Sunday, July 31, 2022

Map, July 31, 2022

So, six months work:

This is the full map so far, at 43% zoom.  Just gets bigger and bigger.  There's quite a bit more above than I had the end of June.  I rather like the effect of colour as the hexes begin to shrink and disappear, with the brighter patches being various shades of orange to tan.  That large light splash in the middle left is Transylvania; the orange arc north of the big river, the Danube, is Wallachia; south of the river it's Silistra in Bulgaria.  The light patch on the far left, just below centre, is Serbia; the light patch on the bottom right, along the sea, is Dobruja.

You can see from this that "nations" are less about boundaries and more about patches of density separated from elsewhere by forests and mountains.  Intensely populated centres are important militarily and economically; small patches, like the two orange groups in the upper right that represent Bukovina and Moldavia, matter locally but are mere satellites.

I have begun to place additional labels on rivers and mountains, but I'm still playing with colours for these things.  The map is so dense that there's little room to draw in large letters defining "Serbia" or "Transylvania."  I'm also beginning to feel that the boundaries need darkening, to a colour that's a deeper yellowish-brown or orange, that offer a better definition.  Not sure yet which way I'll go.

Posting the map in 100% of it's zoom now requires six plates.  Moving from west to east across the top of the map, and then from west to east across the bottom, this is Plate 1.  Moving clockwise from the top, Ruthenia, West Transylvania, Bidin in Bulgaria, the Banat. 

Plate 2.  Clockwise, northern Moldavia, eastern Carpathians, east Transylvania, Lower Banat.

Plate 3.  Southern Bug valley, the Dneiper-Bug estuary, the Black Sea, Ismailia, central Moldavia.  Incidentally, the Tulchin Forest is the site of a little-known (in the west) Jewish holocaust event.  I'd never heard of it until researching the map.

Plate 4.  Southwest Transylvania, Bidin, upper and lower Serbia, the Banat.

Plate 5.  Southeast Transylvania, Wallachia, Silistra, Oltenia.

Plate 6.  Ismailia, Black Sea and the Lower Danube, Dobruja, Silistra and east Wallachia.

By virtue of the method I'm using of going round and round the outside rim, I find myself reposting content that's already been posted.  I suppose this is somewhat boring for the reader.  I'm hearing less and less interest in these maps and if the reader likes, I can centre on one corner a month rather than posting the whole thing each time.  The map spreads out over eleven working sheets at this point and it would be easier for me to post the sheets as they're finished rather than trying to match them up.  Still, it looks remarkable to me.  I find myself gazing at parts from time to time as I'm working, startled by the slow, tremendous growth.  The chaotic terrain of southern Serbia was, this month, both a trial and something of a revelation, as I've never viewed this part of the world in such deep detail.  I can't imagine how difficult it was to invade and hold, for NATO forces, for the WW2 Germans or for the WW1 Austrians.  The mountains roll every which way and have no continuity.

Please let me know if you're still anxious to see what next month's generation produces.

Friday, July 29, 2022


I feel that I wrote a good post about story today.  I made the argument that the word story is an enticement, a gimmick that writers and business people use to fool listeners into thinking they're getting something good ... when in fact they're getting a moral of little value.  The post argues that we rush towards stories nonetheless, because we're biologically programmed to think we're going to find something when we search for it.  Even when we come up empty.

I love to write.  It's what I wanted to do for a living ... and now I do.  Whereas many times in the last seven years I've been in earnest where money was concerned, things seem to have sorted themselves out.  I have steady work, I'm appreciated, I'm ribbed almost daily for having the luck to go to Montreal in just 61 days ... and my partner Tamara and I have been able to enjoy our emergence from Covid (if that's what this is) with more comfort than we could have hoped.

Throughout the changes we've experienced, Patreon has been an important part.  Supporters made it possible for me to get a new computer when my old one failed.  Supporters made it possible for Tamara, an American citizen, to achieve permanent status in Canada.  We've filled out a form to become married in the next month, without a ceremony (as she wants) on a day that's yet unspecified ... though it'll be prior to Montreal.  On two occasions, Patreon stood between us and the street.

I want those who have decided, or had to abandon my Patreon, to know that I understand completely and wish you the very best.  Inflation is rampant, there are many reasons not to continue funding an old D&D horse like myself ... and self-care must be first and foremost.  I don't know for a fact why you've chosen to go.  I may be repeating myself and you've become bored.  You may be on your last financial legs.  Possibly, you believe that since I'm no longer down and out in Calgary, I don't need your support.  I almost never learn the real reason.  It doesn't matter.  You've given what you can, or would, and I thank you.  I thank you from the bottom of my heart.

Once upon a time, if I spoke of Patreon, it was to tell what dire straits I was in.  No longer, thank everything.  There are, today, only two reasons to give to my Patreon.  The first is that you feel I've earned it.  That I've written something that you would have paid some amount of money to buy, if it were stuffed in a book published by the WOTC, that you found on your gamestore bookshelf.  Something you read and thought, "Wow, that was really worth the money."  If I've written something on those lines, and you were moved by the value, then it makes sense to pay me.

The other reason is that you have enough money that you can indulge in frivolities like "making the world a better place."  And that you feel, perhaps delusionally, that I'm the right pitbull for you to back.  That you feel my work here, and on my wiki, and in the books I've written (and pretend to write), are the right place for your money.  If you believe that there is a better D&D culture and community that might exist out there, and you feel that my scribblings are helping make that possible, then it makes sense for you to contribute to my Patreon.

But if you're still giving me money to support me, to help me pay my rent, to ensure that I'm not so broke that I'll stop writing because I've been thrown out of my residence, then you're free at last.  It's a full year since I hit on my present writing job; if it lasts just five years, Tamara and I will be set for life.  I've had two other offers connected to the work I'm doing, so I have other places to go.  I'm comfortable.  I'm happy.  If you like, pat yourself on the back and know that you kept an artist from going down for the count.  YOU did it.  YOU supported me until I got here.  You've done your job.  Thank you.  Please feel free to withdraw your support now, and help some other poor down and out writer.  There are lots of us.

Felt I had to write this.  I don't want any of my supporters going away unhappy, or unappreciated, or feeling like I don't care.  I do care.  A lot.  I want all of you to be happy and I want to keep on writing, here and elsewhere, whether I'm paid or not.

It's all I ever wanted.


"I don't see what the big deal is.  Just making a story."

I had in mind to discuss another aspect today, but I'll get to it later.  The above, too, is an obstacle that must be overcome.  There's a very good chance that the new DM has possession of a 3rd, 4th or 5th edition of the game, and most likely has seen some of the dreck on youtube and reddit that flogs the propaganda above.  And because it can't just be managed by providing definitions and in-game distinctions, as the new DM has no context for those arguments, we must find some other way to approach the subject.

I think much of the problem revolves around an incomplete understanding of the word, "story."  I and many others have addressed the matter by pointing out that an actual story involves a series of events that culminate in an ending ... and therefore, for a story to work in D&D, the ending has to be determined before the adventure begins.  In effect, making a railroad.  But we should remember that for many, many players and DMs, a railroad is just fine.  They see nothing wrong with it.  After all, we write a book or make a film that has the ending predetermined ... and those things are enjoyable.  Why shouldn't the adventure work exactly like that, with the players acting out their parts in a story for which they don't yet know the end?  When the end comes, won't that be fun?

We understand how this offers only half the game, or perhaps even less.  It steals away the player's agency in exchange for that of the DM, or worse, for that of module-maker who can't be there to appreciate the players' response.  As well, if a novelist or filmmaker produces bad work, there's no DM to blame; nor is there a DM that exists whose responsibility it is to fix the film or book for other viewers and readers.

Again and again, we find ourselves confronted by the bad language of all this.  The reflex when attempting to describe the players having more agency over how the adventure ends, or how it's played out, is to say, "let the players write their own story."  But that's bogus too, because the players have no more knowledge of the future end of their story than we do of what's going to happen tomorrow or ten years from now.  I'm not right now living a "story."  I'm alive, dealing with obstacles as they come, making decisions which can only be known to be good or bad by seeing what comes.  I feel that D&D is a better game when played that way ... but I have no word that beautifully describes that ideal.  That is, I have no word that can compete with the appellation, "story."

I have probably spoken about this before, but it fits in here so I'll risk repeating myself.  The rise of the word story does not begin in D&D or role-playing, but in business.  Dale Carnegie presents the idea in his wildly suscessful 1936 best-seller, How to Win Friends and Influence People.  Chapter one starts,

If You Want to Gather Honey, Don't Kick Over the Beehive

On May 7, 1931, the most sensational manhunt New York City had ever known had come to its climax. After weeks of search, "Two Gun" Crowley -- the killer, the gunman who didn't smoke or drink -- was at bay, trapped in his sweetheart's apartment on West End Avenue.

