Monday, September 26, 2022

So It Goes

For no good reason at all, I'd like to talk about writing.

Virtually all the advice I was given about writing from the beginning was utterly useless.  I was told early on to "write what you know," which is horseshit, because no one anywhere "knows" enough to sustain a lifetime of writing.  Someone like Neil DeGrasse Tyson, who recently turned out a book, can occasionally draw up a collection of valuable details about his or her career, because the rest of the time they don't spend writing they'll spend doing their career.  Someone like Tyson might produce as many as a million words in his lifetime, scattered over a dozen books, magazine articles, science pieces or what not ... but a writer, a person who counts that as their profession, will write a million words in about eight to ten months.  Over a lifetime, they'll write between 60 and 100 million words, and no one has that much to say about a single subject in which they happen to be an expert.

Moreover, choosing to be a writer pretty much denies the possibility of becoming an expert in very much ... unless it is to be an expert in writing.  And for the record, even as I write this, writing about writing is a hideous recursive habit to get into.  Now and then, one has to indulge, but very little in the literary world is more sucky than a writer whose so out of idea that he decides to write a book, a television show or a movie about a writer who wants to be a successful writer, but is in fact an unsuccessful writer just now.  It's even worse when a successful writer creates a successful writer character who's miserable and unsatisfied with what being a successful writer has failed to do for him or her, oh me, oh my, it just sucks so much to be successful at something I always dreamed of being successful doing.

See?  Fucking recursive.

I want to believe that such works only appeal to people who don't know a fucking thing about writing, but alas, like the Dread Pirate Roberts, I've known too many Span ... er, writers.

I was told that if I wanted to be a writer, I should read a lot; and this is good advice, but only because it's good advice for everyone, whether you're a writer or not.  Reading is a self-destructive process in the long run.  In the short run, it's magnificent, especially if you're not a writer.  As a non-writer, you just want a good story ... and there are enough good stories out there to keep you satisfied for the rest of your life, that is an absolute fact.  There's this rather banal trope that floats around where the character working in a bookstore carefully picks out this special book for the customer, from the 10,000 books that are scattered through all the shelves ... and the one that's chosen is always one of the same ten books, which Hollywood, Hearst or Harvard Lit thinks deserves to be a book that will still be read by people in the year 2929.  And the customer, of course, has never read this book; and often hasn't heard of this book, and is therefore excited to read it.  The scene works, usually, because the reader or viewer hasn't actually read the book, and has no idea what an enormous piece of shit that it is.

If you've read a hundred books in your life, then you probably think that Huckleberry Finn is a pretty good book.  It might easily be your favourite.  If you've read a thousand books in your life, you probably feel that everyone ought to at least read Huckleberry Finn, because all in all, it's still a pretty good book.  And if you've read 10,000 books in your life, then you probably cling to Huckleberry Finn as a good book because you have read one hell of a lot of very crappy books.  And compared to all that you've read, Huck Finn looks good.  The way a trough of muddy, oily water looks good if you've thirsted long enough.

If all you've read for most of your life is fiction, then yes, Huck Finn looks like a good book.  If you like the idea of travelling, scheming your way out of trouble and foolin' bad guys without actually changing the culture in which the bad guys thrive, then yeah, Huckleberry Finn is for you.  If you've read five or six books about the actual culture of the south that Huck Finn purportedly lived in, it might give you just enough context to appreciate a few more jokes and raise the quality of book that you think Huck Finn is.

But if you're BLACK, probably not so much.  And if you've ever been legitimately persecuted in a way that you couldn't just shake off because you're a soft-liberal pampered middle class whose never had to fear for your life, daily, because of what you are, or what you do, then again, probably not so much.  Because Huckleberry Finn, for all it's cleverness, for all its precocious absurdity, amounts to a zero-sum-gain on what you know, or what you can do with it.  You may pretend that Huckleberry Finn gave you some sort of insight on racism or the South, but that's just bullshit invented out of your deep, deep ignorance about racism and the South.  Twain's goal was not to educate you, and he didn't.  Twain's goal was to entertain, and he did.  Anything else about the book is just pretense invented in your mind, because for all the reading you've done in your life, it's all just been recreation.

"Recreation" makes a very shitty writer.  I've met too many writers who suppose that all this recreation has given them something to say, and it really, really hasn't.  And while nearly every reader reading this now has no idea why I'd say that, or has already decided that I'm defacto "wrong," there are also a few here who know exactly why I say that.

