Tuesday, August 30, 2022

... And the Frog Drowned

I'm always hesitant to rush into making announcements, and I always do so far too quickly.  As a result, many of the things I plan ... books, posters, etcetera ... never come to pass, so that the reader is disappointed or left wondering, "Is the bastard ever going to produce that thing?"

Unfortunately, I like show-and-tell.  And my relationship with this blog is far less a marketing site to push products, and far more a designer's blog to talk about what I'm working on.  Thus, last February, I posted a bunch of newly-created maps that underwent a series of changes before reaching a standardised format ... which, I feel, helps other designers to witness the design process and recognise how my experience fits into their own.

Likewise this year, I've written a series of posts on how one might write a book giving counsel to a new dungeon master ... and I've called that series "The New Dungeon Master," which might suggest I'm writing a book of that title.  This isn't a bad idea, and certainly something I ought to do ... which is odd, because a year ago, I'd have said, "No fucking way."  Still, I'm not ready to take that leap.  Not yet.

Thirdly this year, starting in late February, while writing about maps here, I began translating my character background generator from an excel file into a wiki post.  It is a very long wiki post, 265,313 bytes, and it's not done.  I maintained a fairly steady pace for about three months, then lost my taste for it in late June.  I have every intention of continuing the process ... and, as it happens, a strong incentive for doing so.

Through August, I've produced somewhat less map than in previous months.  I'll still have a significant amount to show tomorrow, just not as much as I normally would (and in a different dimension).  This is because I've let myself lapse into another project.  Yes I know.  But as the reader knows, sometimes my projects do reach fruition ... and with my life being a great deal less stressful, I feel pretty good about coming to the end of these various productive roads.

Here's a hint of this one ... which, as I say, is definitely being previewed way too soon.  I can't help myself.  It's just my way of stinging the frog.

This is, effectively, the same process as making the maps ... and like the maps, it translates awfully to the blog's graphic ability.  The above is a two-page spread of what the character background generator would look like as an 8x11 book ... the size of the original DM's Guide.  I did most of the writing for this back in February-March, this year.  The above reflects the preliminary lay-out.

For those who haven't done it, laying out material is an enormous headache.  It's struggling with white space, struggling to squeeze too much information into too small a space, and sometimes trying to decide how to best provide that information.  The individualised tables for each human/non-human cultural type is challenging ... and done better here than I did with the wiki, which will have to be changed eventually to reflect the above.  Column width in particular is brutally unfriendly.  Unquestionably, there will be those who will shake their heads at the above and pity my miserable design skills.

But I've printed some of these pages out to show various D&D players and the returns I get are generally favourable.  I hope to improve on these designs.  The shading needs darkening, certainly.  I haven't added page numbers and the columns are inconsistent ... but these pages ALSO haven't been fully edited for grammar and spelling, so there's no point in getting finicky with columns and so on.  This is a broad brush at best.  I have plenty of time to review and improve what's here, for which I'm thankful.

Those who have seen Tasha's Cauldron of Everything know that the book is full of large blank page areas, enormous fonts, page wasting so-so artwork, with other filler.  The book is the usual collection of new character classes, new monsters, new magic items and so on.

Producing my own splat-book of a kind, my sole marketing strength is the providing of solid material: lots of words, and entirely different sort of rhetoric, densely packaged and lacking in the usual listmaking, let's-reinvent-the-wheel content we've seen roll by for three decades.  Tasha's book runs 191 pages; I figure I need at least that many pages to mine off the ground.  I'm not worried that it may have little art, if the pages have 11 pt. font from edge to edge.

Incidentally, about tables.  After trying out a lot of different styles, I've settled on what is precisely the table format from the original books: no lines or border, with shading two or three lines wide (not single spaced, as later company splatbooks would adopt).I'm surprised how consistent and good this looks, as opposed to the cluttery alternatives.  Mixed with much black and white text, it is definitely preferable.

I can't say how long this will take.  I have serious plans to run a table at a game con in Vancouver in February 2023; I've made the downpayment for the table but I haven't heard back yet for confirmation.  I'll need to make sure to get that in the next few weeks.  I sent an email yesterday, but naturally it's only be a day.  I'd like to have this as a product on the table at that time, next to the menu and of course my old book.  Between selling this for $80 and the menu for $50 (or perhaps slightly higher prices), I think we'd make a killing.  That is a motivator to getting this done before Christmas.

Saturday, August 27, 2022

The Crux

I'd like to use the space of a blog post, rather than a comment box, to clarify some matters discussed by ViP under this post.  Starting with this (and please, read the whole comment for context):

"Linking these thoughts to your current subject, I can't bring myself to imagine how such improvisation, which those DM most certainly perform on their regular campaigns as well, can play out without leading to all the perverse results you described : unbreakable plot armor, disappearance of all meaningful challenges, death of the game. Am I wrong? Can you really decide what's real in a near-vacuum and still be playing D&D?"

Quickly looking at each of these.  Unbreakable plot armour is NOT caused by "improvisation," but by the DM deciding that, perhaps in the heat of the moment, perhaps long before the game is played, that the character either should not die at all, or otherwise ONLY in circumstances where raising the character again will be a minor problem.  I can see where someone might think that because the DM "improvises" the dice, or "improvises" a cavalry coming over the hill, or "improvises" some other nick-of-time saving circumstance, it's a bad thing, but this is not a problem of improvisation, but rather what it's used for.  It's a mistake to equate the tool with the practice that tool is used for.

The disappearance of meaningful challenges is far more a pre-generation problem, reflecting the DM's desire to "tell a story" as being much more important than putting the party under threat.  In the immediate moment, yes, the DM might be gun-shy about spontaneously creating a dangerous situation, possibly because the DM is so uncertain as to HOW dangerous the situation should be ... but this is a problem of the DM lacking experience, or having weak knees, or putting too little faith in the party to overcome a problem, or a host of other problems having to do with introducing danger into the campaign.  NONE of which has the least to do with something "improvisation" creates.  Obviously, if the DM doesn't know how to improvise, or is afraid of it, or is otherwise doubtful of the usefulness of improvisation, then he or she probably will fuck up an improvisational moment.  But this has everything to do with being unable to use the tool, and not some problem having to do with the tool itself.

As far as "death of the game," my apologies to ViP, but I really don't know what the fuck this means.  "Death IN the game" is one thing, but in no way can improvisation itself, or its practice, be assigned blame because some DM's game blows up just as improvisation happens to have been tried.  Again, this is a case of incompetence or using improvisation for the wrong reasons.  Metaphorically, either cutting yourself in the leg while using an axe, or using an axe to chop vegetables for a salad.  Neither makes the axe a poor tool.

In a later comment on the same post, ViP asks,

"... to make a stuffed toy talk to my kids, that I could do for hours with ease (I did). And you're right, when you're in character, whether it's a NASCAR driver teddy bear or a super spy alligator, you can get into a "diffuse" mode of thinking and rely on heuristics to instantly come out with answers that will delight the child.

"My rephrased question would then be: when you do that for some length of time with adults, is there a moment when you effectively stop playing D&D and start just doing some kind of structured improv?"

I had made the point that at a young age, typically before 36 months, children learn to "play-act" with their toys, making dolls talk to one another, this sort of thing.  This activity is the basis for human imaginative creation later in life, just as a writer creates dialogue between two fictional characters in a story, or an artist is able to convey thought and purpose to an audience without speech or even, sometimes, without the actor even moving.  The "creativeness" comes from essentially mocking real life by compartmentalising actual experiences into artistic boxes that can be presented to the audience.

For example; I take my real-life experiences of hiking through forests and use them to improvise descriptions of a forest the party is walking through.  I rely on my memories, so I don't need to write out these descriptions ahead of time; and I am a practiced speaker, so I rely on my ability to improvise the words I'll need to explain the look of the grass, the trees, the image of a deer in the distance, the sound of trees crashing somewhere half a mile away and so on.  This is the business of improvisation.  I already know these things SO WELL that I don't need to prep.

Likewise, because I've been a dungeon master for SO LONG, 42 and some years, I have hurled literally thousands of monsters at parties; I've presented scores of ambushes, adjudicated even more monster-party parleys, run the "we open the door and start shooting" scenario hundreds of times, and many other situations to boot.  As a result, choosing the number of monsters, deciding what they are, where they're going to stand, how they're going to organise themselves to fight, and so on, is a HUGE part of my considerable experience as a dungeon master.  Therefore, I don't need to plan a monster fight.  I don't need to make notes.  I can rely on making up something "new," simply because I've seen fights from every angle ... and if I don't happen to be creative today, I can rely on dredging up some old memory of a fight that the present players weren't at, and use that.