One hundred and fifty policemen and detectives laid siege to his top-floor hideaway. They chopped holes in the roof; they tried to smoke out Crowley, the "cop killer," with tear gas. Then they mounted their machine guns on surrounding buildings, and for more than an hour one of New York's fine residential areas reverberated with the crack of pistol fire and the rat-tat-tat of machine guns. Crowley, crouching behind an overstuffed chair, fired incessantly at the police. Ten thousand excited people watched the battle. Nothing like it had ever been seen before on the sidewalks of New York.

When Crowley was captured, Police Commissioner E. P. Mulrooney declared that the two-gun desperado was one of the most dangerous criminals ever encountered in the history of New York. "He will kill," said the Commissioner, "at the drop of a feather."

But how did "Two Gun" Crowley regard himself? We know, because while the police were firing into his apartment, he wrote a letter addressed "To whom it may concern." And, as he wrote, the blood flowing from his wounds left a crimson trail on the paper. In his letter Crowley said: "Under my coat is a weary heart, but a kind one -- one that would do nobody any harm."

A short time before this, Crowley had been having a necking party with his girl friend on a country road out on Long Island. Suddenly a policeman walked up to the car and said: "Let me see your license."

Without saying a word, Crowley drew his gun and cut the policeman down with a shower of lead. As the dying officer fell, Crowley leaped out of the car, grabbed the officer's revolver, and fired another bullet into the prostrate body.  And that was the killer who said: "Under my coat is a weary heart, but a kind one -- one that would do nobody any harm."

Crowley was sentenced to the electric chair. When he arrived at the death house in Sing Sing, did he say, "This is what I get for killing people"?  No, he said: "This is what I get for defending myself."

The point of the story is this: "Two Gun" Crowley didn't blame himself for anything.

Why start with this story?   If you like, you can see endless interpretations of the answer on youtube, with titles like, The Undeniable Power of Business Storytelling ... Three Principles of Business Storytelling ... The Magical Science of Storytelling ... The Art of Business Storytelling ... and on, and on.  If you randomly pick any event where someone in business is going to tell you how to do better in business, I promise than in the first five minutes, they're going to talk about why you must learn to tell a story.  And, I'm afraid it's true.

Somewhere between the ages of 2 and 3, your brain developed to the point where you began to understand things in a chronological context.  Before you became aware of the fascination behind all this, you were intensely fascinated ... and if you were a child whose parents took the time to read you stories, or tell you their own stories, they hard-baked comprehensions and patterns into your brain that remain to this day.  Your ability to be a dungeon master is largely shaped by your parents — or whomever you had as a guardian — and their ability to lay out events in chronological order.  If your grasp of this skill is good, you can tell a joke.  You can frame the order in which work needs to be done.  You can look into your own past and understand how your present circumstances are the consequence of things that you did, or others did.

The next stage of that storytelling education emerges somewhere between the age of 5 and 9, or not at all.  It begins with your beginning to "get" a joke.  It starts with this sort of joke:

What's the difference between an apple and a grape?  A grape is purple.

Silly, but the formula is universal.  You're presented with a conundrum, you expect a serious answer, you get a nonsense — but true — answer, and your preconceptions are remolded.  As you mature, along with those around you, the pattern is advanced in an attempt to do more than remold your preconceptions, but to also shatter your pre-set assumptions about problem-solving AND the depths of imagination.  Here is an actual joke from my grade 2, not shared with adults:

What's easier to unload?  A truck full of bricks or a truck full of dead babies?  Dead babies.  You can't use a pitchfork on bricks.

As I said, the same construction.  Only now you're forced to uncomfortably acknowledge the truth about something that's deeply disturbing ... which is why children, restrained and oppressed by the brutal regime of school, adore jokes like this.

The pattern progresses, however, until comprehension of the joke requires worldly knowledge, preconceptions about what the answer should be and ultimately an admittance of seeing things from one side only:

If only Africa had more mosquito nets, then every year we could save millions of mosquitos from dying needlessly of AIDS.

Once you grasp that a joke is about expectations and insight much more than it's about being funny, this empowers you to produce varying kinds of stories that lead persons into one kind of thinking, burying all the necessary seeds into the story that you'll need later to rip the listener from one kind of expectation into another sort of insight.  You never gave one second's thought to the death of mosquitos ... yet you most likely ARE extremely sensitive about death.  That inner discontinuity serves the manner in which you're dragged into examining your preconceptions in all of 21 words.  But that is why Jimmy Carr is such a brilliant joke writer.

What is Carnegie's story about?  Is it about the capture of a desperado?  The willingness of a murderer to kill?  Evidence that a criminal refuses to accept responsibility for his crimes?  Why is it you know that's not what the story is about.

Assuming you know.  Many people can't make the connections you or I can't.  Some are still trying to understand the mosquito joke.

We know that story is NOT about a criminal, because the title of the book is How to Win Friends and Influence People.  Obviously, this isn't done by being a criminal.  In fact, equally blatant, is that a trigger-happy criminal is exactly the opposite of winning friends or influencing anyone ... at least, in 1936.  First lesson: you want friends?  You want influence?  Don't kill cops.

Yet we also know it's deeper than that.  The story makes a connection between what Two-Gun Crowley does and what the reader also does, which is summed up in the last five words.  You recognise the moral because, well, you've heard thousands of stories with morals since the age of 2, jokes included, and you're ready for the moral from the first word of Carnegie's story.  From the start, you're looking for the moral, knowing it's there, like a commuter doing a crossword puzzle (sorry for that metaphor, must be the 1936 thing).  Long before Carnegie gets there, you're primed.

This priming is what makes stories work so well.  Not because you're satisfied with the moral — you're not.  It's trite, hackneyed, often isn't the reason you're not doing well with other people and, in general, a waste of your time, what with you being a 2020-something citizen of the world.  NO, it's because the moral is there.  It has to be.  Your disappointment is immaterial.  With something like this, you're a cro-magnon animal 125,000 years ago poking between rocks and lifting shrub branches looking for bird's eggs, which at this time of year are always around, but they have to be found.  You're standing up to your thighs, bent over a river, waiting for a trout that will come, so that you will eat, but only if you stand absolutely still for as long as it takes.

You're stupid this way.

That is to say, this behaviour made sense for your distant forefathers, but you actually have better things to read that don't end in cheesy moralisms.  But here you are, reading through an 86-year-old story about how to win friends, not knowing what you'll get or if it will be worth the time spent.  Sometimes, there are no eggs to be found.  Sometimes there ain't no fish.

Me, I'm taking this time to tell my own Carnegie-like story, because now I'm ready for my punchline.  Your fascination with game modules and other products is just like the fish-waiting habits of our ancestors.  You expect to see something cool and important in the module you're buying, just knowing it's got to be there ... and it doesn't matter how many times you've been disappointed in the past.  Because even if you didn't find eggs last time, or catch any fish, you know eggs exist somewhere, that eventually, yes, you'll catch fish.  Because that's how the world works.  That's precisely the way we're all stupid enough to eventually succeed.

The difference between a railroaded story and player agency is your perception of where fish comes from.  If you're the sort of person who hunts constantly for other people's fish, you'll buy modules and run to the name game version.  If, on the other hand, you're the sort who believes in finding your own fish, you'll stand in your own stream.

Those professionals telling audiences how stories are going to make them good business-people are lying.  The story is the message, not what the story says.  With an audience as primed as these, a good speaker can churn any sort of bullshit so long as it sounds clever and ends in a semi-literate moral.  Which is just what these people do.  Don't believe me.  Listen to their spiel.

The same argument can be made for how primed D&D players are for anything we want to put in front of them.  Once a player gets excited by the concept of making even tiny decisions, they'll climb aboard the train as soon as the whistle blows ... regardless of how well that train's run.  And no worry if the adventure's any good; these players are so stoked to find something, they'll lift every branch and stand freezing and miserable in every stream until they find it.  And they will find it, because they're stupid this way.

[and damn it, I set these metaphors up one by one; they're not mixed].


What do we tell a new DM?  I think, probably, the standard boiler plate.  Try a module, and once you see how an adventure is put together, try to make one of your own.  If the DM had the select kind of parents, was raised on stories and jokes, can tell a joke properly, and understands the construction of chronology, he or she will grasp the notion of making their own adventures pretty quickly.  They'll want to catch their own fish.

But if the DM isn't that sort, didn't have books around, wasn't told stories, can't get jokes, yearns for others to make things make sense, then they'll buy fish at the store, every time.  No matter how often they're taught how to catch fish.  I'll remind you, this is the post that got this series started.  Admit it.  Some of you learned how to fish as a child.  Do you fish now?