My transformation as a writer did not come from the mixing of fancy words to make pretty sounds or paint pretty images.  I pursued that folly for more than a decade, at the behest of English teachers, writing teachers and books about writing, who waffled on about how writing was a form of music, that appealing to the reader was the thing, that enabling the emotionality of the reader was the best possible way to garner their attention and so to become respected and capable as a "wordsmith."  And to that end I dutifully read W.O. Mitchell and Chesterton and D.H. Lawrence, who would teach me this wonderful path.  But somehow, it never took.  No matter how hard I read Faulkner and Williams, or Atwood, or Anais Nin, I kept thinking and thinking, why don't they get to the point, and then, is that all?  That's what they think a "point" is???

Then, I took Latin as a language.  I had taken French, and I had taken Russian, but I always sucked at language.  I couldn't remember the vocabularies, declensions drove me nuts ... if I have an Achilles Heel, it's language.  Not sure what Montreal's going to be like; I'll be mired in the language of Quebec pretty much as soon as I get aboard the plaine francaise, where they hyphenate the English and write the French in regular font.

That said, Latin corrected twenty years of bad grammar construction in English in just four short months.  Like Paul, the scales fell from my eyes.  I stopped seeing the sentences and began to see the words; I stopped caring about the sounds of words and heard what they meant.  It took time to comprehend this revelation, about a decade ... but I can decisively say that I ceased to draw a line between fiction and non-fiction.  I steadily scrubbed away how something was said and concentrated instead on why is was being said.  In effect, I stepped away from the wallpaper that Huckleberry Finn is and found myself instead investigating the timbers, and the manner in which they distributed the novel's stress and strain.  It is woefully plain that Mark Twain was thrilled with the playfulness of language, character, opportunity for incident and the mockery of clever people outsmarting stupid people.  But Ol' Twain would have given a belly laugh to hear that his clever novel could, in any way, be called the "Great American Novel," as it has come to be called.  He'd have called it as big a con-job as the corruption of Hadleyburg.  The only thing truly "American" in Huckleberry Finn is how stupid the American literary elite is, who are so good at inventing meaning where no meaning exists.

No wonder Jesus Christ is American.

But ...

I digress.

Once the trees are visible, the forest loses much of it's mystery.  Reading for entertainment fades away into obscurity, so that reading becomes a tactic of understanding how other people put things, and why they put them there, and the rest becomes nearly irrelevant.  It's a waste of time, but I'll try to explain what I mean.

There are two generalised kinds of writing, which is hard to grasp because in both kinds, what's being said and why it's said is irrelevant.  The tendency is to think the dividing line is in the style, the purpose, the genre or the structure of the writing, and it's not.  Allow me to provide an example, as best I can.

Let's take a very simple form of writing, a news article.  Take as a given, if you will, that we can take as a given that the article needs to capture attention and get to the story in a very particular way, while constructing sentences and feeding quotes professionally where journalism is concerned.  If the reader wishes, there's quite a lot about this sort of thing.  It's not what I'm talking about here.

We open a website and find a story about a fire.  The particulars are provided, where it's happening, when it started, how it started, who it affects, what's being done about it and so on.  We read the article because we want to be informed, and that's important.  We need to be interested or we won't read it, so in addition to informing us it's got to matter to us.  That's understood also.  By and large, however, we read hundreds of like articles every year, assuming we're the sort who reads articles ... because as we know, many don't.  We read them because being informed is a long, progressive ambition that isn't managed by one story or a hundred, but by reading hundreds of thousands of bits and pieces of literature over the space of decades.  Most writing exists to inform us.  We expect it to, and we seek it out because it does so.  But any particular article, book, what have you, does it's job and then we move on to the next thing.

Unless, of course, we've just learned in the article that our friend Jack Yuers died in the fire.  This is VERY different.  Until reading this article, we thought Jack was fine.  This is how we've just found out.  And it's a shock.  Point in fact, the reason why the article includes the name of Jack in it is to expressly smash apart our world of complacency.  Suddenly, it's no longer just an informative article.  Suddenly, it's an article that shatters our belief system.

Journalism does this randomly.  It's a payoff they count on getting every time they publish the name of a dead person, or the building that a lot of live people live in now, or lived in at some point in their past.  Each time the journalist connects something horrid to a real event and place, someone, somewhere, feels that connection as acutely as our discovering suddenly that Jack is dead.  It's journalism's business model.