This same argument applies to drawing dungeons, deciding how people in a tavern are going to behave, how guards will react to players doing whatever, describing a village, describing a town, describing a dock, describing actions aboard ship, describing the behaviour of the local nobility and so on, and so forth, to the Nth degree.

This is why I can improvise so easily.  Because I've practiced.  I've trained.

Thus, no, I don't experience what ViP is concerned about.  I don't rely on heuristics to "please" a party, I rely on heuristics to recreate events that are immediately needed by the game's play.  My experience of a "diffuse" mode of thinking isn't random, it's something I've learned to AIM ... and as such, I never "stop playing D&D" because at no time do I ever forget that I AM playing D&D.  Every word out of my mouth is designed for that purpose.

"Structured" improv is not something that occurs spontaneously; unstructured improv does.  Structured improv is the sort that SERVES dungeons & dragons.  It's not an alternative to D&D.  It is D&D.

Allow me to address a point about training and about participation in the immediate moment.  Think of training as "preparation" for the game, and participation as "improvisation."  Now.  An ability to improvise is nice, but it's amateurish if all you know how to do is improvise.   You might be the strongest and bravest fireman in the house.  You might be able to knock in doors and wrestle hoses with the best of them.  You may have 20 years of experience as a fireman, so that you're terrific when a fire happens.

But guess what: no matter how good you are, no matter how much experience you have, no matter how many fires you've fought, you still have to train.  That's because you've got to keep fit; you've got to keep focused; you've got to maintain your edge ... and it's because no matter how many fires you've fought, the act of fighting a fire is so dangerous, so complex, so uncertain, that you won't know enough in one lifetime to be good enough at it.  So you keep training until you retire.  And you remember that it takes just one error to kill you.

Now, is training enough?  If you train and train, so that you know every inch of your equipment, you've built your body to moon, you've demonstrated that you can face any simulation with flying colours, no matter what it is ... does that mean you're done?  NO.  No, fact is, to be any use as a fireman, you've got to fight fires.  And not just one.  Hundreds and hundreds.  Moreover, no matter how much you train, if you can't improvise correctly DURING a fire, you're going to get yourself, and others, killed.  Because fires are uncertain.  They can do anything.  And no matter how many fires you've fought, the next fire can still do something so new and unseen that it can kill you ... just ... like ... that.

So even though I've DMed a LOT, I still prepare.  I still design and review rules, I still investigate into the background of things, I still look for new ideas and promote learning.  But that alone isn't enough.  I'm no more impressed by a DM who has played dozens of "simulated games" created by other people than a fireman would be of someone who has never fought an actual fire.  If you can't create a situation on the fly, in answer to something the players have said or done, then you're not a dungeon master.  You're a trainee.  You may be a very good trainee, but your skill-set is still lacking in a very, very big area.  You may want to pretend you don't need that skill-set. You can argue that your players don't notice the difference.  But as someone with that skill-set, and ALL the training you've had as well, I can tell you plainly that such arguments are pure bullshit.

Therefore, ViP is right in his last comment where he says there's a *huge* difference between spontaneously inventing detail and months-ahead planning.  Only, in fact, he's lost in trying to present these two things as opposing options of play.  They're not.  They're two sides of the same thing.  And so in answer, yes, every DM ought to be able to improvise, and do it well.  AND every DM ought to be constantly training to be a better DM.  Both during the game and outside it.

Is that always attainable?  No.  Not everyone can be a firefighter.  I can't.  And I'm okay with that.  As I see it, much of the community is make up of DMs who can't DM, who aren't okay with that, because they think DMing is wanting to do it, and not actually doing it.

Friday, August 26, 2022

409 Miles

Has nothing to do with D&D, but sometimes I use this blog as a diary.  Here's our driving route from yesterday, mostly on secondary highways, a journey of 409 miles for literally no reason except to drive.  We did not do it to go any specific place or to meet any friends, nor to attend any festivals or walk into any special stores or venues.  We went just to see.

We took our own food, stood below a glacier and six hours later on the shore of a warm freshwater beach.  Including rests, the whole journey took 11.5 hours.

There is something about me that is fascinated with travel ... nothing more than the fact that the world is moving past my window.  It's connected to the map-making, certainly, and somehow to D&D, which is also about going places just to find things and sometimes kill them.  Tamara and I have enjoyed this month of getting around in the car; yesterday really pushed our physical limits, however.  Still, we're hoping on taking a week-long journey in May, and possibly one across Canada in August next year.  So yesterday was also sort of a "training" effort.

For those who might be interested, it cost about $85 in gas.  For those who might wonder, gas prices in Alberta yesterday ran at $7.24 a gallon, or $1.55 a litre.

For Pandred, Crowfoot Glacier:

Thursday, August 25, 2022

The Unknown Response

Going on a trip through the Alberta mountains today, up the Bow River and then down the North Saskatchewan.  The scheduled distance is 425 miles, which we plan to do today, but what with stopping and staring at things, we may not get back until tomorrow.  Mostly, it's an opportunity to test our new car, get some experience driving it and getting a chance to see some country that Tamara and I haven't visited together.

It's interesting to note, with respect to comments going on in the previous post, that we'll be improvising everything about the trip except (a) the route and (b) what we're bringing.  We don't know where we might stay for coffee, what animals we might see, what situations might arise due to other drivers or the wherewithal of our car, what roads might be closed or routes under serious repair.  We suppose I can add (c) that we know what the weather will be.  But I haven't actually checked the area yet for the weather, and we'll be moving from prairie to mountains, to forest and back to prairie before coming home ... and if it turns out that one of those regions expects rain, we're going anyway.

If I were a DM and the players were making this journey, I'd definitely invent something to be waiting for them.  The invention would be made with plenty of time on my part, but the actual thing waiting would be improvised, because I don't know what the players might do when actually meeting the encounter.  With some things, like a group of monsters, it's obvious they're being placed in order to be killed by a party.  But with other things, such as an ongoing event like a plague, a growing rebellion, a famine or the fallout from some disaster, the expected reaction of the party is defacto unknown.  The stranger the circumstance into which the party enters, the less certain that reaction becomes, and the more requirement there is on the DM to be inventive in the immediate moment when the party performs their role.

A large problem with traditional D&D is that it expect to impose situations ... like a monster waiting for a party ... that are easily resolved because the party's response is obvious.  Whereas the party's response to something like a recent mudslide or an open riot spreading through a countryside are far less certain.  They cannot be run with a series of if-then statements.  The DM must float creatively with the party's uncertain response and be ready to judge what additional experiences might arise, on the spot, given that response.

Anyway, I better get myself organised.  We're leaving in 20 minutes.

Tuesday, August 23, 2022

Deciding Why Things Are

This doesn't seem to be an especially popular series of posts, or else I'm talking so high in the clouds no one can hear me.  Nonetheless, with this post I sketched out the general context of a campaign's description, which I am following by going deeper into each point.  I wrote that the players decide the matters of their own lives, the things to which they commit themselves ... that which they see as the best course for them.

And the DM decides those things for everything else.

This is a hard line that many DMs simply cannot accept.  Granted, it's easy enough to see what's on our side of the fence, however enormous the task is.  We're responsible to make lands and NPCs, cultures and sequences of play, motivations and rewards.  Fine.  But in actually running the game, we're put into the position of watching the players struggle with everything that we create, that we're responsible for ... and when that struggle turns against the players, it's very easy to hold ourselves to account for the player's hazard.  If we hadn't included that third giant, if we hadn't decided this battle would be fought on the edge of a cliff ... if we hadn't rolled that bloody critical hit just when the players were starting to turn this thing around.  If the players die, we're all too clear on our part in that; on what we did; on what we could have done differently.

And worse, on what we can do, in real time, to make all those bad decisions and all the party's jeopardy just go away, in time, so that no one has to suffer or die.

With the desperately-named "One D&D," the company is making it clear by eliminating game elements like the DM's ability to throw a critical roll, where the responsibility lies when a player character is seriously threatened.  With us.  With the DM.  The finger is being pointed at you and me, to say "officially," we don't have the right to kill characters.  And if we do, then we're not playing "true" D&D.

Well.  Shelving that.

