also.  "And anyone else getting attention robs me of mine."

But ... these monsters are so obviously horrific that types like this never get invited to my house, much less be given an opportunity to play in my world.  I've had a few of them turn up online; but they're easy to identify and dispense.  The more obscure variant of the species is the player who seems perfectly normal in nearly every aspect, except that — often to a very slight degree — they have trouble keeping themselves occupied.

The rest of this sentiment can be immediately recognised by any DM out there.  These are players who need a lot of handling.  Less needful of gaining importance from the rest of the party, they zero in on what the DM can give.  Being imaginative, they're full of ideas of things they want to do; but they usually lack some skill in getting anyone else interested.  Usually, it's because the "things" are impractical, too personal or ultimately not very lucrative.  Sometimes, the player will urge the DM to step in and ensure their idea becomes the game's direction — through wheedling or merely by never dropping the subject, ever.

It's an Amphipolean problem, which can only resound with those studying Greek history.  The party get tired of hearing it, the DM gets tired, the issue never gets dropped ... and increasingly the attention-seeking player chooses it as the hill to die on, the evidence that "No one ever wants to do the thing I want to do."  Sooner or later the thing will come to a head; and the worst of it is that in not giving the player their kick at the cat, denying the player further participation in the campaign feels like kicking a dog.

[Sorry.  From the moment I wrote about kicking the cat I knew the other metaphor had to find a place]

There's something undeniably hateful about pushing a fairly benign, often quiet, often socially paralysed individual out of a game ... so hateful that a DM — certainly me — will endure the situation for years if it means not having to address the matter.  In reality, the party begins to ignore the player, I begin to ignore the player, all because the player can only see the game from their personal, self-identified point of view.  And being ignored is the thing that player least wants to experience.  The situation is awful.  No question about it.

Unfortunately, social situations have their rules.  Participating in a social situation requires that the individual be conscious of their personal need to be socialised.  They must gain a comprehension of other people's needs, they must learn to view themselves as a part of a group and not an individual within a group; they must reflect upon how their language and their choice of subject-matter affects other people.  They must learn to give life to their words so that the words deserve attention, not the speaker.

These are skills we all must learn.  No one learns them perfectly.  Many reach a certain point and quit learning.  I personally wish to keep working on my socialisation for the rest of my life.

Concluding this series of posts, I'll end by saying that the goal of introducing a new character is to ensure the machine, the game, keeps running fluidly.  Whether the new player is wholly new to the game, or any RPG, or comes from other games to play yours, the DM should strive to keep the cogs and rods lubricated and smooth-running.  Any bit of grit, that occurs for any reason, is contrary to the manifest importance of a well-run, humming and exciting game.

Understanding that "grit" is defined according to what sort of game you're running.  In most games that others play, I would definitely be a very large bag of sand thrown into the gears.

Best that I don't play, then.

Friday, June 17, 2022

Bringing You In

As I said with this post, at the beginning of my D&D playing I was told to "watch and learn" ... which I did.  My first action, taken in haste and without understanding the consequence, got me turned into stone; whereupon I had little choice but to watch and learn.

The lesson here is that it didn't matter than my first experience was "easy" or not.  What mattered was that the party didn't overly mock me for being so stupid or in any way make me feel unworthy as a player.  Instead, as soon as they could, they got me turned back to flesh.  This is what matters.  As a player in this game, bad things happen.  It isn't the bad things themselves that turn players off, it's the way that other players, and DMs, respond in those moments.

Whatever I felt about those guys later — I played with them for 18 months before deciding their goals were fatuous and limited — they brought me in, adopted me as a player, let be become one of their number and didn't hold it against me when I stopped playing.  By the time I quit, I had three other regular games to play in and my own to run, all of which gave me a lot of experience in a short time.

Once a new player in my campaign gets to where the character is sorted, we can play.  The situation is briefly explained and the new player is encouraged to ask questions.  Usually, off balance, they have none to ask and we get into it.

Let's say we're in a dungeon and you, Dear Reader, have just joined the campaign.  Now how does that work?  The party is fifty feet underground and they've slogged through a hundred vermin to get here, and now you saunter as if you were looking for the washroom and you've ended up here.  I know that other parties make a big deal of such meetings, trying to justify this strange happenstance, but I prefer to wrap it up with something simple.  I've introduced hundreds of characters to games and I'm rather bored with the fifteen-minute "getting to know you" scene.  Rather, I'll say something like, "This is Horace, the fellow you met at the tavern in Ipswich three days ago; remember suggesting that he ought to come along?  Well, he's been about fifty yards behind you this whole time, getting over his nerve at the sound of battle and so on ... but here he is, ready to fight.  Aren't you Horace?"