Let's call the first kind of writing informative and the second kind shock.  Informative writing comes in all shapes and sizes; in every form of density and airiness; and is able to equally please through giving you actual knowledge about things or explaining what sort of lawyer Atticus Finch happens to be, or what Scout's ideas are about Boo Radley.  A fiction is just a bunch of details about things that aren't real.  It's still fundamentally informative.

Shock writing, on the other hand, is hard to quantify.  Therefore please allow another example.

Informative comedy is the sort where the comedian basically expresses things you already believe, or would have believed anyway, if you had heard them before the comedian points the fact out.  George Carlin was the brilliant example of the informative comedian.  He seems like a shock comedian, and sometimes he is, because in his comedy he delved so far into places you might never have considered, but for the most part he merely presented things you already knew in ways you hadn't previously considered.  As an example:

"I don't know how you are, but I need a place to put my stuff.  I'm just trying to find a place for my stuff.  You know how important that is.  That's the whole meaning of life, isn't it?  Trying to find a place for your stuff.  That's all your house is; your house is just a place for your stuff.  If you didn't have so much goddamn stuff, you wouldn't need a house. You'd be just walking around all the time.  That's all you house is.  It's a pile of stuff with a cover on it.  You see that when you take off in an airplane and you look down, and you see that everybody's got a little pile of stuff."

Likely, you know it goes way past this, but the above is enough to make my point.  Carlin's genius is in describing something you already know in a way you never considered before.  Carlin is nothing like Robin Williams.

Williams comedy is based upon the principle that you didn't know what the fuck he was going to say next, or what voice he was going to say it in, or what whack thing he was going to do on stage.  When you walked away from that, you don't remember what he said, but you remember he said it fucking funny.  He caught us by surprise every damn time and watching him in the long haul was like driving 90 miles an hour down a highway with all four tires blowing simultaneously.

With Carlin, if you found him funny, and a lot of people on the "right" never did, you got the feeling that he'd be the best friend you ever had in the world.  And with Williams, you got the feeling that he'd be amazing to see at a party, but that he wasn't someone you'd want to take home.  Williams was off the rails, all the time.  It's really clear in his later interviews, where he's unable to put the clown down and be a human person.  There was something very wrong with him at the end ... which his friends and family described.  It came out that he suffered from Lewy body dementia.

Shock writing is a complicated thing.  For those not actually suffering from dementia, it hinges on the principle of wrestling with what the listener believes, attempting to force them to believe something they don't.  The comedian Lenny Bruce, a powerful influence on both Carlin and Williams, exploded on the scene in the 1950s with a violent sort of comedy that satirised, condemned and expatiated at length against the autocratic institutions in the United States using vulgarity, references to sex and violence and the channelling of pure, unbridled hate.  Bruce invented counter-culture comedy, changed the underlying principles of how free speech in America was practiced ... and then died at 40 from an overdose of morphine.  It's fair to argue that whatever Bruce believed, he wasn't a happy man.

Shock writing is informative ... but the goal is not to be merely informative.  It's an attempt to collect material from hundreds of sources to produce a gestalt that wrenches the listener or the reader away from their prejudices and onto a new path.  It strives to produce a moment of sudden realisation, comprehension or recognition that precipitates a major change in the listener's life.  It is a "Come to Jesus Moment," that commonly describes patients emerging from illness with a new perspective on death so sharp that it produces a violent shift in what they'll believe.

For a writer, the Come to Jesus Moment is the Holy Grail.  Those who don't define themselves as writers never feel the need to produce it.  Degrasse-Tyson just wants to tell you about astronomy.  Some will read his book at a young age and decide to ender astronomy as a field, just as Degrasse-Tyson has himself described his watching Carl Sagan.  Informative writing can be inspirational; it can change a person's life, although it's more likely to change the mind of a 9-y.o. chile than a 63 y.o. child.  As people progress beyond childhood, it gets harder and harder to change their minds ... especially if that change requires an adjustment in thinking that can result in a loss of privilege, entitlement and "stuff."  Those people usually have to be shocked.  Usually, any writing isn't good enough for that.  Writing, and film, and every other art form, is limited in that the listener has to be on the precipice first before there's any chance of changing their mind about anything.