Finally, there's an answer to the quote at the top of the post, about "just" making a story.  Ask,

"Can you tell the difference between a good story and a bad one?  Can you make a good story?  Or are you just assuming you can buy good stories, and you assume someone else is doing it?  Because I'm not convinced of that.  I think mostly what I've seen at the store are BAD stories, and I can do better.  But if you think you know the difference between good and bad, and you think you can make a good story, tell it to me now.  I'm listening."


Wednesday, July 27, 2022

The Woods

I suspect the subject material of educating new DMs has begun to wear.  It's what I have, I'm afraid.  I've been gnawing the teeth of my intellect upon introducing two aspects of the problem.  Both are age-old troubles.  Neither has a factual solution to my knowledge, though I've attempted both in the past.

(a) how does a DM talk to players?  And (b) how does a DM start worldbuilding from scratch?


I just start talking.  It feels like that's how I've always been — I've been talking since a very young age ... younger than many, it seems.  Arguing began somewhere between the age of 5 and 6, I think brought on by the dynamics of board games.  Seems everyone in my family were always starting an argument during a board game.  As it happens, arguing is an important part of the dynamic of presenting D&D, since we're doing more than describing what the players see ... we're literally setting out to convince them that they're seeing this thing we've imagined.  Therefore when DMing, I'm "leaning in," compelling the players to get interested, get busy, get worried about what's going to happen next.

It's been so long since I started a world from scratch, I'm forced to draw on memories going back 37 years.  Essentially, pick a place.  Pick a scene within that place.  Have something happen there, which intrigues or threatens the players.  Explain why that thing happened, and specifically in that scene, by building up the place that enables it.

For example: Say the "place" is a big city, say something like Vienna.  The "scene" is a tiny plaza with stone paving, at night, where four streets meet.  What happens is that while the party is searching for a room at an inn, they see a long, reptilian creature laying in the street, and realise in time, from about forty feet away, that it's a basilisk.  Go.

Okay, so ... putting these two thoughts together.

We have no game world.  Just this street scene.  There's no inn, no larger Vienna, nothing.  The players have their characters, collectively they have more hit points than the basilisk, conceivably they could take the monster.  It's up to them to decide what they want to do.

It's not enough for me to say, "You see a basilisk."  To present the scene as real, I've got to present the basilisk in the same manner that I would if it were a large, 9-foot log laying in the middle of the street.  First, you don't know what it is.  It looks ... possibly threatening.  It's in your path.  Minimal details.  Because at night, with all the various obstacles a street might present (the street isn't level, there are steps and posts and possibly trees overhanging, plus shadows from various structures), absolute knowledge is not immediately available, so as a DM, I don't provide absolute knowledge.  It may be a log.  You don't know.  It may be anything.  And if the players pull their weapons and proceed to sneak up on it, and find it's only a log, they'll be embarrassed.  That is also in their minds.

Beyond the words of the presentation, there's my willingness to emote.  There's a difference between my leaning back in a chair, arms languishing, muttering bland phrases, and my looking sternly at the papers in front of me, standing up, leaning forward, frowning, and saying in low tones, "There's something up ahead."

We can go through the business of rolling fake dice to suggest something's happening.  We can shuffle papers and mutter, "oh shit," under our breath, as though we've discovered something unexpected that the party now has to deal with ... but in fact, the only real message we have to send about the thing up ahead is that we believe in it, and that it matters.  We don't need the dumbshow.  The dumbshow works; and it's a tool we can reserve.  But we don't need it.

My choice of words writing this post strives to convince you, the reader, that I mean what I say and that this is serious.  This same choice of words, the diligence that underlies them, bespeaks the same message to the players.  I'm expressing my view as hard as I can that there's something in the street.  I'm presenting arguments: it's this long, it's this colour, it's something that doesn't belong there.  Your reaction to that presentation carries the game.  If I can't convince you that there's something life threatening ahead, that you need to care about, then you will blow off everything I say as something not worth bothering about.  This is what I mean when I say that I'm arguing you into the game.

Now.  Once you've learned what the basilisk is, you have to assess the threat it offers.  It's moving as if it's heard something; the party doesn't dare watch it for any length of time.  No one has a mirror, because it's the first day and no one expects a basilisk.  Is it safe to run?  Can it run faster than us?  Is it just one basilisk, or is this merely one of a group?  These are questions you to which you want an answer.

Can you ask me?  Yes, but I'm under no obligation to answer.  You have no idea if it's safe to run, or how fast the basilisk can go, or how many of them are out here on the streets of Vienna.  You have no idea why it's here.  You can quote the Monster Manual at me, but I can answer that the statistics in that book are subject to revisionment by me, the DM, as I see fit.  The basilisks in Gygax's world may run this fast, but this isn't Gygax's world, is it?

Over and over you ask, what is this thing doing here?  A basilisk?  In the middle of Vienna?  What the hell?

I ran this encounter in the Autumn of 1984, after deciding I'd start running the real world.  I had a fascination with Vienna at the time and felt it was a good place to start the campaign.  I hoped to draw the players into the Wienerwald Forest (my first Earth-campaign took place in 1500, so obviously the forest was much wilder that Johann Strauss found it), also known as the Vienna Woods.  I hoped for a journey into the Alps, and around the Neusiedler See.  The players decided they preferred to travel east, which they did until they reached Odessa.

They killed the basilisk and learned the beast had escaped from a mage's menagerie and that much of the city had been searching for it.  The mage was unhappy that his monster had been killed; the desire had been to catch it.  Nonetheless, the party was forgiven, the mage invited them to dinner, I dropped hints about places to visit and the party snubbed me.  No harm done.

My point here is that inventing a reason for the basilisk to be here has to be believable ... which, thanks to D&D, is provided by a wide range of possibilities.  The mage's reaction to the killing, coupled with the others around the mage who showed signs of relief, established the theme of my game world, which had been growing in the years before 1984: first, that things are not as they seem; second, that anything can happen anywhere, at any time; and third, there's always a reason.  No matter how nutty the outset might be, once all the facts are known, the thing won't appear to be nutty at all.

I have no idea how such a thing can be conveyed to someone who has never run the game before; or who hasn't the imagination to produce a reason for things; or thinks that "reason" is a detriment to a campaign, which really ought to be about "fantasy."  Such people are wrong.  Players, whether they're conscious of it or no, are human, and thus are helplessly driven to understand why a thing happens, for no other reason than because they're hard-wired this way.  We are thrown into an absurd world about which we know exactly nothing, about which we must persevere to understand if we'd rather not get hit by a bus, starve, work a miserable job for years upon years or die alone.  Quite obviously, many people fail at this.  Most commonly, for lack of proper instruction.  Particularly the failure to bring the message effectively that survival means knowing things.

As a DM, not convincing the players that the game world "matters," along with the decisions they make, is a campaign's death sentence.  The death sentence, as a matter of fact.  We only care about things that matter, and only because that thing serves our immediate need in a way that sustains our agenda.  The more frivolous things appear, the less we care, thus the less we invest and, inevitably, the more likely we are that we'll find something else to do come Saturday.

My game has survived, and continues it's appeal, because I present it as deadly serious, as if the players were deciding which college to attend, which partner to marry, which car to buy, which house they want to live in.  It makes next to no difference that my game is NOT the equal of these other things; I present the game as if it is, arguing with all my passion that it is ... and my players, in turn, receive pleasure from the campaign's significance.

Pleasure is infinitely more gratifying that fun.  "Fun" is lighthearted, momentary, easily obtained in hundreds of places, not just a D&D game.  The DM striving to produce fun competes with drink, family, company, sports, film, fast cars and other instant-and-easy amusements.  Such activities don't need individuals to fritter with details or situations that don't resolve themselves.  Fun can certainly be had without the necessity of books or making decisions!

Pleasure, on the other hand, has the potential for intimacy and affection.  Run right, with players anxious to stretch themselves as thinking persons, D&D can entangle the participants in a way that no other activity can.  It offers itself as an addiction ... which is as potentially destructive as a narcotic, in that a person can grow so attached that they abandon all other pursuits, including fruitful work and family.  A friend of mine from the 80s ended up going to a counsellor and had to quit D&D because he loved it much too much.  He had quit his job, essentially abandoning his marriage as he lost his grip on responsibility and reality.

I don't believe there's a need to be cautious here.  We are, most of us, grounded.  But in giving advice to a new DM, I would suggest most strongly that falling in love with their game world, and especially the character's of that world, is not a requirement.  Nonetheless, they should view the project with a sense of doing something important, like producing a piece of entertainment for the benefit of other persons — with all the responsibility that implies.  It is a responsibility I yearn for, personally.  I like the opportunity to build mazes, to lead others through these mazes and to do so for their pleasure, as something they'll treasure.