You say yes and there we are.  The players ask about your equipment and if you're short a helmet or a weapon, they'll give you one.  "Uh, I had this extra +1 hand axe I'm not using right now; can you use a hand axe?"  "You've got leather armour?  I've a suit of +1 studded on my horse; if we get a chance, I'll give it to you."  This sort of thing.

I'll ask the party, "What next?"

And they'll say, "We're going through the door."  They outline where they're going to stand and who will do the actual opening and I'll ask, "Where should Horace stand?"  This is me ensuring you're not forgotten; I know you, as a new player, haven't any idea what this "where are we going to stand" thing is all about, so I'm there for you.  The party will tell you to stand here, draw your bow, point it at the door.  If anything comes in, shoot."  I move your image to a place on the map you can see, on a monitor screen.  That's you.  You can see how you relate to everyone else.

That'll sound reasonable to you, there's no reason not to trust this party, they've been friendly so far ... so you say, "Sure."  The door opens and 20 bats fly through and into the room.  You blurt out, "I shoot at them!" and I say, "no problem.  But first, we have to see if you're surprised.  You didn't expect bats, did you?  Roll a d6."

You're rolling the d6 for the whole party, but you don't know that.  I can get anyone to roll that d6, and the rest of the party knows this, but I'm picking you because you're new and I want you to feel involved.  You roll a one and the party groans ... and maybe you clam up in confusion or maybe you ask, "What?  What happened?"

And I'll say, "You rolled bad and the party is surprised.  It means the bats get to attack first."

Whereupon if you're chatty you'll say, "Gee, I'm sorry."  Keeping in mind that most new players don't say that or anything, they just feel real bad they've screwed up — without even knowing why or how they've screwed up.

"Don't worry about it," I'll tell you.  "You were rolling to see if the party was surprised is all; it happens.  These guys are tough.  You'll be fine."  I start filling the monitor screen with bats and as they pop into existence, there looks like way too many bats ... and you start to feel uncomfortable as more and more appear.  You feel a bit of a blood rush and so do the others.  Now I'm slating how many bats are attacking and who gets how many attacks against them personally.  This is done in the open, no DM screen.  I run through this process with about 20 seconds per person or less; we'll say two bats attack you and I'll ask your armour class.  Not because I don't already know your armour class, we sorted that out just half an hour or less ago, but I want you to look up your armour class so you can see where it is and remember it.  You tell me the number and I roll, saying I hit you once for 1 point of damage (they're only bats).  "Remove it temporarily from your hit points," I say, "While keeping your maximum written on the page."  If necessary, the player on one side of you will show you what I mean ... or maybe you just saw her cross out her own present hit points because she was hit for 2 damage.

"Okay, party's round," I'll say.  I go around the table, one at a time.  No one rolls a die or makes a statement about what they're doing until it's their turn.  I point at Jimmy and he picks up a die and says, "I attack," without needing to say with what weapon; essentially, his main one, the one he nearly always uses.  He'll only specify a weapon if its something else.

Although he has the die in his hand, and he's shaking his hand, he won't let that die go until I say, "Okay, roll."  If he rolls before I say, the number doesn't count.  But I don't hesitate.  The second he says that he attacks I tell him to roll, because I want the combat to go fast, fast, fast.  Player, player, player, 20, 40 seconds a player.  While Jimmy's die bounces on the table I'll say, "Allie, you're on deck."

What does that mean?  It means, Allie, get your shit together, get ready to tell me what you're doing when I call your name or point at you.  Hearing me say that Allie is on deck shakes her out of her lethargy as she watches Jimmy's die bounce — she wants to know that result as much as anyone, but I need her focused on the next thing, too.  Jimmy calls out the number of his die, a "7."  I don't like Jimmy to withhold the die and say, "I missed," because in reality, I've learned that many times the player is wrong about that.  Jimmy doesn't know what the armour class of the bats is; I do.  I also know Jimmy's level and his THAC0, so I can say absolutely that a "7" hits, because these are big, slow-moving bats that have been woken up out of their sleep and in a cold room.  Jimmy is happy and rolls damage.  "Allie, you're up," I say.  "Horace, you're on deck."