The DM's penchant for stepping up and saving the characters is the hardest edge for any DM to face.  Speaking from personal experience, I have broken my covenant as a DM to both secretly and openly to rescind parts of my game in order to ensure a character lived and did not die.  Of course I have.  I've been DMing for more than 42 years.  Any DM who says otherwise is lying ... and there are good reasons to lie.  Having the reputation that you're willing and ready to kill player characters, while at the same time reserving the right to covertly not do so, maintains a reputation that most hard-souled DMs consider to be valuable.  We've learned that scaring the players is good for play.  Nothing beats sitting down as a DM to a full table and declaring, "Okay, everything's ready for this week; I hope I don't have to kill anyone tonight."  When we have killed characters before, and the characters know that's a real possibility, saying so out loud sends a shiver through a party that raises tension, the player's sense of excitement and a pulling together of a party that knows they have to pull together to survive.  If there were the least hint that I might not mean it, that's it's just for show ... those benefits would evaporate.

It can take many months to build that kind of reputation.  In truth, it must be built by following through and killing the character.  The killing need not be done zealously.  It should not be done with a gloating tone of voice, or high-handed counselling about why the player "deserved it."  But it must be done.  Upon seeing the die rolled, either too high or too low to save the player, the DM must resist the compulsion to intervene ... specifically because it is ridiculously easy to do so.  One need only say, "roll again" ... or, "that doesn't count."  Any DM can say at the last second, "Before the blade hits, a wizard appears and stops time."  

We can get as ornate as we like.  "You feel the blade cut through your body ... and suddenly you find yourself in a large white cloud-like space; a woman in front of podium with a strange square board in her hand looks at you, looks at the board, and says, 'Hm.  Says here, it's not your time yet.'  You wake up on the floor, with the battle done and the party having won; one of your mates expresses surprise that you're still alive and hurries to help you."

Ridiculously, stupidly easy.

Worse, it costs the willing DM nothing to wade in and "fix" things.  He or she has no awareness that this is damaging to one's reputation.  The player is happy.  The DM is pleased.  There's no evident harm.

Moreover, this has become progressively correct behaviour, promoted by texts, pundits, "official" company rhetoric and the general consensus of the forenamed grander community.

As a player, you are in control of your character.  As a DM, I am in control of everything else.

Wisdom dictates that the correct way to manage the vicissitudes of fate in our lives is to practice restraint.  It begins with very simple lessons, like eating something very bad-tasting as a one-year-old or breaking your arm riding your bike.  Steadily, we accumulate thousands of micro-lessons along these lines as we age, realising that while rage quitting feels so very, very good to do, the aftershock is less so.  Or how owning our first car is associated with so many negative elements, as we choke down how much we have to spend on insurance, gas, new tires, the danger of a life-threatening accident and so on.  Marriage and children present bills we never expected to pay, with which we must make our peace or be crushed beneath.  Through it all, through every trial and heartache, steadily we move towards practicing restraint as the only rational strategy.

This is particularly evident as we watch so many others around us fail to practice restraint.  We watch our friends and family, and especially our acquaintances, throw away opportunities and securities in the pursuit of things that baffle our notions of life.  As the decades roll past, we see them destroy themselves and others, and recognise their willingness to destroy us, while steadily we pull away and into the arms of others who are restrained and practical like ourselves ... assuming, of course, that the reader at this moment isn't actively in the process of destroying whatever value you have in your own life, unaware that you're doing it.  If so, I speak with such people all the time ... and they are never aware of it.  It is always, so the litany goes, someone else's fault.

The effort of holding back, placing checks and hindrances on our own actions, often comes as a frustration to other people ... but as we do it, and see the sense in it, we get to like it.  We don't soar, but we don't face-plant in the dirt trying to fly.  And to be honest, once we get ourselves sorted, just waking up gets to be a delight.

DMing is an act of restraint ... not only upon the players, but more importantly upon ourselves.  Like the things of which we speak in real life, there are things we won't do.  Sometimes, because we've done those things and learned our lesson.  Sometimes, because we've seen others do them.  And sometimes, within the respect we have towards our lives, doing so seems stupid.

For me, deciding to be a DM requires certain things I won't do.  As I've just said, this is sometimes because I ran the game in a certain way, and have decided to stop running it that way.  Sometimes, it's because I've played in someone else's game, or watched people play and complain about it afterwards, or watched new players in my game feel resurrected by the way I play over what they experienced before.  And sometimes, because I feel that I'd have to be a fucking moron to play a game in which dice are meant to dictate everyone's success at something, only to wade in when I don't like the dice because it's easy.

I've played Scrabble off and on all my life, starting from the age of about six.  My parents believed that it was a game we needed to learn, because the benefits were so obvious.  This means that at some point I've played the same game with barely any vocabulary at all, and that I've played the game with the vocabulary I have now ... and all the shades of grey between.  I've played many, many games where at one point all the letters I had were vowels, usually some combination of I's, O's and U's, without anything else.

The rules say that when you're desperate, you can skip a turn by throwing all your letters in the bag and draw new ones.  But that's a fool's choice.  You're better off to play what you have, because every round you skip puts your opponent further ahead of you; and it is too easy to throw your letters in and get back a different collection of unusable letters.

When I was six or seven, my mother — whom I played with most often — could have let me change out my letters and still play ... because she was in charge.  Because she could make whatever rules she wanted for me.  She could have felt sorry for me; she could have been generous and kind.  And if that was the sort of person my mother was, I wouldn't be writing this for you, right now.  That's a fact.

From killing player characters, from forcing myself to do that as a restraint on my behaviour, I've learned how to set up encounters and build events so that, for the most part, I don't have to kill and I don't have to veto a death.  Those players who have been in my games for many years have learned equally well not to test me, while at the same time learning with tremendous pleasure that they're quite innovative when they know they're not going to get reprieved at the last moment.

Sure, my mother felt sorry for me.  And sure, I feel sorry as a DM when I have to kill someone, or take away all their money because they've fallen into a river and it's either strip off your stuff and live, or die rich.  But feeling sorry for someone isn't a good enough reason to make me compromise my values ... or for me to step across that line and decide myself that the player can't make a bad decision.  By restraining my desire to help them, I empower their desire to accept responsibility for their actions.  Which, in the long run, makes their actions feel the sweeter, because they know they've been able to do it AND snub me at the same time.

The momentary relief at receiving the DM's charity is a soul-sickening reality, that any good player will feel ashamed of receiving, and resentful of knowing that it's there.  On the other hand, the very worst players, those without any sense of restraint at all, revel in receiving charity ... and pity and anything that makes them feel they've "won" ... even when plainly that's not what they did.  These people, as they enter into the game world, have such miserable lives lacking in any kind of restraint that they desperately need their D&D game to fill some hollow part of them.  I'm not here for that.  And I don't like these kind of people.  The company, on the other hand, loves these people ... and why shouldn't they?  Players without restraint are addicts ... and what pusher doesn't like a good addict?

When deciding to DM, the best strategy is to consider, from the start, those things that as a DM, you won't do.  Figure out what those things are, and then figure out precisely why you won't do them.  Then, restrain yourself.  If experience teaches me anything, restraining yourself absolutely, even as you watch others in pain, will be the hardest thing you've ever done ... excepting that you may have already learned how you have to do this with your children.  It is one of the reasons why fathers and mothers with excited, avid children as players make such good DMs.  The practice of restraint is universal, after all.  If you've learned how to restrain yourself with respect to addiction, money, family responsibilities, your workplace, religion, politics and so much more, restraining yourself as a DM will be easy.  You've already learned the hardest lesson.

You can do anything.  You must never, ever, do things for that reason.

Friday, August 19, 2022

Good News!

A few small things, as I'm finding it difficult to type.  Better today than yesterday.

On the subject of maladies, it's a credible argument that something bad might happen to a character at any time, regardless of the character's carefulness or the player's game play.  For example, Wednesday morning I was doing the dishes when the bottom of the glass I was washing fell off, causing the exposed glass edge to do this:

Because that's how it goes.  Was nice though; with our new car, we were able to pop over to my doctor right away and get it stitched up within the hour.  Today it's come a long way, so that typing this is less of a strain, though the progressive key strokes are moderately unpleasant micro-pangs.

Somehow, I feel encouraged by yesterday's announcement of "One D&D", once again expressing the company's wish-fulfillment regarding its naming of things.  As a product-maker of old style D&D, for a while now I've been made uncomfortable by the success of 5e and it's propagandistic, soulless destruction of actual D&D game play, by insidiously teaching young children that it doesn't exist.  Much as I hate to admit it, 5e came in with a depressingly good marketing strategy.  Pretend that "real" game players designed the game, then pump it full of hot garbage spewed by gaming "journalists" ... and cementing the whole with game-store policed adventure clubs.  The combination of these has made a shitty version of a great game extremely popular.

It's enough to make me slash my hands ... er, wrists.