Acknowledging that the whole process is useless without an audience.

Well, I've been listening to Strauss for more than an hour, wandering these woods in hopes of finding a path.  Alas, I'm still lost.  It isn't that I don't know what to do as a DM; only that I'm at a loss how to explain it to someone with no experience.

Monday, July 25, 2022

Making the Character (official)


Making the Character

Most D&D versions provide a step-by-step method for generating player characters from scratch, which is helpful for the new DM. It helps enormously when we become exceedingly familiar with the routine of making characters, so we can be a helpmeet to players – especially new players – we introduce to the game. I recommend that you puzzle out as many nuances of your particular rule book by actually making two or three dozen characters, from start to finish. Try to view each part as the player would.

For some, making character after character is an exciting prospect; for others, it might become a bit tedious. Remember that you’re doing it to acquaint yourself with the character making process – tough it out as best you can, but get at least two dozen characters made. Three dozen is better.

When the time comes to direct the characters through the method, we can encourage them not to spend very much time providing incidental details regarding their character’s likes or dislikes – or even the character’s origins. These things can be left for later, if we need to include them at all. Primarily, we need to concentrate on getting the character’s structure ready for game play ... and for that reason we can concentrate on the bare bones of detail we need.

One reality of being the DM is having to know much more than the players. Players are free to choose the character class with which they’re most comfortable – but the DM must have a complete knowledge of all the character class abilities and nuances. This allows the DM to supervise what the players can do, to ensure they’re playing inside the game’s boundaries ... but more importantly, an thorough knowledge of characters also lets us make useful suggestions, helping guide players when they need it. Players often ask, “What should I do?” In such moments, the DM could offer advice as to what a fighter or a thief would probably do – or a mage, if that was the player’s character at the time.

Such advice must never be compromised by the game’s events at that moment. For example, if the players were in an underground setting, gathered outside a door hiding who knows what, it would be very bad form if a DM urged the players to rush through the door and into the gathering of monsters waiting on the other side. Equally, a DM shouldn’t give tactical advice on how to deal with the door either, as this would be “running” the player characters.

Good advice is general. We tell the players to check their equipment lists; to make a plan; to remember that fighters have more hit points than other classes; or to be careful. This non-specific but cautionary advice supports the players without “giving away the game.”

Thus, during the character building phase, a DM with good, solid knowledge on how each character will function once the game begins can offer the best advice about what the player’s choice of weapons, spells, needed equipment and so on. By spending time making our own characters, complete with choosing every detail down to buying equipment with varying amounts of starting coin, we educate ourselves better than the player as to HOW to make a character from scratch. The more experience we have with this process, the more good sense we can provide.

If the grinding out of imaginary characters that you’ll never run in a game begins to get you down, here are a few things to consider. First, in your game setting, the player characters will meet people along the way, ready to act as friends or enemies towards the players. Each “non” player character – commonly called “NPCs” – can be inserted into your setting to serve in that capacity. They may be guards, farmers, informants, tavern keepers, mercenary soldiers, members of the court or whatever you choose to make them.

Additionally, you may have a penchant for collecting “miniatures” – small three dimensional figures made of plastic or metal, which can be used to represent the players on some representation of setting, like a street or an underground corridor. To maintain your interest, you could invent a personalised NPC for each miniature, giving them a name, a class, even ambitions. Even if the miniature is someday used for someone else’s character ... for you, that miniature will also be Recard or Falyn, or whomever. Quite possibly for many years to come. Connections of this kind between your game and physical representations can be thoroughly satisfying ... and those feelings will strengthen the relationship between you as DM, your setting and your players.

Saturday, July 23, 2022


It's torture to read Mentzer.  There's hardly a paragraph that doesn't stoke my ire, from his toxic interpretations of strength, intelligence, wisdom and so on to his clumsy, splattering approach to delivering game rules at random throughout his books.  Reading through the famously popular scene of "Learning how to play the D&D game," I want to bang my head repeatedly on the table as he unreservely, irresponsibly primes the reader towards the worst kind of railroaded gaming, ending with the absure and insulting, "You have just played a D&D game!"

No, I have not.  I've watched a hack write language imposing his actions and his choices on me, with flagrant use of the 2nd person, while making every decision in exchange for my tacit, momentary input.  Vomit.  Thank the fucking CHRIST I didn't read this fluffy, shit crap refuse until the 2000s.

It's indefensible.  For the record, "I thought it was amazing when I was an ignorant child" is not a defense, it's evidence of the brainwashery going on here.  I don't want to pull every bloody sentence and deconstruct this steaming drivel, but I could.  Oh, fuck, I could.

My point being that this is a considerable obstacle towards teaching people how to be a DM.  Not because they'll have ever read Mentzer, but because of this:  quoting from Dennis Laffey,

"I got the Mentzer Basic set for my 11th birthday, back in 1984. I'd seen the D&D cartoon, had a few Endless Quest books (plus Choose Your Own Adventure and similar 2nd person fiction game-books), and was into fantasy and mythology ... Anyway, that birthday gift changed my life.

I remember reading the Mentzer set's player introduction. There's the little tutorial where you meet Aleena the Cleric and Bargle. It gives you a bit of railroady interactive fiction and makes you roll some dice here and there. Explains some terms as they come up.

Then there's the "choose your own adventure" tutorial. Numbered paragraphs or sections of text with CYOA type choices of section to go to lead you through a solo game. It's possible to fail. Since it's just you and the book, it's VERY easy to cheat. But again, it helps guide you through some of the game mechanics and introduces not just game terms and systems (in a watered down fashion), but also the sorts of situations you could expect as a player.

And it worked pretty well. I got it. I think I cheated on the CYOA adventure the first time I did it, but I played it a few more times until I was able to beat it fair and square."

Sorry, Dennis.   I don't have no intention of diminishing your real emotions here.  I read the above last night and took your words as an inspiration to look at Mentzer in application to issues I've discussing with this series.  Unfortunately, I cannot get out of Mentzer what you did, because I come at this game from a very different place.

However, like you, many, many don't.  Mentzer's propaganda caught on and invested itself deep into the D&D community's consciousness ... and because D&D is an apprenticeship-style education for most of its participants, what Mentzer wrote nearly 40 years ago has been perpetuated and corrupted into the abomination that is 5th edition.

Naturally, I'm a voice in the wilderness.  People love and adore Mentzer's work for those examples Dennis gave, and more than a few are scratching their heads now (if they're even still reading) as to what the hell is my problem with this:

"It's hard to run with the cleric across your shoulder, but you finally get back just as the sun goes down.  Once there, you take her body to the church.  It's too late to help her, but they can give her a proper burial.  They thank you for your kindness, and offer a small bottle as a reward."

Wow, you tried to save her and you couldn't.  And the church was so moved by your action that they gave up something of theirs for you.  Isn't that wonderful?


The #1 action of a good party is to ask questions.  During an average game, outside of combat, I field between 3-5 questions a minute, maybe more.  The DM's #1 action is to answer questions.  THIS is the game.  The players ask, the DM answers.  The players ask, the DM answers.  This goes on all night.

Mentzer's "example" has no questions; because it cannot.  It's a story, which D&D is not.  The framework of the example totally denies the possibility of player expression, because of the format.  And the game IS player expression.  So how exactly have we played a D&D game?

And for that matter, what does the passage teach DMs?  Remember, the people who actually have to invent all this?  It doesn't.  At all.  Because Mentzer definitely isn't interested in teaching you how to DM.  The module will DM you.  This passage is teaching you how to obey a module.

You're a young, impressionable child, reading this, being educated to depend on modules ... and decades later that idea remains unsurfaced in your approach to the game.  So you think this is okay.  You buy some modules, play with your friends, have fun ... so it's okay.  You meet others, they have modules which they run, and soon enough it's time to go to college and still it hasn't occurred to you that nothing you've read has ever seemingly been written for specifically DMing the game.  2e comes along, imposes it's universal metric which makes writing modules — and balancing modules for different party strengths — easier.  3rd comes along and drenches the players with opportunities and possibilities, but what does it do for the DM?  Nothing ... except give the DM more to memorise.  Each step along the way, there's always more and more for the player, but for the DM?  We have this module.  Run this module.  We have lots of modules.  We'd prefer you run it as is.  Sure, you can rewrite it as you please ... but we're not going to help you do that.  We're not going to give you advice, hell no.