Now, maybe you say "What does that mean," but probably you've heard of baseball and — having seen Allie's turn come up — you can figure it out.  Maybe you ask, "What do I do?"  Chances are I won't answer that; I'm listening to Allie tell me what she's doing ... but here I can count on a player to say something like, "Get ready to attack."  If you have dice you've bought, he or she might pick out the d20 for you.  Allie wants to use a gadfly cantrip to attack a bat, which works because the casting time is so short a bat doesn't have time to spoil the magic; not that you, a noob, understand this.  Nor is there time to explain it; you're reaching for your d20, you hear the word "cantrip," which is utterly meaningless to you.   I say "go ahead" to Allie, who hasn't technically thrown the cantrip, and she instantly says, "I do," which means she's now thrown the cantrip, and before I take a hit point from the bat I turn to you and say, "You have your bow out.  You need a different weapon to attack the bats."  Then I turn back to Allie and say, "Your cantrip killed the bat."  Poof, the bat disappears from the screen.  "Anything else you want to do with your move?"  She tells me, I move her little image on the monitor screen and now I'm turning to you and asking what weapon you're using to attack a bat.  You say, maybe a little confusedly, and I tell you to roll your d20, and since it's already in your hand, you know it's the one to roll.  So you do.  And I call out, "Taber, you're on deck," as your die bounces on the table.

See, now?  You're in this.  You feel the speed as I move around the table, you feel the experience I have in managing multiple details at one time, the sense of things moving around you, the image of the bats popping off the screen ... this gives you the feeling of being in a fight, of standing with others, of not having time to chat or ask questions.  No one else does, not now, because I'll shut them down if they choose this moment to talk about anything except the combat going on, in the order their names are called.  You don't feel "new."  Just like that, as puzzled as you are by all the terms and choices being made, you feel like a member of the party.  And as you learn the terms, hearing them used again and again, it all becomes comfortably familiar.

But suppose this is not how you're introduced to the campaign.  Suppose the party's still in Ipswich when you join the game.  "This is Horace," I say; "He's been listening to your conversation and you've gotten to know him."  Again, we skip over the introductions.  The party is talking about what they want to do next.

Allie says they ought to hurry back to Cirencester and fetch the book they need before heading north.  Taber worries that the wizard won't part with the book unless something is done about the situation with the wizard's daughter.  "We ought to fetch her back from St. Albans first," he says.

Jimmy says that before they do anything, cash is getting low.  "There's a dungeon right there in Thetford Forest," he says.  "We know where it is.  Why don't we hit it now?"

You ask, "What's a dungeon?" and I say, "It's an underground set of catacombs where monsters live."  And Jimmy instantly adds, "With lots of treasure."

You're really a noob so you ask, "Treasure?"  So I say, "Yes, loot.  Plunder.  Gold coins, jewellery, magical items ... fun stuff.  You need 2,251 experience to reach next level.  A dungeon is a way to get it."

"Oh," you say, not really understanding, but getting a sense that it's a place to go.  I quickly explain how the wizard's daughter has run away from him to marry her lover, but he's abandoned her and now she's sheltering in St. Albans and is afraid to go home.  The party was hired to find her in Ipswich, and they've just learned she was jilted here and that she's left for St. Albans to hide from her father with a cousin.

Allie says, "First, we go tell the wizard where his daughter is; he gives us the book, goes and fetches her and then we can hit the dungeon before going north."

Taber says, "We get the daughter first, take her back to the wizard, exchange her for the book and hit the dungeon before going north."

Jimmy says, "We hit the dungeon first, and then we can figure out what to do after that.  If we die in the dungeon we've saved ourselves some trouble."  He laughs.  The others laugh.

You ask, "Die?"

I say, "You lose all your hit points and your character is dead.  But that's not likely with this crew.  They'll have your back."

And Jimmy tells you, "Not to worry, I'm just kidding.  What do you think of my plan?"

Because they've been trained to think as a group, they want your opinion.  For one thing, you're the deciding vote.  It doesn't matter to them that you're new; in reality, one choice is as good as another, and once they've made up their minds, they'll move on.  This whole resentment thing you hear about with selfish people who stew that they didn't get their way?  They got turfed out the door months, years, decades ago.  Besides, you've never played before.  You have no idea that people actually get upset when they don't get their way.  It all sounds interesting to you.  So when you say, "I think we should get the girl," Taber cheers and the others go, "Okay, fine.  But we're definitely checking out the dungeon after."

Everyone says "agreed" and as the party heads for St. Albans, you feel like YOUR voice matters to these people.  That you've made the decision for them where to go.  That it's okay to speak up, even if you are a johnny-come-lately.  That taking part is something that's acknowledged as a good thing ... and at the same time, there's a feeling that no one's trying to freak you out about what might happen.