However, with the inevitable sorry release of the WOTC's most recent splatbook, Tasha's Cauldron of the Same Old Crap, the company has decided to piss on it's own marketing by announcing that yes, they really are going forward with dndnext, announcing that they're "dropping editions" and moving forward with the badly named 6th edition ... which makes the game's rules even MORE player friendly.

One nice thing about being a games "journalist" is the happy willingness of merely repeating the company's talking points as "reporting," while I assume getting paid for doing so.  Although the company are a bunch of lying liars, and games are "only games," it's perfectly safe to pretend that the new rules are variously awesome, amazing, terrific, a bold step forward and additional boilerplate-type rhetoric that makes sure the writer keeps his or her job while the online magazine retains it's adbuy from the company being reviewed.  It's all quite incestuous.

"6th" edition will succeed in bursting the bubble of approximately 8 million 5e game players ... which for me, is good news.  By continuously undermining its credibility, the company usefully spreads discontent and yes, anger, with company products, since a new ruleset is always a part of every change.  Such poorly considered amateurish marketing desperation is a sure sign that at least 5-10% of 5e players will be pushed towards adopting earlier game versions, which don't change.  As of today, I have potentially four to eight hundred thousand new customers.


Tuesday, August 16, 2022

Deciding What's Real

This issue has several aspects within it.  We could be speaking of what magic items and spells you allow, along with the logic behind the function of those things.  We could be speaking of the "reality" of the setting, since technically the world could be a fever dream entirely of the DM's imagination ... I urge the reader to remember that many writer-designed fantasy worlds dating back hundreds of years were exactly this.  Such could be run, but I wouldn't want to do it ... and the reader had best give serious consideration as to whether you consider yourself the equal of Swift, Raspe or Carroll.

But while we must give thought to these things, I have something else in mind.  To repeat elements from two comments I wrote to Pandred and Shelby last week:

"The players enter a goblin lair, lay waste to thirty or forty goblins over two visits, only to discover that the goblins are actually being run by three drow elves. In chasing down the drow, the players learn that the drow are in fact being funded with weapons and other things by a local human squire whose land is near the original goblin lair.

"So, that's two layers of deception against the players: first, these are not just goblins, second, the drow are not acting independently ... and we can learn further that the squire is specifically urging the drow to use the goblins to raid human lands the squire wants to buy.

"So, the players seek out someone strong enough to take on the squire; they locate a knight, provide the evidence and the knight agrees to join their expedition to root out the squire. ONLY, we discover soon after that the squire is in fact in the employ of the local noble Baroness, to whom the knight owes fealty; the knight succumbs, as he's sworn to GOD to remain faithful to the Baroness ... but he enables the party to escape, even though the Baroness has ordered the knight to kill them.

"Now, the party is fleeing the Baroness and her various subordinates ... and runs into the hands of others who HATE the Baroness. And so on.

"As each layer of the onion is pulled back, the players come closer and closer to the truth of what's going on, are never personally deceived against but ARE subject to the story changing and changing. Meanwhile, they acquire levels and speak among themselves of the day they'll reach a sufficient level when they'll KILL EVERYONE and let God sort it out.
"Suppose that instead of getting inveigled into a war between the Baroness and her enemies, the party asks the knight, "To where are you bound?" Whereupon he answers, his anger risen and his taste for the locale dissolves, "My only chance to redeem myself is to find a better place than this, outside the Baroness's control. I've heard the borderlands against the Ottomans are threatened more than ever; I shall journey to Kosice and see if I can be of use there."

"Whereas the party is free to decide ... do we remain embroiled in this, or perhaps take up with the knight and see what we can do on the borderlands? The party discusses it, makes up their minds and the campaign goes forward."

Very well, how is this done?

A skill you must master is the ability to see a given situation as others would see it, apart from yourself.   When you present a scenario that you understand from top to bottom, with every intricacy available to your own perspective, you must ALSO be able to see that scenario from the player's point of view, as people who have not yet learned everything about it — and in fact, probably never will learn "everything."  The beginnings of this skill allow us to present each room of a dungeon in a careful and precise manner, so that we give hints as to what the players see, without stating too much.

We'll break this down, but first consider — it means that your perception of reality is not that of the players ... but it will be that of the players, given time.  It matters that we understand how the player's perception scales upwards over time, and that each stage upwards upon that scale changes the participant's understanding of the DM's setting, the DM's style of gaming and the player's attitude towards which goals they want to achieve.  D&D is a fantabulously fluid game, if the DM is willing to take the game as far as it can go ... and that fluidity is greater than any human endeavour except life itself.  The player that sits down in the campaign today is NOT the same player who sat down in the campaign a year ago ... and if the setting does not advance in pace with the player's perspective, the player must ultimately feel restrained, bored and ready to quit your game.

This comes as a shock to many DMs who keep doing the same thing with the players month after month, who can't understand why the players are complaining now when six months ago everything seemed fine.  "What wrong?" these DMs ask.  "I'm running the same game they've liked up until now.  How come the players have changed?"

Because they've been there.  They've done that.  And the DM must recognise it.

Now, we can try to keep the player's interested by upping the stakes, essaying to create bigger and bigger in-game events with bigger payoffs ... but when I consider plans of this kind I'm reminded of Robert Louis Stevenson's The Bottle Imp, in which the MacGuffin will give us everything we ask for, except that eventually we're doomed.  Because, in fact, eventually one runs out of "bigger" and the campaign collapses under its own weight, with nothing to offer in the end except disappointment and ultimately the same result than if we'd done nothing and let the campaign die.

Lessons in life teach that gimmicks will kick a can down the road, but won't make the can go away.  It's always in front of us, and eventually we'll get tired of kicking it.  What's wanted is a sustainable, practical approach that, like the examples I gave to Pandred and Shelby, allows the campaign to unfold progressively and, effectively, forever.

This, however, requires that the DM cannot run "the same game" for any length of time.  The DM has to progress and change as the players do ... and this is easiest if the DM begins the game way, way below what the DM's already prepared and able to offer.

Like the need to possess both our own and the player's perspective when laying out some scenario in the campaign, with ALSO must have the insight to perceive how those perspectives are going to evolve over time.  Today I'm running a simple hack-and-grab campaign with the party and a bunch of orcs ... but that's not going to be enough in two or three sessions, so we'll adjust the campaign by providing a tiny shred of intrigue into the game, in the form of the hidden drow elves who are manipulating the goblins from behind the scene.

My etymology dictionary describes "intrigue" as originating from the Italian verb, intrigare, which means to plot, meddle, perplex and puzzle.  The Italian word derives from the Latin, intricare, which means to entangle, perplex and embarrass.  Let's look carefully at these six words, as "perplex" is mentioned twice.

Puzzle is used all the time in D&D, but unfortunately too often it's used in the sense of a situation that needs to be manipulated or guessed at until it's solved, whereupon the obstruction can be forgotten.  Puzzle is much more interesting in the sense of causing the players to feel confused because they cannot understand or make sense of something that's going on.  Within our example, at the beginning of the adventure with the goblins, we've deliberately with-held the involvement of the drow elves.  Therefore, naturally, the players have no reason to think they're dealing with anything except goblins.  At some point, we want to tell them they're dealing with more than that ... but we don't want to tell them outright!  No.  We want them to find out slowly.  Bit by bit.  We want to provide some kind of clue — not in the sense that the clue will help them understand the puzzle, but in the sense that the clue passes along the knowledge that there IS a puzzle ... which the players cannot see.  All they know is that something's going on here which they cannot know.

When we know that there's something going on, that we cannot know, this drives us crazy.  And forward.  We don't understand what it is ... we're puzzled ... but we do understand that it's out there and we want a bigger piece of it.

Perplex is very close to puzzle, except that it also conveys the emotion of not believing what we've just learned.

I'll give you an example from the real world.  This movie, 1968's Finian's Rainbow, was the same director who did this movie, four years later, 1972's The Godfather.  Whose nephew is, I kid you not, Nicolas Cage.  Altogether, it seems kind of fucked up, doesn't it?

Perplexing the players is an excellent tactic in that, first, when they find out the goblins are in fact in the employ of drow elves, there's a high probability that they'll assume the DM is kidding.  Most assuredly, that there's got to be something else in this that makes this association make sense.  And even if it doesn't, the very fact of it forces the players to change their preconceptions about the game world and it's possibilities, which in turn forces them to see the game world as bigger than what they previously thought it was.  Which is a very good reason not to maintain standard setting behaviours too closely.

This is why having elves feel a certain way about dwarves is an example of STUPID game design.  And rather lazy writing also ... looking at you, Mr. Tolkein.  Arguing that it's more believable for races to have a certain antipathy towards each other is a terrible trap if what you want is to create interest and not boredom.  Things that are easy to believe are boring.  Our goal is to take something that is fundamentally unbelievable and make it believable ... and therefore, astounding.