That's how evangelism works so well.  You and I, in our comfortable homes, with our comfortable lives, don't need to come to Jesus.  We're either already there, or it's the last thing on our minds.  But when the Jehovah's Witnesses come knocking at my door, they're playing the same game as the news article did with Jack's death.  They knock on my door and they find a revulsed, righteous man restraining himself from launching into a tirade about the predation of religious zealots on unhappy people.  But I don't.  I close the door and know, inevitably, they will knock on a door where someone is at their last moment of despair; someone who has lost their spouse and child, and their job, and a parent, who desperately needs to hear a soft, gentle voice.  Someone who is ready for their Come to Jesus moment.  Someone who's ready to stretch out his or her neck for the vampires.

For me to change a mind, I need the same collection of circumstances working in my favour.  I can build those circumstances over time.  I can write a blog for 14 years and slowly, slowly, arrest someone's point of view with hordes of information and redirect them steadily onto a better path, until finally they get what I'm saying.  But I can also rely upon that small collection of Jack's friends who are reading my blog, who have just had a really bad running, on which maybe they've stormed out, only to find me writing about exactly the thing that produced the bad running.  By chance.  Randomly.

Each time I settle into write, I have to decide which course to take.  Do I write a long discussion about writing, to embed a few tiny shifts in people's perceptions, knowing that most such people won't read me consistently enough for that to do any good ... or do I pick a subject and scream at it steadily for a thousand words, putting off all the ordinary people who have unknowingly opened this blog page, while cutting that one reader to the proverbial quick, so adroitly that he or she becomes a permanent reader.

The art of writing isn't in doing either one ... or even being capable of doing both.  It's having the capacity to choose which it's going to be before starting to write.  It's preparing for the agenda ... and it's accepting the consequences of whichever decision was made.  Too often I find myself wanting to write a post that informs, only to find myself rushing into a post designed to shock and hurt.  Occasionally, I'm so angry that I've done it that the post gets deleted after the fact, sometimes two or three days after being written.  I get carried off by emotion ... and then I regret it.

Informative writing is far more accepted.  And it is better for the soul, as many artists who found themselves opposed to the "man," only to crash and burn later, discovered.  But informative writing is disappointing for the writer who wants to change anything.  I've read miles and miles of Mark Twain and what I like about the man was his indomitable ability to accept all the remarkable stupidity around him as something that didn't need fixing.  He's so wonderful complacent; so deliciously even-minded.  I've never possessed that bent of character.  If Twain were alive today, he'd write something terrifically insightful about red-lining or anti-abortionists that positively covered every jist and angle of the circumstance and condition, ending with everything being "okay" come the end of his story.  Whereas I want to seize all the agents of such beliefs and systematically curb-stomp them until the streets are dirty but the world is clean.  I want to be George Carlin but I am Lenny Bruce.

So it goes, as Vonnegut would say, who also managed to possess Twain's equanimity.  So it goes.  I've written a post, I feel I've expressed shed light on some of the darker corners in my soul and I'm the more disinfected for it.  That's as much a I can hope for.  I think I can guess what sort of writer I'll be ten years from now.  I'm ready to make my peace with that.

Saturday, September 24, 2022

Last Night

Not surprised yesterday's post fell with a thud.  The game was good, fast paced, though it was bookkeeping.  The trick is to manage everyone's "book" as simultaneously as possible, so that at any one time you're directing two or more people to roll dice or make decisions about their character's accumulated powers.  Last night, we went through a lengthy process of ensuring that everyone had their sage abilities up to date, which involved a great deal of rolling and correcting people's preconceptions about several points.  Not all the characters' sage studies and abilities are "made," so discussion was had of those that don't exist, or exist only as a very short description.  This was highly educational and fun, as every like discussion essentially gave the character, and the party, more power as individuals.

I asked everyone in the party to identify one page on the wiki they'd like me to create, with them rolling dice to dictate the order of priority.  I expanded the page under the monk study, Hand, this morning, to satisfy the player who hasn't played in my game since 2012.  Terrific to have him back, he's a very passionate player with a temperament like Kung Fu Panda, which makes him a joy to have around.  Each session, the players will pick new priorities for themselves and I'll update according to their choices, because I really don't care what part of the wiki I work on.  Although I really would like to finish the character generator.  I did more on that yesterday, for anyone who'd care to look.  Check the bottom of the page, under predispositions and shortcomings.  I'll be starting on describing the results there later today, after a few errands I need to get done before the Montreal trip.  Leaving Wednesday.  Tick tock, tick tock.