I really hate negativity in a campaign.  I dislike unneeded mind games, or people deliberately making up stuff to get a reaction from others.  And woe betide anyone who catcalls or shows the slightest glee at another player's misfortune.  You won't believe how fast I'll come down on someone who does that.  Everyone gets my attention and everyone is subject to misfortune if they try to get my attention for them personally when I'm giving it to someone else.  Everyone waits their turn.  When the party wants to hash something out, I shut up.  I wait until information is needed, but I don't wade in and tell anyone what to do.  I don't care if the party goes to St. Albans or Cirencester or Thetford Forest.  It's all the same world, all the same campaign to me.

No one is "special" ... because everyone is treated with grace, consideration and according to their needs at a given time.  Players who come in, new players especially, see and recognise this almost instantly, making the game easy to run.

Savvy players, on the other hand ... those who have learned a lot of bad habits from other campaigns ... they can be a fucking pain in the ass.

I'll talk about them next.

Wednesday, June 15, 2022

The Framework around Character Creation

As promised, with this post I'll begin on how I manage the new player sitting down to play.  I've tried to explain the positive mindset that sets the atmosphere for the game; now we can get down to the gritty details of what's done and in what order. 

Before diving in, I must explain the nature of my campaign for those who don't know me.  New characters run by new players are nearly always introduced into a running game; I've started all of three campaigns on line in the last ten years and I don't plan to start another.  If I returned to running online, I'd owe my time to those who I've left in the lurch.  Offline, I haven't started a new campaign since 2011, and I've started exactly two in the last 24 years.  I was supposed to start one in 1998 that never came off, no games at all were played.  Before that, I started three campaigns altogether.  Reverse chronologically, that was one in autumn of 1984; one in the spring of 1981; and my first campaign came in January, 1980.  I got my D&D books for Christmas in December 1979.

This accounts for all the D&D campaigns I've started and run.   I've never run a game of my own that wasn't a campaign.  Stew on that for awhile.  I've run three different one-offs, each when I was acting as a DM for game cons in 1984 to 1986, all for strangers — with the same adventure being run four times, Friday evening, Saturday afternoon and evening, and Sunday afternoon.  I never, ever run one-offs for myself.  I feel I could do it, but I don't feel I'd get anything from it.

As such, all the players I introduce tend to be into ongoing games, where the existing players have already started several adventure threads, some of which are resolved and usually two to three that aren't.  I like to keep the players hopping with multiple adventure threads at one time, just like the accumulation of events in books and movies.

Because of this, there is no such thing as a "session zero" for these players.  They arrive, they generally know most of the players socially, though they might only know me; there's a simple meet-and-greet, as usually there's a half hour or hour of getting comfortable before I begin play.  Players start showing up as early as Six PM and we are usually playing between quarter of Seven and Seven.

With the campaign ongoing, there's no real opportunity to "make the first combat easy," as I often hear advised.  The first combat the new player will face will be the next combat, whatever that happens to be.  As the new player will roll a 1st level character, REGARDLESS of the level of the party, if the battle is something that high levels would face, the party are sure to do their level best to shelter the new character while assuring there's some experience gained from the event.  It's not my goal to encourage the player to feel "safe" in a combat.  It's my goal to teach the combat system, explain what's going on with the other characters, give options to the neophyte and let the events work their effect on the new player's psyche.  So long as the battle is exciting, I've witnessed no difference in the new player's attitude towards the event.

New players, I find, have NO preconceptions about what's expected ... and therefore, unless they're told otherwise, they will always assume that whatever they're experiencing is normal and reflective of everyone else's experience.  This understanding is paramount.  It's aided enormously by other players saying, regularly, "I remember my first time ... I was a 1st level and the party was fighting giants!"  Or some such similar story.

All right.  So the new player is introduced and the first order of business is rolling up a character.  This takes half an hour.  I'll get it started at 6:30 if everyone is settled, as this gives time for people to still eat (as they are getting off a shift and have come straight to my place), organise themselves, use my shower, whatever.  I do not hand out a character sheet.  Character sheets narrow the player's sense of what's important according to someone who ISN'T me or the player.  Therefore, what the fuck is this interloper doing telling my players what matters with regards their character?  Moreover, I have so many alternate house rules, many of them very elaborate, while character sheets are full of detritus and bad game design, none of which I use.  Additionally, character sheets are thick as jeebus with blank ink circles, lines, images, elaborations and other bullshit that only gets in the way of the DATA, which is the only thing that's actually needed.  Finally, if the player is an artist, and wishes to enhance their character sheet, they are free to do it as they please.  In any case, the second best character sheet is a blank sheet of paper.  The best character sheet is a word or excel document on a laptop.  Fuck pencils.

But ... usually, the start is a blank sheet of paper.  I've written out the process in my world, so let's skip the details.  There are decisions to be made regarding class, race and other things, and if the new player is completely unfamiliar each requires explanation.