Plot is an interesting word.  It begins as a word for a small piece of defined ground, such as a place to inter a body, and advances over several centuries to also mean to contrive a secret, fully formulated scheme, usually for some evil purpose ... such as, for example, how to get a body into a plot without anyone knowing how it was done.  The word shares an accidental association with the French, complot, which means to scheme together, so that the word "plot" became famously connected with November 5th some 400+ years ago, as a conspiracy and evil scheme to blow up parliament.

Curiously, with the Gunpowder Plot having occurred in 1605, by the 1640s the word "plot" became associated with the set of events that take place in a story or play.  It's easy to see how ... while a conspirator must puzzle out how to build a sequence of event that will allow them to "take over the world," the writer must contrive a similar series of events, sorting out how to make a collective set of events come together and form a coherent whole.

And so, with D&D, we come once again to the DM creating a "story" for the game, when in fact what the DM should be creating is a PLOT.  An active, devious set of circumstances that will, step by step, like in a narrative, with us witholding each bit and piece of information until the proper time, reveal it's evil import to the players.  The drow control the goblins, but the REAL plot is that the Squire is behind all this ... or is he?  No, it's the Baroness who's behind the Squire!

Think of these events like a dungeon room.  The players are given a description, which encourages them to check out the pond, and then the statue in the corner, and then the loose stone in the middle of the floor, which they pry up ... and discover underneath it, my gawd, it's the Baroness, and she's got a Staff of the Magi!

The more intricate we can make the plot, the better.  The more plots we make, the better at it we'll get.  The players can make plots also.  When I was a player, I immediately began plans to lead rich people into dark alleys where I and the other players could kill them.  Soon after, I was bribing guards, not to let me through some gate, but to let me know WHO was being let in the game and WHEN they tended to leave.  Then I could sit nearby the gate, watching a young boy acting as my agent, for the moment when he would take a handkerchief out of his pocket to wipe his face ... which would mean the baron had left the castle in his carriage ... and so on.  See, I'd seen this movie, 1963's The Great Escape, years before I'd heard of D&D.

Furthermore, it's possible to have more than one plot going on at one time.  While the Squire and the Baroness are doing their thing, there's a completely unrelated situation where two young lovers, one of whom is the daughter of the Burgher, are planning to murder her father and escape with a horse, thousands of gold pieces and the male lover's brother, who happens to be in a dungeon inside the Baroness's keep.  He's got a key to the siege door, but he hasn't found the nerve yet to set the plan in motion ...

Meddle is a verb.  It means to interfere in, or busy oneself with, matters that are not of our concern.  That is, the players who are meddling in the goblin's lair, or rather in that of the drow elves', and in turn into the Squire's plans and so on.  The Squire is meddling against the law's usually method of enabling the acquisition of land, while the Baroness is meddling in everything.  And this is the point.  Powerful people, who want their way, and don't want to wait, and don't care about piddling meaningless people like player characters, meddle.  That's what they do.  It's the way they meddle, and the steps to which they'll go, either as part of a plot or just because they don't give a damn, that's so interesting.

And yes, the players are the biggest meddlers of all, and the worst, because they tend to meddle into things about which they haven't a fucking clue.  They just meddle because it's fun.

What meddling tends to do is set people off against other people.  It frustrates people in their plots, urging them to act rashly and emotionally, causing things to happen that wouldn't have happened if they'd bided their time and not over-reacted.  The drow elves could just get more goblins, but they don't.  They let themselves — eventually — be seen, which they shouldn't have; and this makes the Squire out himself, when he shouldn't have; which justifies the knight stepping in, which causes the Baroness to involve herself directly against the knight, which only exposes herself to the party, who wouldn't have known about her existence if she'd let the knight kill the squire.  After all, she could just get another squire.  She'd still technically have the knight.

Entangle is thus the situation here.  The DM is put on the spot of deciding how the unpredictable party's actions ought to cause others to react, rightly or wrongly, which progressively makes the whole affair an utter mess, as people are doing things they shouldn't be doing, against each other.  In the case described, "entangle" means to involve others in difficulties or complicated circumstances from which it's difficult to escape.

Now, what in the game makes it difficult for the players to "escape"?  Well, there's always money on the table, which they might get, or money they might lose, or money they might have to give up on getting.  And the players also feel insults and oneupmanship just as anyone else.  When the Baroness scoffs at a threat the party makes, calling them "little children" who ought to head back to their rocking horses, while "adults" control the world, players tend to take that kind of thing pretty seriously.  They, too, can be spurred to act rashly by others telling them not to meddle, or not to enrich themselves.  That keeps the party quite entangled with what's going on, even though they probably could just walk away.

Which leads us, finally, to embarrassment.  That is, what the party will feel if they run away with their tails between their legs.  Curiously, it's also what they'll feel if they stick around, and things don't go so well.  Time and time again, the party will pause, find themselves getting deeper into the various entanglements, like quicksand, and say, "Why don't we just quit" ... and someone will answer, "I'm not quitting until that bitch gets hers," or "I'm getting something for all this trouble; when we find the squire's hoard and we kill that bastard, then I'm good to go."


From all this, you should have an idea of how differing amounts of knowledge about what's going on has the capacity to keep moving the goal posts and pull the players deeper into the mire.

As a DM, we want to give them some, but not all, the information we have.  We want to do it progressively, at the right time.

Each time we do that, we change the player's perception of reality.

Thus, we decide what's "real."  For now.  Until we're ready to give more information.

Knowing when to do that comes from recognising when the players need more information to keep going ... and not to lose their taste for what's happening.  Withold too hard, and the players will quit out of frustration and lack of new information ... just as many, many people quit watching TV shows when they won't get to the point.  Or the next action sequence.  Or when they drown us in details that don't fucking matter to the reason why we're here.  Looking at you, Marvel Studios.

We need a feel for that.  We want to give them information with an eyedropper ... in part because exposition is easy when it's just one sentence long.  But too long between dollops and the players WILL stage an insurrection ... so when an information dump is needed, we've got to wade in and pour information out like rain.

At the same time, until the very, very end, we always want something left to tell.  That's what a "plot twist" is.  But plot twists are predictable, usually badly thought out and, after 90 years of film, boring.  Simple clarification is better.  The whole thing was a sled.  After four years his wife married a dentist.  In the end, it's about hope.

Even then, we can't have solved everything.  Okay, we stopped the wedding, we got out of the church, we fled to our freedom, we caught the bus before it pulled away, and we're together ...

... and now what?


Sorry for the various unexplained movie references.  I'll answer any queries about those in the comments, if anyone cares to ask what they're from.  I don't expect everyone to have seen every movie.

Saturday, August 13, 2022

Deciding on Monsters

Let's take this a little slower.  Using the map from the previous post, republished here, suppose we starting the players in a lesser village, say Vardarac.  From previous work I've done, the type of hex (4) indicates a village with 2 hammers ... thus, a small temple, hostel, day market, bakery, hovels, a windmill and so on.  Nothing really special, but still decently settled.

Incidentally, Vardarac is real, though a Google map search only shows the village has been depressingly modernised.  The image from google maps is reminiscent of the kind of thing we see in small town Saskatchewan or Manitoba, here in Canada.

From here we want to decide on the monsters that will "kill the party."  We don't really want to kill anyone, but let's admit that having dangerous monsters available for the party to contend with remains a big part of D&D.  The chicken shown might be formidable, but it's not exactly what we're looking for.

The above map gives us some good locations: there are numerous swamps up and down the Drava and Danube rivers, which are surely inhabited by something; there are the rivers themselves, offering water beasts; east of Apatin there's a forest nearly seven miles across ... and of course any hex on the map that's even a little green has copses of forest that are anywhere between a mile and three miles wide.  Vardarac is in just such a green hex, so we can envision small forests near the village, with their east and southern edges meeting the swampy areas next to the rivers.

The area is upon the borderland between Hungary on the northeast and Slavonia on the south and west.  In my game, these are both controlled by the Ottomans, and therefore this is only a "provincial" border. The swamp is innundated deciduous forest land, covered with water in flood season (3-4 months after snowmelt), turning to brush & mud flats with autumn and eventually hard, dry dirtpan between trees as the land freezes with winter.  Because of this difficult-to-patrol area between constabularies, we can assume the forests are full of thieves, bandits, even river pirates since the rivers are important traffic routes.  