I feel awfully run down; the running went smooth, with my being pleased to find I had plenty of energy for it.  I've been taking long walks of 12 to 14 thousand steps once a week, in between lighter work out periods, and finding that pushing my strength to the edge is having a better effect on my health that comfortable, steady workouts.  Probably just a case of amping my metabolism, which has definitely suffered as I near my 60s.  In any case, getting used to finishing 10 km walks seems to have strengthened my endurance for long sessions.  Though, we only went four hours last night.

Okay, I'm about done.  Keep warm and we'll talk later.

Friday, September 23, 2022

Playing Tonight

Post-covid, things have certainly been up in the air.  I think the last time I ran my big campaign was ... jeebus, was it really 2022?  Seems it was ... and we were taking a risk at the time, even though we'd all had two shots.  We've pretty much all had four now, and what with issues consuming the general group's ability to find work, move, sell their property in one case and so on, no one wanted to enter into a sporadic running every four months.  So we've put it off, and put it off.  But tonight, it's a go.

I have one new player and one fellow returning after a 10 year hiatus, the famous Shalar from many years in the past.  It will be nice having a monk rejoin the party, especially as the monk's sage abilities are a massive shift in that class's game investment.  I've not yet had any chance to play test those ideas, though I have no concern about them.  It's going to be fun.

I'm four hours out from starting that game and there's no way that I'm prepared.  So this is a good time to talk about not being prepared as a dungeon master and venturing to play anyway.

Why am I not prepared?  Well, there's just too much to prepare for.  With our last three sessions being far more about moving the narrative along rather than specifically attending to the character's abilities and other details, tonight we have plans to run a "session 0" that is really nothing of the kind.  I used to call them "accounting sessions," but that's not accurate either.  This is more along the line of a general correction of details for all characters, to fully connect them with rule changes and such that I've been invested in creating these last four years.  As such, there's just no way I have of knowing what the players will need, or how much sorting is called for.  The best thing is for me to get ready to answer a few hundred questions while the characters make choices and updates.

Thing is, I have a reputation for providing a satisfactory game.  There's nothing more annoying than a player whining that we should "get to it and play already."  These are the same people who are unable to drive more than 75 miles, no matter how great the beach is, or sit through a brilliant movie because it runs 120 minutes and not 90.  As children, they were unable to wait for their marshmallow.  As an excellent DM, expecting nine players this evening, I can pick and choose who I let play.  I don't have to put up with anyone who hasn't the patience to let the game reach fruition in its own time.  In the end, my players know that I'll provide the two marshmallows I'm promising, and then some.

My responsibility is to be honest and up front with the players, telling them exactly where we stand ... and I've been doing that for a month.  Everyone coming tonight knows what's happening and why.  Having kicked the can down the road these last years due to covid, they're deliriously happy knowing that we're getting back on a schedule again.  This is key.  Once we're grounded, I know that with each progressive session I'll be better prepared ... as I'm progressively immersed in regular play.  What matters is my commitment; not what I happen to do with tonight's five or six hours.

This will be a social gathering.  We've all seen each other, but we haven't gathered for specifically this purpose in a long time.  There has been nine months of built up excitement, so these people are going to be irrepressible anyway!  They won't be in a state of mind to actually take part in a narrative for at least three or four hours, if at all.  And it would be foolish of me to try to make it otherwise.  The players need to be encouraged to relax, to get back into it, to chat and derail and get the fresh rush out of their systems.  This is a BIG part of managing people ... by letting them be people.

I don't suppose that for some of you, the experience has ever been like this.  I have a very powerful reputation for delivering a good game.  I think about D&D day and night, I work on it virtually every day, I'm always proposing something new and I've had a long history of building a deep, profoundly detailed campaign.  After 40 years, I'm well-past any sense of doubt or concern that I won't measure up.

Which, of course, makes me look like a MAJOR egotistical fucktard, and that's entirely fair.  But, may I stress, I've committed well over 3,000 posts on this blog towards a very "moral" form of game play.  The game is NOT about the DM, it is about the players.  My effort is not to preen myself on my cleverness, but to work at being as clever as possible, knowing this will leave me as tired and worn out as a prisoner on a chain gang by the end of tonight's session.  Whereupon, emotionally, I'll crash and burn out, feeling the intense crash of my body ceasing to produce endorphins, dopamine and seratonin all at once, not to mention the sudden quietness of the residence as the players leave.  Anyone whose worked hard at DMing understands how brutally disheartening those few hours can be ... a feeling like being heartbroken.  I have a nice Friulian red wine waiting.