I started to seriously drop out of the D&D community by 1985.  I had my game, I was working full time as a statistical clerk making absurd amounts of money ... and the whole vibe I was getting from others was just ... ech.  I'd pretty much learned how to run tolerably well.  My best player at the time, who was deeply invested in the community still, told me around 1989 that I was the best DM he'd ever known ... and as he'd grown up in Chicago in the 1970s, he'd met Gygax and Arneson personally.  So I respected that compliment ... but honestly, I thought I was just doing what a lot of others were doing.  After all, one player has a pretty limited experience, this being long before the internet.

There's something to be said about my dropping out.  I didn't buy modules.  I had one party, so it's not like I could run the Keep on the Borderlands multiple times.  I learned how to write.  I learned how to perform on a stage.  I'd started in the debate club and moved into campus politics, so I knew how to produce a defending argument.  That was strengthened by my classics degree.  And through it all, I operated in a vacuum.  No contact, with anyone else, with regards to D&D ... for nearly 15 years.

So, I have zero nostalgic feelings about any part of D&D, period.  Not about AD&D, not about Basic, which I played for about four months before we all switched to 1st, not about modules, not about the forgotten realms books, not about anything.  Long before I stepped forward into the D&D community again, I'd so absolutely broken up every system I'd encountered that I had as much respect for them as a renovator has for the house he bought vs. the house he's rebuilt.

Those who taught me how to DM all did so in '79 and the early 80s ... and apparently then went on DMing in exactly the same way for the next forty years.  They waited for others to tell them what to change and what to adopt.  Essentially, they let others into their house, allowing repairs to made that broke the plumbing, broke the heating, weakened the foundation, fouled the wiring and — upon departing — left holes in every wall and scratched the floors beyond repair.  Because that was easier than making the repairs personally.

And now I read homeowner after homeowner with a house like this happily going on youtube and telling me, "It's GREAT!"

Definitely an obstacle.

Ask yourself, from Mentzer's observations on page 2:  do you want your player to "be like an actor," imagining they are someone else and pretending to be that character?  Do you want your player to be "a strong hero, a famous but poor fighter"?  Does that support a vivid, flexible campaign?  Do you want the party to "be playing different roles and talking together as if [they] were the characters"?  Have you experienced where that goes as a DM?  Do you want the players thinking that the game is "looking for monsters and treasure" with the result that "The more you find, the more powerful and famous you become"?  Is that how the setting works for you?  That despite the total lack of witnesses, when a group of rich pillagers and killers show up in a town covered in dust and blood, wounded, but with tons of money ... everyone automatically makes them beloved celebrities?  Really?

Is the equipment the party needs "very similar to what you would carry when camping"?  Is the choice to take weapons and armour, in order to invade an underground lair, properly described as "protection"?

Each description is there to blow right past any real issue a nuanced, thinking person would have with the activities supported and condoned by the work.  And the fall-out?  That's the DM's problem.  Is it any wonder that DMs have, for a long time, struggled with the concept of parties who act like murder-hobos ... when the modules that are made, the language that is used, the pandering position that's taken, encourages this.

I keep reading how the "answer" is to remove the reward system for treasure; that's not the answer.  The answer is to devise better adventures, ones in which the comfort level of the participant is challenged realistically, instead of enabling the players to be monsters.

Friday, July 22, 2022

Setting the Standard

For the record, this series of how to DM posts have as their goal not to teach anyone how to DM ... that would require the actual book, not a series of paragraphs scattered all round.  This series began, and was inspired by, a desire to write about the many hurdles that the author of such a book would have to overcome.

If this were 1980, I could write a four page pamphlet that said basically, 

AD&D has its problems, but it's a vast improvement over Basic D&D in that it touches on far more subjects and solves problems that BD&D doesn't remotely acknowledge.  Beware moments in AD&D where the author (s) went too far up their own assholes; ignore unnecessary rules such as alignment, paying to be trained, race tolerances and stat minimums, along with others that constrain play rather than enable it.  Ignore rules like psionics, which provide too much power to the players and have too few rules. The illusionist and bard are unfortunately writer failures; but they're good ideas, so sit down and make better rules.  Concentrate on the actual events of play and building your game world; keep character creation short and simple; and get the players out of a dungeon once in a while.

But ... this isn't the simple days of 1980.  D&D has been overhauled, cocked up, divided and subdivided, beyond repair.  ANYONE entering into the realm of D&D as a new player doesn't know it yet, but the day will come when they learn of the game's sordid, polluted history, causing them to scratch their heads and mutter, "Whaaaaa—?"  They will have their balloon popped by cretinous morons online, they'll find themselves ripped off of hundreds of dollars in product, they'll grumble at the bullshit spewed by the company each time the company decides to gut some other part of the game for a few bucks.  They'll be bullied by players, humiliated at cons, frustrated with the amount of work needed to be done to fix a $60 module and with each denegration their resentment will grow and grow, until it consumes their game completely ... whereupon they'll become one of those people who say, "D&D?  Yeah, I used to play.  I liked it for a while, but ... well.  It's kinda stupid."

If there's any chance — at all — that I can be the one shining lighthouse in this murk of a game, I will be.  That can't happen by ignoring the murk.  One has to cut through it, explain it, enlighten the DM and get them on the right path.  Teaching a new DM is really teaching two people.  The one who picks up the book and knows nothing, and the one who picks up the book again two years later and finds greater clarification they didn't see before.  A good book isn't meant to be read once, but as a tool to be returned to again and again, as the DM evolves.  And I want to write a good book.

So when I write that we've got to put answers into a DM's pocket that can be used against a player, I'm thinking of the tool that makes our would-be reader damned glad he or she has this book ... because time and time again, it's saved them a ton of bloody woe.  For me, there's no other reason to write such a book.  For me, if the effort isn't made to put this book at the forefront of the buyer's game shelf; if the book isn't good enough to be brought to the table when the DM runs the game ...

Then there's no point in making any effort at all.

Thursday, July 21, 2022

Come, Herpminadelphius!

Following yesterday's discussion:

Making the Character

Most D&D versions provide a step-by-step method for generating player characters from scratch, which is helpful for the new DM. It helps enormously when we become exceedingly familiar with the routine of making characters, so we can be a helpmeet to players – especially new players – we introduce to the game. I recommend that you puzzle out as many nuances of your particular rule book by actually making two or three dozen characters, from start to finish. Try to view each part as the player would.

For some, making character after character is an exciting prospect; for others, it might become a bit tedious. Remember that you’re doing it to acquaint yourself with the character making process – tough it out as best you can, but get at least two dozen characters made. Three dozen is better.

When the time comes to direct the characters through the method, we can encourage them not to spend very much time providing incidental details regarding their character’s likes or dislikes – or even the character’s origins. These things can be left for later, if we need to include them at all. Primarily, we need to concentrate on getting the character’s structure ready for game play ... and for that reason we can concentrate on the bare bones of detail we need.

We may loosely divide the character’s construction into four categories: the character’s physical and mental qualities; what the character knows how to do; the character’s resilience against enemies; and what the character possesses.

Lot of thought to possess 251 words ... and now we come to a crossroads.  How deep into the game do we wish to go, given that we're talking multiple versions being addressed at once?

I think that depends on whether we intend to produce a pamphlet or a book that stands up to being read multiple times.  Because I write long posts, I'm sometimes accused of going on too long about a subject.  Surely that's not what we want here.  At the same time, I'm trying to show through these posts how much deliberation goes into writing a tiny amount of words — even a single sentence.  Writing a lot isn't always a question of waffling on ... sometimes, we write a lot because there's a lot to say.

So, what is here to say?  Well, we can address the age old question of what the ability stats are, what they stand for, the difference between wisdom and intelligence and so on; we can write on whether we need a distinction between charisma and comeliness; we can talk about alignment; and how much coin to give a character to start the game; and we can talk about restricting character names.  I played in a game my first year with a fellow who's two characters were named "Exlax" and "Fruit-of-the-Tomb."  Are these names acceptable?  Are they real names, or monikers?  Should the character be forced to admit to a real name, whatever they call themselves in-game?  These are questions a DM will have to answer for his or her self, and for the players.

One comment I made yesterday to Sterling is relevant.  Players will ask the DM questions, which the DM will have to answer.  These are questions that have been around since the beginning, which I and my mates had to puzzle out for ourselves — through more than a few violent shouting matches.  Some, I know, will argue this was good for us; that every group of players needs this trial by fire to sort themselves out as DMs and players.  That if they're committed to the game, they'll be fine.  I can't agree with this approach.  Ultimately, it led to the company interposing itself to offer defacto statements for DMs, to the point where young, foolish DMs write directly to the company to have the company make decisions the DM ought to make.

But "Aha!" says the Gentle Reader.  "That proves DMs have to work these problems out for themselves!"  Does it?  Or does it prove that one voice, whether it's that of the DM, the company or me, is not a reliable source.  There's an argument to be made that the company should have taught how to resolve these matters rather than shooting straight in and assuming the Voice On High approach.