We might equally assume there are places in the swamp where even the criminals won't go — which grants a potential hook.  Classic D&D would have this be a "rumour," which is a lazy means of exposition.  Since the party is starting in Vardarac, we can assume their locals and they already know where the bad places are.  Don't go into the swamp south of Darda; river pirates dwell on the Danube's offshoot north of Kopa; the old abandoned manor north of Vardarac is haunted ... these are things the party would have heard about all their lives.  Who knows if those are true warnings or not?  They are a place to start.

But "where" isn't the real problem.  Our larger requirement is a sustainable setting, which asks for monsters that make sense in the environment — and by this, I don't just mean that swamp monsters belong in a swamp.  The city of Osijek and the surrounding towns are ALSO part of the environment.  These places are filled with professional soldiers, knights, nobles, wealthy merchants with hundreds of river sailors and guards ... whose livelihood relies upon not being attacked by river pirates and oh, say a dragon turtle, conveniently floating in the middle of the Danube.  Anything truly big, or overtly accessible, should have been found by some non-player professional, and therefore shouldn't be there for the party to find.

Additionally, we should assume that whatever's out there doesn't exist in convenient lame-scale D&D sizes.  Oh, sure, we can have the party kill half a dozen bivouacked goblins or an owl bear that's somehow escaped the net of professional hunters, but that does not make a sustainable campaign.  It makes a session, maybe, if that.  No, what we want is some sort of monster that the party can fight for a while, settled somewhere between the trees and mudflats where it's deliberately kept from being noticed.  Perhaps a small cadre of doppelgangers, though I'm borrowing from my own earlier campaigns with that one.

How about a legion of huge spiders, mysteriously gestating from a source within the swamp?  This has potential, since we could have so many spiders that yes, the various local leaders and hunters are themselves overwhelmed.  Local talk could start along the lines of, "Doesn't it feel like there's more spiders that usual, lately?"  Followed by the burgher of Vardarac calling the villagers together to assemble a hunting party to clear out the infestation of spiders that are harrying the farmers along the eastern woodlands.  A bounty per spider could be offered ... and as the 1st level party engages, they do rather well.  These spiders only have 2 hit dice, and perhaps have a weak poison, or can only deliver one dose a day ... certainly not a poison that outright kills.  Maybe they're wolf spiders and have no poison at all.

But as the party continues to engage, there seem to be a lot more still ... and at last they're forced to withdraw, as all the hunters are.  A call is made for help; local constables arrive and the battle is re-engaged.  Do the players take part?  That's up to them.

Next they learn this spider problem has affected many places throughout the swamps, from Petrijevei to Sonta.  They learn the spiders appeared in such numbers in Apatin that the town was literally under siege, until a grouping of mages were able to reduce the numbers.  Speculation arises that the spiders are coming from some place ... perhaps if that place were identified, the local lords could deal with it directly; if only there were a group of scouts willing to plunge into the swamp and locate the source.

But then, where might that be?  A helpful librarian might know the answer; perhaps some subtle clue exists for the players to witness and upon which to build a theory.  Wouldn't it be interesting if, when the players did enter the wilderness at the guessed at place, suddenly, no spiders.  Hm.  That's ... telling.

The problem with examples is that they derail the real point — that whatever monsters we choose, they must fit the wholistic nature of the environment.  There are swamps here, but none are more than 3-5 miles from human settlement.  An underground setting is impractical because the water table's so high, the sub-surface is porous and impossible to build down into.  A mysterious tower within the swamp makes no sense — the excessive water in the soil denies the growing of any really big trees, which would fall over in a flood, so a high enough tower to be adventured in would be noticed.  And approached, in order to tax the owner and question their appearance within this already-owned swamp.

So we're rather limited to surface, secretive adventure models.  Something which the party is the first to discover, or which represents a problem too big for the area to manage easily.  Very often, good adventures are made from the party stumbling around and finding something that simply hasn't be found before.  Virtually every horror movie follows this trope — and a great many thrillers, also.  For example, the party is walking through the woods and discovers three trolls who have swum their way downstream from the hills to the west ... and there are hills just 40 miles that way, surrounding the upper Drava.  Or perhaps there are three treants who have been here for two hundred years ... and perhaps haven't even moved in all that time.  Heck, a treant could grow to full size in the middle of a town, without anyone suspecting for a moment that it's a treant ... until someone decided to cut it down.

Another interloping sort of design is the "disaster."  A plague ship arrives in Osijek and is forced to moor in quarantine across the river.  It's there for a week, with the crew dying one after another; but any who try to escape the ship are shot full of arrows or obliterated by a mage.

Then, unexpectedly, a fire breaks out aboard ship; there are screams, and burning bodies throwing themselves into the river ... but this isn't the problem.  The problem is that the rats aboard ship abandon it.  Hundreds of rats, streaming out in every direction, soon to infect other rats — and in a different way we've reproduced the spider narrative.

Or perhaps it isn't a plague; perhaps it's a ship full of ghouls.  Upstream, one ghoul got aboard and before anyone could deal with it, a dozen crew members were infected.  Now the ship runs aground outside Apatin, while the former crew of 160 now emerge and stumble into the town.  Of course, many would be killed, but all of them?  And so instead of rats or spiders, it's ghouls, with the party stumbling across them from time to time ... perhaps encountering an isolated hamlet that's been completely transformed ...

None of these possibilities challenge the status quo.  Despite the rats, the spiders or the ghouls, despite what treants or trolls might do before they're dealt with, the wagons continue to roll, the ships continue down the rivers, even as the number of plague victims begin to stack up.  The setting's structure and function is maintained ... and the players are free to find ways to press their advantage, either by meeting these problems head on, or using the distraction to find their way into other activities that might be more difficult if the local lords weren't away fighting ghouls.

Friday, August 12, 2022

The Mapping Goes On


The above image comes from my Google Earth Pro, with each rectangle being 40 mi. by 20, or 64 by 32 km.  In making the map piece by piece, I take it's equivalent from the map above in order to get the right placement of mountains or rivers ... with personal adjustments.  Blue rectangles are places I haven't drawn maps for, but which I've outlined in order to get the coastlines "right."

The reader can see the definite curve that's emerging as I steadily add to the map surface.  I have to make adjustments for it ... but these are so small that they can't be seen except by persons who are personally acquainted with the areas I'm mapping.  For me, the adjustments seem huge, because working at the scale of 6.67 mi. per hex really makes them stand out.  The scale for my hex map is 1:422,611, for those who care to know.

With regards to publishing the new map each month, I've decided to adjust my method.  Instead of going around in a 40 mile wide circle, I've decided to make that circle 120 miles wide.  This is why, on the left, you can see that I've jumped out three full rectangles into Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia.  I'm just starting into central Hungary.  I'm not going to reach either Lake Balaton or Budapest with this go around ... but if I maintain this pace, I'm sure to get there in 3-4 months.  It's been fascinating working my way through Serbia and Bosnia; the northern part of Serbia is called Voivodina, which I've just finished in the last few days.

Anyway, I should be able to produce maps of "what's new" more easily, as I'm not going all the way around the map each month.

This is something I tend to do late in the evening, as a relaxation while listening to podcasts, the news or audiobooks.  I can do one or two rectangles a night (it's August 12th and I've finished 22 rectangles this month), with a slow steady gain week by week.  After so many of these now, it's fairly routine, a bit like working on a colouring book, though there are strange places that offer a challenge.  Here's the merging of the Danube and Drava rivers in Slavonia, surrounding the large city of Osijek, where the rivers form a regional swamp:

The land bridge that allows the road to pass from Osijek to Sombor is narrower than the map shows, but does exist in reality.  I like the prospect of players having to arrange to put themselves on two ferries (the rivers are too large for a bridge) in order to get across, surrounded by traders who take this route regularly.  Both Osijek and Sombor are important market cities, acting as transhipment points up and down both the Drava and Danube rivers as well ... since both rivers are navigable at this point.  Squeezing in the details while producing a clear, pretty map is something I did last Thursday, on a day when I did about half a dozen rectangles.

So, I'll return to the main topic again with the next post.  It's brutally hot here today and I think I'll take a shower and cool off.

Wednesday, August 10, 2022

The World Turtle Bears the World

I know my readers have been waiting.  Forgive me for a little preamble first.

Sterling, I got the book.  I picked it up from my mailbox just before heading out today, so I've been able to glance through it and read your kind letter.  My grandmother was also a schoolteacher.