The time, for me, will pass like a finger snap.  I'm focused on what I'm doing, I'm in flow ... and there's opportunity to pat myself on the back anywhere in the proceedings.  When the players leave, they'll be tired also, experiencing their own drops ... so the energy for praising me isn't going to happen, either.  Nope, we'll all burn ourselves out together, leaving nothing but the creeping silence after the game's crash and thunder.

That's how it goes.  Anyone who thinks, having read this blog, that I'm lording it over my players, then you cannot understand what it is that makes them so excited.  No, no, I'm lording it over you ... because my vision of playing is universes apart from what I read on other people's blogs, or on boards, or anywhere on the net.  It isn't Critical Role.  It isn't Chris-fucking-Perkins.  And unless you're one of the players at my table, so that you are invested with YOUR character, you can't possibly understand what's going on by watching.

Understand.  Some of these people have been running in my game for 16 yearsThey can't see my game as just a "game" ... they are way, way too invested for that.  The first brick laid for that foundation of their investment was put down 16 years ago.  How could you, seeing it for the first time this week, grasp what that means?

But no, no ... you go on with your one-off sessions, your game con tournaments, your one-page dungeons.  Whatever makes you happy.

Tuesday, September 20, 2022

Colouring Books

I don't think it's true that players, once exposed to a higher level of game, would continue to be satisfied with D&D as it's typically presented.  It's only that the game I offer requires a different approach from the one normally taken.

I'm not looking for shortcuts in the preparation of my world, so I don't buy modules ... and because modules are limited in that they have to present a closed-loop adventure that can fit the lowest common denominator as buyer, I don't have any respect for modules, either.  This attitude, stretched over four decades, calls for a lack of respect for those who depend on modules ... since, for me, it's evidence that the DM wants to side step the responsibility of running a game, for people, whom I feel deserve better.

That contingent of D&D publishers that sells to the "lazy" DM has identified this slouching, "fuck-my-players-they'll-get-what-I-give-them" and has chosen to empower it.  "Come to us," they say.  "Like you, we don't give a fuck for your players either ... so long as we get your money."  What's unsaid, of course, is that the publisher is no better than the buyer, as the quality of the goods they sell is plainly evident to anyone whose run the game for a few years.  Material for the garbage DM is logically garbage, because why work hard when the DM doesn't care?  Thus we have a spiral of goods produced by people averse to labour, action or effort, sold to like people ... with the victim being the player, who has turned to character creations and background in a desperate attempt to insert creativity into the game.  Such as it is.

Because I grew up in the 1970s, when the game emerged from the Zeitgeist into my reality, there were several years for me when the establishment had not yet been established.  There were those who called out for the establishment.  There were those who radically defended it even before it had been put in place.  For the reader who doesn't know what I'm talking about, the "establishment" as I'm calling it was the media-driven perspective of a very tiny minority whose voices were given credence by magazines, occasional interviews with the mainstream media and early game cons.  The writers of Mazes and Monsters did not look for their source material among the thousands of ordinary players entrenched in D&D by 1982.  Ed Bradley and his team from 60 Minutes didn't think to interview any of the hundreds of thousands of ordinary players in 1985; no, they spoke to the radical whack-jobs screaming about Satanism and one poorly educated, fat, scruffy physical loser incapable of plausibly defending D&D on its merits.  A win for the Satanists and a win for 60 Minutes, who soothed their right-wing listeners and threw D&D back under the run where it belonged.

Because I was older, I side-stepped all that.  The media didn't define my perspective of D&D.  My education derived from medieval studies, historical references and 9th to 16th century literature.  My opinion of Appendix N was that it contained a number of sadly B-grade pulp authors, many of whom I'd already discarded before the age of 14, and not nearly enough A-grade contemporary content.  Where was Mallory?  Dante?  Homer?  Where were the works that Tolkein spent his life studying fervently before daring to produce a work that compared with them?  Altogether, that list featured what I'd expect from uneducated, paperback sensibilities.  How is it that Burroughs and Howard are included, but not Haggard?