As DM, you will face arguments.  Players will seek alternate interpretations of a rule's language, one that better favours their position, and will concoct all sorts of arguments for why a change needs to be made to maintain the "integrity" of the rules.  This behaviour can be witnessed in all human interactions, from personal agreements between employees and bosses to deliberations between states.  Most players will, at one time or another, however much they have, attempt some argument in the hopes of getting a little more.

Our position is strengthened by our expecting this.  We need to ready ourselves for pitches the players make, preparing arguments of our own that we can implement if need be.  That requires more than knowing the rules.  We must know how to defend them, and why.  Otherwise, the players will run roughshod over our campaign, claiming duress that we've caused them by failing to give into their demands.

Believe it or not, the solution is to demonstrate greater strength as a DM than the other can as a player.  This doesn't mean to be deaf, dumb and blind to the player's suggestions or questions — and if the player does invent some interpretation that we can't legitimately produce an argument against, we should let the player have his or her way.  But we mustn't let ourselves be bullied.  If the player raises his or her voice, stand up from your chair and repeat your position.  If the player stands as well, hold your ground.  And if the player gets out of control, ask the player to leave.  Should it come to that, give every opportunity for the player to return and apologise — but make it clear that the matter is settled, and that as a DM standing in defense of your game, you have nothing to apologise for.

Unless, of course, you lose control yourself.  Apologise for that.

This is merely a first attempt, of course.  But it gets across the point I'm making.  Note that I won't use the term, "rules lawyer."  Don't ever use this term!  It was created by presumptive DMs to disparage any player voice that might disagree with the Holy DM and it's worked well as a label to shout down players.  Part of the problem with the above text is that it fails to make it CLEAR ENOUGH that as a DM, you're often wrong — often very, very wrong — and that needs addressing also.

The whole matter of DM-decision-making is a quagmire, but it can't be ignored.  It's something we'll have to come back to again and again.  My chief point at present is that the phase above about readying counter-arguments to what the players say.  A DM cannot just decide, "I'm using training rules in my game."  That's a recipe for 101 arguments from players; myself, I'd leave a game on that fundamental point by itself.  A DM's got to justify that rule ... and that justification has to be very damn good, because the rule is a flagrant cash-grab and abuse of the player.

Look:  in game, I've earned my experience.  I've made decisions that let me survive from 4th to 5th level and I've acquired every point by standing up to monsters and what the hell else.  And now you, as DM, are going to impose a completely unreasonable TAX on my actions?  What the fuck?  Now I pay real taxes because they make roads and schools and stop bad things from happening through fire and criminal behaviour ... among thousands of other good things.  But this is a totally arbitrary tax that awards the DM nothing.  Nothing of value to me is purchased with these ridiculous piles of money I'm handing over, while all I'm getting is the DM's say-so that "Yes, okay, you're 5th level now."

The fact that it's a cash grab is written straight into the rules of a book that tells the DM, "Don't let the players read this book" (or words to that effect, I can't be bothered to find the exact quote).  Guess why.  Because any player reading about the tax imposed by the training rule sees clearly how the DM is bending them over the gaming table.  In 40 years I've never heard an argument proposed that reasonably justifies this rule.

But do I want to go through every rule in the book, point-by-point and create a counter argument for the new DM?  Gawd no.  Thus the crossroads.  Clearly, some tools need to be provided.  Some structure of how to build a counter-player argument must be included, and how to cheerfully accept good arguments from players when they're provided.  The best strategy I have is to address a fair collection of rules throughout the book — two or three hundred, say — and try to explain the motivation behind circumventing them, as well as reasons to let them be.  Then, let the DM, thus armed, make his or her own decisions on what's the best approach.

We cannot let this thing be the Wild West.  We've tried that approach and all that's happened is present-day you-tube videos 43 years after the fact arguing that yes, we should definitely make players pay for training.  This is ridiculous.  At some point a general consensus must be built that will let these many BAD IDEAS of Gygax and Arneson DIE.

I appreciate that the reader may not be overly credulous that this is possible.  Perhaps this is not a tide against which we can swim.  But the alternative to addressing this ongoing idiocy is to let it go on.

I can't see that as a rational approach.

The right answer is to thread the needle on the subject better and with greater aplomb than has ever been done before ... which might be a truly difficult argument to make if I were discussing Hobbesian politics or Kantian philosophy.  Thankfully, I'm not.  I'm addressing thinkers on the scale of Gygax, Arneson, Mentzer, Mearls and Perkins.  "Titans" in this industry, but ... well, to borrow a scene from the ancient Heavy Metal comic, Tex Arcana ...

... it's a small pentagram.


Lastly, here's a quote from a renovator I regularly watch, discussing the philosophy of self-motivation towards renovation that applies equally well to DMing.  I include it here specifically because many parts are not my approach, but would obviously be very useful to a person not possessing my personality.  Yes, I'm able to conceive of that.

"How to be the person that's going to want to do it, and follow through with doing it ... that's the tricky part.

"I feel like you have to blend in when dealing with other, but be quietly aggressive.  Many people act in a way that makes you overestimate them, but in many cases they are not very competent.  I feel being underestimated, or someone others are not even thinking about is best.  Think long term and don't get distracted by temporary delights that are not important to you — that being the important part.  Don't be selfish and think only of yourself; it's not very motivating long-term, and it's easy to let yourself down — versus your children, for example.  I personally believe following the straight and narrow path is best.  When you deviate, you experience resistance.  All actions have consequences, so be slow to act and consider if the results are worth it.  It's okay to not always get what you want.  If I did everything I wanted, I would not have the things that I love the most."

Wednesday, July 20, 2022

Making the Character

If I could get myself back on track, then.  Looking at the whole of Moldvay's B5:

Accepting the rules as written, take a moment and parse what's here and why.  The ability scores are generated because they apply to what character class the player takes; the character class determines the character's skill set.  Both the abilities and this skill set are applied directly to actions taken in the campaign according to the rules of combat, physical actions, problem solving and so on.  The section for experience points will be filled as the player is rewarded for success.  Hit points give the character's resiliency, relating to chance of survival.  Alignment exists to limit the character's overall choice in future behaviour in the game setting.  The amount of gold generated determines what the player has and how much resources they can accumulate.  Weapons, armour and other equipment is purchased to enable the character against enemies and in response to nature.  Attacks and saving throws contribute to the character's effectiveness against these things.

Finally, a name is chose to discern this character from others, in game play.  It makes it easy for the DM to clarify if he's speaking to the player OR the player's character.

What's not here?

Specifically, what's not here that has become THE central tenet of the present-day game industry, none of which existed for the first two decades of the game's existence?

Everything that is here applies directly to the game's functionality.  Things will happen in the setting.  There must be some means of settling and resolving those things vs. the character's fortitude and cogency.  Since the character's skill set and resiliency improves as the game is played, through the acquisition of levels, the measurement of fortitude has to make itself felt ... and it does.  The characters are more effective in killing orcs, tougher and harder to kill, richer, better connected with forces in the game world and so on, as a result of what the character has done through game play.

So again.  What's not in Moldvay's list, that has no direct application to any rule in the game, which doesn't improve with game play and for which there isn't a die roll?

That's right.  The character's personality.  There isn't one.  There isn't so much the breath of asking for one.  Because it's not needed to play the game.  What the character feels, or hopes for, or what's happened to the character, or even where the character comes from, has NO RULE SET that gives that thing value.

And yet, like a kitchen sink that's been bolted onto a motorcycle, we've been saddled with back stories and character personalities and character aspirations ... when the player's personal reality is more than enough to satisfy those needs.

As a player, I want to beat the dragon, get it's treasure, use the money to build a castle and hire men-at-arms who will help me conquer the kingdom.  I don't give a good gawddamn what my "character" wants.  My character wants what I want.  That's what my character is for.  To exist as a tool that helps me get what I want.  This is how the game was built, this is how the original rules meant it to be and everything that's happened since some doofus decided the character was a separate entity from the player has been a complete sham.

Look at Moldvay's statement at the end of his example for creating the player character, on B13:

"The player is female and decides that her character will also be female.  Inspired by the name of Morgan le Fay from Arthurian legends, the player decides that the name of Morgan Ironwolf would be a good name for a fighter."

This is all the personality the character is granted.  A name.  Preferably a good one.  But the player is the one in the driver's seat.  Nothing else, whatsoever, is said about character personalities for the rest of the book.  Through the encounters passage, B23 and B24, it's made clear that the party decides what happens; no suggestion of any kind is made regarding what the characters may or may not want.  Combat follows and then we're into monsters.  No mention of character personality crops up during the treasure rules or the encounter tables after, whereupon we're into the example of the Haunted Keep on B55.