After not driving for 20 years, my partner Tamara has spent the time since the relax of Covid here in Canada chasing all the details that would let her regain her driver's license.  This involved communicating with the Michigan bureaucracy, where her last license was issued, getting Alberta to believe Michigan, retaking her learner's license test, taking driving courses to invigorate her driving habits, taking the test twice and passing, as of Thursday six days ago.  Tamara was anxious to get a car as soon as possible, so the last days have been filled with a visit to the bank, arranging financing, finding a car and then buying one, which we did yesterday, amid a rather ludicrous car price inflation that's ongoing.  We got a good deal on a Ford Edge.  Today, we took it out for a five hour drive around outside the city, visiting a provincial park and regaining some of our skills (driving comfortably in a new car for Tamara, navigating for me).  Once upon a time I had an interest in being a navigator for a rally car, but no opportunity to pursue that ever emerged.

Tomorrow, I'll be getting a full analysis from the lab for my yearly checkup; I've had to wait two months for an appointment.  It's possible I have a hernia; that's added to the list of other old man diseases I might have.  No biggie, but it helps fill up the week.

Then, Sunday, on the 14th, Tamara and I will be getting married.  We've been together continuously since March 30, 2002, so it's going to be a very simple ceremony.  We have the license, there's no need for a blood test and the arrangements have been made.  Just one more thing on my plate.  Otherwise, it's been work, exercise and juggling advice about cars, marriage brokers and other minor details.  This is why I haven't undertaken the post I promised.

Gee.  I hope I remember what I was going to talk about.

Looking around for a neutral example to discuss, to kick off a campaign description, this comes from  the one drive page from the Blue Bard, discussing Geoul.  I plan to discuss it out of context; if you'd like it IN context, read as much as you can.  It's time well spent.

"Bablemum, the great sultanate of the utter south has long been protected from its arch enemy, the Society of the Jaw: this by virtue of powerful leaders and, according to common myth, a seldom spoken of secret organization known as the Esoteric Order of the Twilight Princess.

"You live well, plying your trade and making reasonable money. But recent years have brought unrest to your heart and you begin longing for something more.

"Inquiry and risk draw you south, across the Six Kingdoms, to the quaint, hibiscus shadowed lanes of Geoul. Geoul is an ancient town of vineyards, scholars and painters, and there you receive your initiation into the Esoteric Order of the Twilight Princess -- hopeful that your new title "Secret Master" will begin your path to greater things. But shortly after joining this secret society, the building you were initiated in burns and the man who inducted you, a Master Elect of Nine named Nihs'Lohc, vanishes without trace."

I said with the last post that you'll decide the life the players will live ... here, they're being told that they're an initiate, which brings responsibility and awareness of a JOB the players will have in the campaign.  Succeed, and they're doing what's expected of them.  Fail, and there will be consequences.  If the EOTP works like most like orders, don't expect a lot of gratitude for doing their job.  That's why we're initiating them in the first place.

This sets a powerful tone for the engagement of the players, one utterly different from the one I set in my world, but NOT wrong.  This is important.  When I said that the campaign needed an ethic, I absolutely did not say it had to be my ethic.  Here is an ethic.  Here is a path to greater things (not necessarily known to a mere initiate).  Further, here's personal responsibility.  Their mentor, the guy that got them here, disappears and leaves them to bear up on their own.  "Get with it soldier.  Don't fuck up."

I said that you'll decide the monsters that will try to kill the players, and where they dwell.  What is the "Society of the Jaw"?  Do you think it's solved by one adventure?  By a string of adventures?  This is an arch enemy to a great sultanate.  Whatever The Jaw is, there are members in every village; in every round table; secretly camped near every military post; in elaborate tunnels under every city quarter; attached to every priesthood ... indeed, hiding under a lettuce leaf in the players' garden.  The Jaw are everywhere ... and they are the players' deepest, darkest nightmare of an enemy.  No where is safe, and no one can be trusted.  There are no "adventures."  There is a continuous, fluid power struggle that moves seamlessly from day-to-day.  Victories are as momentary as keeping back the tide; defeats are the smashing apart of age-old institutions and whole cities.  The moment the party finishes off the "big bad" in his lair, which they've spent twenty sessions getting to the bottom of, they must dodge an assassin's knife seconds before they learn that all this effort has been taken to kill a mere lieutenant.  There is no final victory, no final end to some episodic adventure.  NO, there's life.  Theirs, the world's, the battle to defend what's good, and their will to go on.  That is all.

I said that you'll decide what's real and what lies the players will be told.  Do the players really believe that these quaint, hibiscus shadowed lanes are what they appear to be?  Are they so foolish to think that the vineyards, scholars and painters are merely what they look like?  What is this entity they've been drafted into?  Are they truly the enemy of The Jaw?  Or ARE they The Jaw?  Do they know?  They cannot know.  They must decide on the evidence before them, from running to running, whom they really serve ... and what might be the true nature of what these beings pretend to represent.  They're not granted the luxury of absolute knowledge about right and wrong.  No one is.  For all they know, they're serving the enemies of Bablemum, and not it's protectors; for all they know, they're comfortable with that.  Perhaps there's no good reason to defend Bablemum at all.  In any case, it's up to them to decide.  This is THEIR life.  THEIR loyalties and actions.  THEY must choose the best path for themselves ... while always being careful what they trust.

After all, I said that you'll decide why all the things in your world live and what they want and what they'll die to defend — except the players.  The players are hurled into this maelstrom without guides, without assurances ... unless as a DM you're stupid enough to give it to them.  As DM, you hold the key to your setting.  The PLAYERS must find their own key, to unlock how to survive the DM's setting.  This is the game.

Let me draw on another quote from the Blue Bard.

"Here, you can see a fleshed version of the Country of Ormolu (formerly known as Wardale) and the city of Sanctuary that abuts the Marches. A good deal of player time has been spent in this vicinity, investigating the ruins of Copper Grove, exploring the Misthalls and Amharc Mountains, braving the crags of Geir Loe (the great peak that overshadows Sanctuary) and striking out on perilous missions into the march land."

I wrote with the last post, you need a place for the player characters to start.  Here it is.  And on the surface, suffering from the mindset with which D&D has poisoned you, you foolishly look at the above description as a series of "adventures."  But is it?  Are there any words in the above that state clearly that there's been an end to any of these activities?  Does "investigating the ruins" state clearly that the ruins have been cleaned out, or that the investigation is closed?  Is there no more exploring of the mountains and crags left to do?  Are "missions" a short hand for "adventures," with a beginning and an end, or are they in fact just temporal raids in an ongoing, potentially life-long operation where a thousand raids would still not clean out every villain, monster and demon from these awful places?

It depends on how you see it.  The "adventure" model is a stupid child-like perception of social realities ... the sort of thing that we watched naively when we believed that once the cops arrested the drug dealers that "closed the book" on drug crimes for good.  Nothing ENDS!  And why should it?  Why shouldn't another visit to the Copper Grove or Misthalls reveal yet one more secret, one further deeper undiscovered place, one other game changing fact that obliterates all our foregoing preconceptions?  Would you care as a player?  Would the ennui of knowing that you'll never kill every last orc, or root out every last evil treant from this forest, or kill the last city rat, sour your desire to play D&D?  Not me.  Not any serious player I've ever encountered.  Imagine bringing out another orc and have the players cry, "But I thought we killed the last one!  This sucks!"  More likely, "O gawddamn, another?  All right, I'll kill it ... you get the next one."

The mountains, the ruins, the halls and the march lands are always there, always ready for another sojourn, as soon as we recoup, attend to a few matters at home, clean out the chicken coops and whatever.  This makes sense in the game world.  The problems don't just go away.  They're not just solved.  At first level, they're surface problems ... but as the players go deeper, they find their original perspectives adjusted; they realise the orcs are just dupes, that the real evil is something worse ... until later on they realise how unsophisticated and artless was their earlier comprehension.  These initial problems are just turtles standing on the backs of turtles ... and it's turtles all the way down.  What really makes the world turn; what really drives the model; that's yet to be known.  But when it is learned, wow.  It'll blow the players' minds.

Yes, I'm saying that if you think you know what the ethic of my game world is, that's only because you've only played or seen the surface.  There are things about my world that I've never told anyone.  And they're BIG.

I said that as a DM, the monsters need to have their own agendas and things they'll die for.  They are alive, too.  And they're just as annoyed at these players that keep returning and making trouble as anyone.  You can't keep going back to the same mountains and ruins forever without someone powerful deciding that's it for you.  Sure, in the beginning you're a pest.  You're a tiny chigger draining your little bit of blood off the immense body whose existence you can't imagine.  But you take enough blood from that body ... you get big enough to get noticed, and felt ... something gargantuan and fast moving is going to slap you so fast and hard you won't know your body is about to be paste across the surface flesh of that being.  That's the game too.  If a DM isn't keeping one arm tied behind his or her back.

Sooner or later, the plundered become the plunderers.