I was told in my first game that I had to be a fighter because that was "simplest."  Everyone wanted to get past the trouble of getting me invested in the game, because they were basically kids ... and kids see things in terms of primacy.  I was told to write, not make choices ... and the advice to do this with new players is all over.  However, it's been nearly 43 years since my first game and I've learned much.  It's true that a first-time player can't "appreciate" which class or race they play ... if "appreciation" is defined as knowing what to do, how to get the most from each, or even exactly what it means to be a given type of character.  BUT, as I've stressed, it also doesn't matter what character class the new player fails to play well.  Good play is not what we're teaching.  We're teaching the fundamentals of play.

IF the first time you play baseball it's in a league game, then yes, it makes sense to put you in right field where you'll do the least harm.  Chances are, however, you're only playing in that situation because someone has the means to force the coach to let you play at all.

On the other hand, if your first time playing baseball is with your friends, or in a practice, then it makes sense to try you in every position possible, even on your first day.  A good coach can recognise a player's reach, stance, speed, coordination ... in short, the player's potential, and it may be that a brand new player may find his or her self playing short stop on their first league game ... and doing well at it.  Pitching is harder, but the player being a back-up pitcher is a possibility; so if the lead pitcher gets injured in the first inning, then yeah, you're up.  "Do your best kid.  The worst thing that happens is that we'll lose."

The playing of a difficult character class can't possibly act as a detriment to the party, no matter what it is — unless you're the sort of dumbfuck asswipe who thinks game results like "accidentally setting the ship on fire with a fireball" is possible from a mage who has spent at least 20 years of his or her life learning HOW to be a mage.  Any character, even a non-level with 1 h.p., adds something to the party ... so the negative consequences of letting the new player try a mage, bard or assassin are none at all, at least for that reason.  If a dumb noob gives away the party's position by shouting out, it doesn't matter what class is being played.

The argument is often made that it's time consuming to teach the new player how to play a spellcaster.  Why?  Because 1st level spells are so complicated?  Because the DM can't just name off five or seven of the most obvious good spells to take early in the caster's career, define each in a sentence and let the player choose?  Because the other players are really, really bored having to wait for the new player to roll up this class?

Nonsense.  Players in my game are as fascinated by someone else rolling up their character because they are also invested in the results.  And because they're encouraged to call out advice and take part in the proceedings.  The creation of the new character is a group activity.  There is no right answer and no wrong one.  Only possibilities.  And everyone has an opinion — with the necessary argument to back it up.  New players are not stupid.  They recognise the tone and facial expression of someone legitimately trying to be of help.  Remember, my game table is a positive community.  They like the feeling of having their opinions given latitude and consideration.  Soon enough, the various details are sussed out and the character comes into existence.  It's okay, whatever the character is.  The player will get LOTS of help on how to run it, with respect given absolutely that this involves suggestions and not dictates.  I'm there as DM to ensure everyone has a fair say and that no one is bossing anyone around.

That is my nature as a DM.  I may boss you around, Dear Reader, but that's because I'm correcting your gawddamn rotten thinking.  You start sounding like a giving, supportive, positive, creative person, and I'll bend over backwards for you, writing posts you want and spending endless time replying to difficult questions.  I take this same stance with every player in my game, new and old alike.  Have a question?  A beef?  Something unclear?  Let's haul it out, talk it over, come to an agreement and move on.

Games I've watched other people run are always rushing to get to the "game" ... and as a result, try over and over to blast through player questions and doubts.  As such, these never get properly and patiently addressed.  Which builds resentment.  Which builds discouragement and players not turning up at games.

A good campaign has to invest the time — an entire session, if need be — to sort out every petty detail down to the nap, until everyone is in agreement and on board.  Those who repeatedly resist each resolution are recognised as "in it for themselves," and are called out for that behaviour.  If they cannot adhere, or won't adhere, to the agreed-upon sorting out of game play, then they're asked to leave.

The result is that everything is eventually discussed, reviewed, redacted or tabled for discussion later when more evidence is accumulated.  Different matters having to do with my game, such as the implementation and function of sage abilities, are still in session with regards to my party ... and here we're talking of a subject that was ultimately placed in discussion by four different campaigns over the last ten years.  Each group of players brought their own take and slowly, steadily, the function has taken form — not strictly because of what I wanted personally, but through what seemed to be best for all concerned.

It's generally disbelieved that real human people can come to conclusions like this through talking.  I don't know why.  I've witnessed it hundreds and hundreds of times.


The new player is now ready to play.  But I have written quite a lot today and I'm ready for a break.  Thus I'm going to suspend this next part for the next post.  Farewell.