Finally, we get to a "sample dungeon encounter" on B59.  Here's a typical description of the player and DM speaking their parts (bold added by me):

(morgan speaking): Fred and Silverleaf will guard the secret door, and Black Dougal will open the box.  I'll search through the rags.  Anything that looks like a cloak or boots?

(DM speaking): Black Dougal, you find out that you missed a tiny discolored needle in the latch.

[black dougal blows a poison save and dies]

(fredrik speaking): I'm grabbing his pack to carry treasure in.

(rebecca speaking): I'm giving Black Dougal the last rites of my church.

First person.   All over.  None of this, "My character grabs his pack" or "does my character want to give last rights?"  This distancing nonsense between the player didn't exist for years and years, until some dick with a publishing credit decided we were going to divorce ourselves from direct involvement with the game by constantly interposing the character.  Or having the character ask permission to do something the PLAYER wants to do.

Next thing we had simple background stories about how, "My father was killed and now my character is hunting for the assassin," and that has led to, "When he died, my father bequeathed a +13 sword into my care, on the promise that I would find his assassin.  My father the king, that is; I'm heir to his throne, and when I'm recognised, I'll be emperor of the whole universe, whereupon I will regain my godlike powers and be able to shoot lightning from my hands, as my origin promises."  And so on.

I shut this nonsense down by pointing out that the character's father is an NPC, and I'm running this game, not the player.  The supposed assassin of the father is also an NPC; I decide who that assassin kills; I decide if the father's alive or not.  Because I'm in charge of the setting.  The player is not permitted to simply invent setting details to suit themselves ... nor are they permitted to give themselves objects out of the air, or confer lineages on themselves, or co-opt any part of the game for their own benefit simply because it pleases them.  They can lie about these things.  They can tell NPCs that they're the king of whatever or the god of Brobdingnang, but when the player starts to believe this nonsense, it's made clear that it's all a lie.  I'm not interested in running delusional people who are interested in their own games of nonsense; I'm here to run D&D.

Given the present climate, I'm finding it hard to concoct the words that a new DM needs to hear on this subject.  The character is a functional apparatus, designed to work in a functional setting.  Non-functional details aren't necessary and are, in fact, anathema to the appropriate details that should be acquired ONLY through game play.  If you succeed is usurping the kingdom, and name yourself king, then you've done it in game, through good play, according to the rules, and therefore you're OWED that position.  But you don't get a free lunch just because you want one.

Last night, I went searching for the meaning of playing a character in D&D and came up 100% empty.  There's advice for character builds, for step-by-step methodology, for why you absolutely need a character sheet if you're going to roll a character, what race you should be, what class you should play and so on.  There is a proliferation of 5e character generators, which pre-make backgrounds for you, in seconds.  Arguments are made that "a character is more than a stat block" ... and no.  No, a character isn't.  Because the character you make won't be around for dinner this week, or take your sister to the movies.  A character is a "stat block" because it's a set of rules for playing the legitimate game.

There is no sadder evidence of the utter failure of D&D as a game than the fetishism of character making over character running.


Giving advice to a would-be DM on "how to keep players from pursuing an excessive and irrational commitment to an ideal that has no application inside the game's rules" has me a bit stumped.  I'm not ready to take a swing yet.  By tomorrow, I may have had a revelation, or I may move onto the next problem and shelve this for a while.

Tuesday, July 19, 2022

Honest. I Don't Know Why I Have to Write these Posts from Time to Time, but Feel Free to Skip this One if You'd Rather Wait until I Get Back to Writing about Teaching DMing

Undertaking the task of teaching someone how to play D&D, who never has, requires the courage of one's convictions.  To write anything important, one must experience the matter at hand, one must gather evidence and then come to a conclusion, even if others may not agree or approve.  It's not possible to teach something from any other position.

I have many definite opinions about how to play D&D.  I've been doing this a long time and during that time, I haven't "dabbled."  From my introduction, I fell so hard in love with the game that I threw myself into hours of play every week.  When I was given the books for Christmas in 1979, I read them cover to cover.  And then I read them again ... and went on reading them regularly, over and over, examining every line, for the next twenty years.  In and around that time, I began rewriting them, which I continue to do until this day.

I disagree strongly with many commonly-held beliefs that people embrace, which have in turn become standard within the D&D community.  Many of the things I despise are absolutely cherished far and wide.  Modules.  DM screens.  Pregenerated characters and pro-forma character sheets.  D&D as a tournament.  Background stories.  Official adventuring.  It's a long, and in my mind, a sordid list.

Were I to write a book teaching someone how to DM, I wouldn't pay lip service to these things.  I wouldn't recommend that the reader of the book try running a one-off campaign.  I wouldn't suggest they should run dungeons for awhile until they have enough experience to run the outdoors, or a town.  I don't accept the argument that a new DM needs to walk before he or she runs.  I believe in making big mistakes and learning from them, not in taking tiny nibbles for fear of making a big mistake.

That said, crash courses are, in my opinion, failing to teach well.  I think most would imagine that teaching a new person how to DM would amount to a simple pamphlet, a mere 64 pages.  After all, what's there to know?  It's not like DMing is a difficult thing to do, is it?  It's not like there's a lot of nuance, or creativity involved, right?  No, oh no.  Let's slap 32 pages together, hit the high points and get on with playing!  After all, that's what this is all about, isn't it?  Playing.  Mustn't waste our time with details and actually learning how to do something.

JB and I went back and forth yesterday fairly hard.  No big deal.  We've done that two dozen times or more since our association.  He sells the popular model, I kick hell out of him, he compromises, I compromise ... he thinks clearer, I think clearer.  It's not the conflict that matters; it's the value that comes from the conflict.  People who fear conflict; who worry that conflict might create hard feelings; who hesitate before pulling the trigger, or who back away when voices rise and disagreement takes hold ... these are not people who have the courage of their convictions.  They're more concerned with how everyone feels than they are with FIXING the problem.

JB got me started on this project with the acknowledgement that (a) there are a great many people who have been left to flouder, unaided, with regards to DMing this game; and (b) that "there's a lot of bad D&D being played right now."  JB jumped back after saying that, taking out the word "bad," but I won't.  There is a lot of bad.  It's bad that was taught, it's bad that was perpetuated, it's bad that's been overlooked and excused and even defended under the banner of "fun." 

But what you think is bad and what I think is very different.  Most think "bad" D&D is that which isn't fun, or isn't played well, or doesn't work.  I think that all D&D that isn't "incredible" and "great" is, by definition, less than what it could be.  And that which is less, is bad.

As a teacher, I'm not interested in teaching people how to play "okay" D&D.  Or hobby-form D&D.  I want to teach people how to play fucking amazing D&D.  Not that people reading the book will.  They won't, because they won't listen to what I tell them.  They won't accept what I say as true.  They'll find excuses to cut down the amount of work or make concessions or otherwise act abusively towards their players or like simpering panderers.

I can't help that.  What I can do is make sure that the person reading my book who has the potential to be great won't be let down by my half-assing the work.  Out there, there are thousands of young souls who find reading and self-discovery a breeze, who can't get enough learning ... and can't find a single gawddamned book that'll tell them the hard details they must know to do this thing well.

The reason I write posts offering pedantic details on why certain phrases and word choices led to the demise of D&D through internal dissatisfaction and selfish author entitlement is because I know people are going to disagree with me.  This is the point in my writing it.  It's not a tremendous shock when someone doesn't "get it."  Or thinks I'm "going overboard."  I'm arguing things on this blog that no one argues.  That take a position that no one takes.  And because of that I have to dredge up every ounce of evidence and proof that I can muster, pointing at the failure of this thinking, or that belief, or this other practice.  Because apart from what I experience personally at my gaming table, I rarely find good, solid evidence of someone playing well.

Recently, JB has described his running of Castle Ravenspire ... explained in his first post, here.  The story follows here and here.  An epilogue has been promised, not available on writing this line.  For the traditionalist, it's as good an account as you're ever likely to find.  It hits all the right buttons, rings all the bells, catches all the brass rings.  And I'd be as impressed as hell, if it wasn't that I encountered play of this quality forty years ago.

And that's a problem for me.  If you told me that hey, you'd just made and released the film Escape From New York with a young Kurt Russell, I'd agree that it was a pretty fun movie and that I'd enjoyed it.  But I think I'd notice it was made forty years ago.  And that in film, there's a lot that's been released since, and the bar is a damn bit higher for a good movie than when I was 18 and cheap set pieces were good enough.  Understand.  I'm not saying that because I'm old and jaded, I'm not that impressed.  I'm saying that because I'm still conscious and aware of what's going on RIGHT NOW, I'm not nearly as blown away by a 1982 film, or a 1983 module, as I used to be.  For you readers out there old enough to have been 18 in 1982, can you imagine what it would have been like to see John Wick Parabellum then, the exact movie recently released?  Or even something more benign like Nobody?  omg.  What would it have been like to watch Infinity War, all 5+ hours, in a theatre in 1982, exactly as it appears today.