Now.  If you want further explanation, and examples, you'll need to ask a question.  I understand this just fine, down to the bottom turtle.  If you want to understand it also, you'll have to tell me what you don't understand, so I can help you.  And everyone else reading this.

Saturday, August 6, 2022

That on Which You Should Be Working

The reason I succeeded as a dungeon master emerged from my wanting so badly to understand the game.  I wanted to read the books, I wanted to play ... and I did so at every opportunity.  It didn't matter that things about the game were imperfect — it was plainly obvious from the premise that D&D was far too complex a game concept to be achieved in three fairly narrow books, even if they were published in 8 pt. type.  By the age of 15, I'd buried myself in many books relating to war, anatomy, history and science, any of which were as large and as thick as all three D&D books put together.  And any of which were just one of such books that I could find on a shelf stacked together.

Because I read the introduction many times, it was evident that the original designers understood this perfectly.   The game needed testing ... lots and lots of testing.  I was lucky that I had the time to test it, and that I played with groups of highly motivated, academic friends, who weren't hesitant about spending an afternoon at the library reading every book about medieval castles, life, weapons and culture.  That was simply what we did; it was, I remember, what everyone did.  It would be years before I encountered the "casual," uninformed player, who participated but didn't know the rules, didn't care to know the rules and who considered reading to be onerous and unnecessary.  I simply didn't play with that kind.  I didn't meet them until 1984.  I never dreamed that these would one day define what the game would become.

I wanted to talk about D&D.  We all did.  We discussed every rule and every fault.  It was fairly obvious that fighting 10 equipped orcs was much harder than one ogre, and that the ogre gave more experience.  Or that it seemed every time we rolled on an outdoor encounter table, no matter which table, it always ended up being a wolf.  Or that a lot of the spells were, well, pretty obscure in their explanations.  I was lucky, I suppose, that I saw these problems as fixable, and not a turn-off.  At various points in my early experience, I tried to rework the weapons vs. armour class table.  I tried to redesign weapon speeds.  Like everyone, I wrote out my own explanations of the alignments.  I painstakingly copied monsters into lists to make my own encounter tables — I struggled with those for more than twenty-five years.  Eventually I acknowledged that I would have to write my own descriptions for every spell, and for every monster.  I didn't just wait for someone else to fix the rules.  I didn't just throw out a rule before first trying to make it work.  I didn't address any part of the game casually.  I dug in, I worked — with pencil-and-paper, mind — for years and years, to get to the place I'm at now.

Why do I have an answer for every question?  Because I've heard every question before.  I've had decades to contemplate and redesign these things.  I didn't, as some do, just keep playing the same game, as written, for 40+ years.  I don't even play the same game today that I played ten years ago.  There are always changes, always new things.  There's always something that needs fixing.  Which I like doing.  I don't sit around, like some, "Oh woe is me," kvetching about how some part of the game doesn't work.  I make it work.  Or I throw it out.

I don't think this perspective can be taught.  I think if it already exists in a person, it can be encouraged, guided, sustained ... but if you're the sort of person who cannot do-it-yourself, then you must feel endlessly helpless in the face of every edition.  As written, they're all garbage ... in large part because the parts of the AD&D system that really needed fixing weren't.  They were reinvented, with some other broken system put in the place of the first.  The writers designers of the 1980s didn't have the capacity, the ingenuity, to properly conceive of or describe the potential for D&D except as a boardgame-without-a-board.  Having built the frame, they couldn't figure out how to run the pipes or wire the structure in a way that would make it comfortable.  They frittered away millions of hours inventing new character classes, races, monsters, magic items, spells, die modifiers and adventure descriptions which amounted to nothing but lists and more lists.  Nothing was more disheartening than reaching for a "new" book from the designers only to find that one third was more class descriptions, one third was more spells and one third was more magic items.  Ad nauseum.  It's all the designers knew how to do ... and since they were selling to those who were at their mercy, who loved the game but couldn't themselves reason out how to fix the game.

I'm lucky I was not one of them.

Thus, with the last post, when I speak of an "ethic," a set of right and wrong behaviours with regards to the way the world approaches the players, I'm trying to establish a foundation for how the DM should approach BOTH the setting and the game rules.  Those rules have to serve the setting, NOT the players.  In the climate that's evolved these many decades, that's nearly impossible to grasp, with so much boutique-style D&D having been churned out.  But there's no structure in that.  The player's character cannot function only as a personal vehicle for them to take out for spins ... the "fighter," the "mage," the "thief" and so on are templates of behaviour to which the game setting's non-player characters must also adhere.

When we do something silly like replace the thief with a "rogue," or remove the assassin, what do we say about all the game world's criminals?  What are their skill sets based upon now?  How do they progress through their lives?  When we argue that the game's setting exists to provide adventures for the players, what does that say for the setting in which the non-player characters function every day, without adventuring?  They have money.  They have levels.  Were they all achieved through adventure?  And if not, then why are players automatically exempt from the sort of wealth and experience that are available to NPCs?

I accept the argument that D&D is about "peril" — but I'm baffled as to why people insist that this peril is only obtainable through the transitory artificial construct of the "adventure."  Why are we eternally locked in this episodic approach?  Can we not see that the setting itself is the structure in which the players play, providing a continuous set of events that need not be broken up.  The players simply "are."

To return to the point, if we accept that the advancement of the game's structure is not more "sports cars" for the players to drive, then what is it?  What does the DM do with his or her time, if that time is not applied to building better character vehicles, or even special "hot wheel tracks" for the characters to run those vehicles upon?

First and foremost, stop doing any work intended to expand the player's choice about their characters.  Whatever you've created so far on those lines, or adopted from books, keep it as you like, but stop committing further time to those projects.  Most likely, you're doing it because a large part of you gets excited about a new character class or race, much more so than the players will ever be.  Chances are, the vast supply of these things has never found real use in your game world, or has been anything more than a disappointment, only to be discovered when the cool new character class or race was undertaken by a player.  You're ruining your game's continuity, you're wasting your precious time, you're adding no valuable aspect to ACTUAL game play and you're risking the decline of your credibility and reputation every time you put forth some design that falls on its face.  Stop doing it.

Chances are, you can't.  Most likely, you've convinced yourself that creating this endless parade of vehicles IS preparing your campaign as a DM.  You've fooled yourself into thinking it's "important."  You've become addicted ... and in large part because the character creation process is something you understand best of all, because you've spent so much of your DM's experience doing exactly this.  But it is an addiction.  And a useless one.  Put it down and apply yourself to something more game effective.

This same argument applies to the creation of monsters.  Stop it.  Monsters are very easy to understand and to create.  You're not adding to the value of your campaign by reinventing an existing humanoid, beast, elemental, god or whatever.  You're using your time to prepare as a way to assuage your ego, as if to hold up something as easy to create as a new monster is in any way an indication of your ability as a designer or a DM.  It's not the size of your monster.  It's how you use it.

Stripping you of the choice of making character classes, monsters, spells, equipment, magic items, weapons or even new adventures or NPC cultures leaves you with ... what?  Exactly the position that the writers of the Dragon magazine found themselves in the 1980s, or the splat book writers have found themselves in since the 1990s, when they had to fill pages with something.  To play D&D, you need exactly one character class, one character race, one weapon and one monster.  That's the cake.  Adding more types of these things only adds icing.  As of today, there's so much icing we can't find the cake, much less eat it.  All we have are mouthfuls of icing.

The reason why writers fell back on that list-making content was because they couldn't think of anything better to write ... just as you most likely can't think of any better way to spend your time than drawing out another dungeon, creating new NPCs or pre-generated player characters, and so on.  But now it's time to move on.

Are you afraid?  

You decide the kind of life the players will live.  You decide the monsters that will try to kill them, and where these monsters dwell.  You decide what's real and what lies the players will be told.  You decide why all the things in your world live, what they want and what they'll die to defend.  You hold that key.  You have all the resources you need.

You need a reason why your world exists ... and not the sort of glossy, fabricated reason that might start the beginning of a novel, that needs only tell one story, but something more substantial, along the lines of why does the Earth exist.  Then you need a culture in which your players were born; one that cares nothing for who they are or what they want, because the players are just a few more persons in a place filled with hundreds of thousands, or millions of others.  Essentially, you need a culture with which the players will have to contend.

Finally, you need a place for them to start.  A place that reflects the aforementioned culture in a hundred ways.  A place that makes sense inside the game world.  A place surrounded by monsters who have their own agendas and "things they will die for."

And then you will need to figure out how to explain all of this to the players, one sentence at a time, in a way that makes them have reason to feel confident and able, while at the same time also gives them reason to fear.

Don't worry.  We'll talk about all this.