Fuck Star Wars.  I mean, seriously.  Release Mad Max Fury Road, as is, head to head with The Empire Strikes Back and the latter's theatres are empty.  Tumbleweeds.  I get that because I'm not old.  I see the world through new eyes, not old ones.

Where are the D&D equivalents?  Fucking critical role?  Seriously?  JB's Ravenspire looks stunning and amazing next to the dreck that's new.  Because for D&D, this is where the bar is.  On the ground.  Under it.

If we're going to discuss writing a book teaching new entrants how to DM, we've got to start by ditching the old garbage arguments from 40 years ago and raising that bar more than a little.  We can't have our nose in the dirt forever.

Monday, July 18, 2022

The Mess

Let's start with a rewrite of yesterday's post including the "Introduction" segment ... rushing things less and being a bit more forthright and clear with the statements being made:

This book is about learning to be a “dungeon master” – a mysterious title associated with the game “Dungeons & Dragons.” The dungeon master, or “DM,” accepts the responsibility to coordinate and take charge of the game. It is a difficult role to play, with many responsibilities and the need for many talents. If you, dear reader, want to learn how it’s done, you’ve bought the right book.

The first thing you must know about Dungeons & Dragons, or “D&D,” is that there is no single game. During its long and tortured history, D&D has been turned, twisted and tortured by many authors into dozens of shapes, some of which still bear the game’s official name, while others are re-imaginings of the game in different clothing. With each iteration since its inception, the various versions of the game have grown less compatible with earlier versions, so that D&D has become a hodgepodge of contradictory rules, ideas and forms of game play.

If you have already purchased a version of the game – and perhaps spending more money than you’d intended – I’m sorry to say that it’s possible you don’t have the best version ... or rather, the one that’s best for you. In the hands of someone else, your cherished copy may be exactly what they’re looking for; but in your hands, it could be a disaster. Learning this may come as a shock. It’s surely the last thing you expected to hear from a stranger telling you how to manage the game. But it’s the truth. You may not now have the game you dearly wanted. The best thing you can do about that is to go online, figure out which version you have, and take the time to find out what the other versions are. This, I’m afraid, is your responsibility. All I can offer is that, if you find you’ve made a mistake, you can try to trade for the version you want. Or you can make the best of what you have, until you learn enough to make a change. This is the climate of D&D as it stands. The game’s existence is a complete mess.

This book won’t take time to compare and review the different D&D versions that exist, because unravelling the mess is not this book’s goal. My goal is to teach you how to dungeon master a D&D game – any D&D game. Thankfully, the skills and methodology of “DMing” apply equally well regardless of the version of game play. DMing is about providing game details, making formal judgements about what’s happening and enabling opportunities for the other participants. It’s about being ready with a great deal of information. It’s about knowing the rules – whatever they are – very, very well.

To help you master the game, this book will provide discussion, knowledge and ethical advice. It will define many aspects of D&D that have existed since the beginning, providing clarification that you will find useful in answering questions and directing the game. To handle the other participants positively and effectively, you’ll need practical knowledge about how to speak, relay information, create moments of drama and prepare yourself for each game session. This book will provide it. Once you’ve finished reading this book, you should have a much stronger understanding of how the game works and your part in it.

However, just so you know, that won’t be enough to make you a DM. It takes a long, long time to learn all you need know to be a good DM – and the truth is, you’ll never stop learning. This book that’s brought you and me together is just the start. To go further, to reach your potential, you’ll need to employ good sense and a great deal of self-investigation.

It’s up to you to dig down and discover what you can do. It’s up to you to commit to the game; to stay up all night as you draw maps or design the next big thing; to show patience in the face of criticism; and to say “yes” when it’s warranted and “no” when you’re prepared to stand your ground.

It’s up to you to believe in yourself, and trust your judgement. What I can do is help you understand the fundamental game, despite its trapping and confusions – and when we’re done, you’ll find you have the potential to be a better DM than you imagined.

Better.   Importantly, it buries two functional justifications I need to go forward: (a) I'm not responsible for the version you play; and (b) I'm free to define aspects of D&D that may not exist in the version you play, which only serves to argue that you're playing "the wrong version."  The upshot, however, is that I'm taking a risk here.  The text had better be solid, helpful and insightful going forward, or I end up looking like a self-righteous prick.  Which, of course I am, but it's best if I don't look like one.

This is the reason for softening the text above somewhat.  The truth is that D&D is a gawdawful mess; I don't want to pretend differently, and that would do no good for the reader anyway.  But if it's possible, I'd rather this was so because it is (and I think a visit around the internet supports that), and not because I said so.

There is a distinct difference between the "game" and the versions thereof.  D&D, whatever the specific rules, is functionally a game where the DM describes, the players react, the DM reacts to the players, the players react again to the DM and so on.  My desire is for the reader to grasp this, rather than the specific details of any specific game or version, because that structure is true of all role-playing games, not just D&D.

Managing this react-dynamic is the key to teaching DMing ... with a strong recognition that no simple format like "always say yes" is going to work at all well.  The game is too complex for that.  But let's leave this part on the shelf and return to Moldvay.

As before, we can see the text trying to do too many things at the same time, while adding details that don't remotely need to be discussed at this time.  With the first sentence, having been told to roll 3d6 on the previous page and apply it to the six character ability stats, the text on the right tries to jump straight to having the character pick a class ... and then realises, almost at once, oops, we forgot to explain what abilities actually are.  Nonetheless, we introduce the idea of a "prime requisite" — a term that offers the flimsiest value to the conversation, yet is there to confuse the reader — then shove pressure onto the character that "success" depends on having a high prime requisite score.

Now you and I understand this as a "duh" moment, since the scores are already rolled and the player's character is stuck with what's gotten ... but for the new DM, there's a sense of, "How can I get a higher ability score?" — which is exactly the kind of question I've fielded scores of times as a DM from new players, and those from other campaigns.

Language has a great deal of power.  Phrasing things in such a way that the player feels their whole success rests on the highness of their ability scores primes them in all sorts of horrible ways.  We see the same thing in advice like, "Any character with a strength score of 13 or above should consider one of the following four classes ..."  Pause a moment and consider.  Of course a character's class should depend on its higher ability scores ... but notice that nothing has been said about the underhand shuffle that's being forced here, where the abilities cannot be simply arranged as the player wishes, stated plainly in the earlier AD&D text regarding the rolling up of a character.

Why?   What does this fundamental change in character construction add to the game, except to build camps of people ready to battle stupidly over a rule choice that makes no fundamental difference to game play?  If the player wants to be a cleric, then why can't the 13 simply be put under wisdom?  Or put under strength if the player wants to be a fighter?  Why go through the complicated, apparently rational act of pumping the prime requisite argument with multiple sentences under each ability?  Because it's clever?  I'll be damned if I see how.  Or is it that we want to force players to play characters they don't actually want to play?  If so, that's a hell of a way to build the game as a support structure.

Can you not see that frivolous, essentially meaningless rule structures like this contributed long term to the impatience and indifference of would-be players, who found themselves stymied by arbitrary nonsense like the above?  Can you not see that resistance to this fanned the flames of a resistance to everything in the game?  Moldvay's version doesn't exist in a vacuum; there are plenty of copies of the DMG laying around, which Moldvay ignores, without a word of explanation about WHY he's chosen to ignore it.  Because there is no explanation.  He's gone with what he thinks is the "right" choice ... and fuck what anyone else thinks.

I remember clearly that this disagreement, and others, presented themselves in 1981-82.  Obviously, we couldn't see at the time how ludicrous these discrepancies would become — at the time they were a mere annoyance, largely perpetrated by an annoying kind of player and DM.

Writing a book that explains how to DM requires that every bit of advice we offer has to be absolutely defensible on some basis other than, "I feel like it should be that way."  Otherwise, we're wasting our time.  Or we don't really know what helps a DM to DM.  Which is evident in the sort of material that's written.

In the introduction above, the word "practical" stands out.  The advice we give has to have practical application, which means that it must adhere to actual doing and use, and NOT according to theory and ideas.  The reader must be able to read it, apply it and find that it succeeds with persons who are total strangers to the writer.

That is a damned high bar to clear ... but as can be seen with earlier attempts, writers like Moldvay and others didn't give a damn.  They felt so righteous in their beliefs that they saw no reason whatsoever to explain themselves.

Which is precisely how we got into this mess.