Buried in descriptions of medieval town life and legitimate maps, I veered sharply away from the amateurism of early TSR, destroying any possibility of my finding a consensus with the D&D community henceforward.  My personal take on the game, that it's there to present dense, believable scenarios set to challenge and deliberately upset the players, who must rise above themselves to succeed or die from their inability to show courage or change, is seen as abusive, destructive to game play and "not fun."  My game design is so rigid and inflexible, or so it's perceived, that when I refuse to insert some half-baked idea into my game, I'm viewed in the same light as the police officer that gives you a ticket for driving 2 miles over the speed limit.  Because of the laziness in the community, because of the lack of research or the desire to push the game past the traditional childhood sentimentality of how exciting it is to be a "fairy"-like character, it's hard to explain that game design is not a set of moral principles, it's engineering.  I'm not slapping down a would-be designer for a 2-mile-an-hour violation; I'm pointing out that if the driver's gearbox is 0.5% out of alignment, the car will crash.  For the moralist, 1% of anything is dismissable.  For an engineer, 0.01% is a fucking disaster.

This isn't understood because the game isn't understood.  To begin with, that an "adventure" is no more a collection of strung-together incidents than real life is a guided tour.  Without a deeper reason to win this fight or acquire that object beyond, "It's what's next," then the combat is empty, the travel is empty, the acquisition is empty.  Disney's Pirate of the Caribbean ride is cute and pretty, but it's not living life as a pirate.  It's not transforming.  And this ideal is what's seriously lacking in virtually all game play and game design.  The players are not expected to be changed by the experience of playing.  They're expected to come out of an adventure the exact same human beings, with the same knowledge and perspective, who went into it.  To suggest otherwise is to sound like ... me.

Today, if you choose to spend your Easter taking in a Passion Play, you expect to be entertained and possibly to reconnect with your faith, as you wish to do now and then.  But that isn't how the Passion Play originated.  In a world without widespread media, the play originated as a ritual of the Church, designed to transform the viewer.  The intensity of the presentation was set to wrest you from the commonality of profane existence and inculcate concepts of sacredness and divinity into the hearts and minds of the audience.  And it did exactly that.  The effect was so powerful that there arose a powerful taste for mystery and miracle plays that took root in the Middle Ages, representing as Wikipedia says the Creation, Adam and Eve, the murder of Abel, the Last Judgement and many, many more.

Companies of actors and theatrical productions built their popularity upon the basis of these plays, which over the centuries evolved out of troupes in Italy, Germany and France into the more familiar (for us) English works of Marlowe, Jonson and Shakespeare.  These companies were concerned with taking in money, but the intensity and richness of the works, in addition to the presentation, maintained their power to transform the audience's opinions about things.  Delve into the politics behind Richard III or Henry IV, and you'll find that Shakespeare was channelling the English crown's veracity and legitimacy in ways that are hardly known except to scholars who have gone those roads ... but every groundling in the "O" knew what was being said, and why ... and there were often fights that broke out in the Globe Theatre because of it.

Theatre and film today continue in this tradition, though both have been sadly gutted by derivative works, an inexplicable raising of the ability of a film-maker over the purpose of a film-maker ... and of course Disney is bent on destroying every vestige of artistry in every film produced in their monopolistic crusade to make people even stupider than they are ... a holy war that Hasbro, the leash holders of the Company from Mordor, fully endorses.  But I do not.  Dungeons and Dragons is a form of presentation.  One that offers the possibility of walking individuals through scenarios that do more than make a Saturday evening less boring, but which can leave them exalted and surprised at their capacity as human beings.

I'm obviously not talking about investing D&D with some shit propaganda ... nothing as gauche as that.  I'm saying that human beings naturally possess a thirst for ambition, power, acquisition and novelty.  Any game that quenches that thirst is certainly a fucktard better than a game that operates like a communal colouring book, eating time while patting players on the back for staying inside the lines with their crayons.  That is the substance offered by most RPGs ... which works most successfully because the players always need to buy a new colouring book when the old one's used up.

Enabling a player to be legitimately ambitious, however, is expert work.  The DM has to have some notion of how ambition works, to begin with, which won't be gotten by repeated claims that D&D is a game of imagination, a fun game, a social game, a great way to make a "unique" character or any of the other totally empty statements we can find on the company's website.  To begin with, ambition is generally described as a bad thing, a selfish thing, a way to fuck over other people while enriching oneself with entitlement and the corrupt control of others.  And so it can be ... only in D&D, the "people" being fucked over and controlled are NPCs, who are fictional, while the influence being acquired is more levels, more money and more options for styles of play.  "Power" is the ability to do something or act in a particular way, without constraint from others.  "Dominance" is the use of that power to bring other persons and institutions under control, to make them work for the player,  These are drugs that humans like to have flowing through their systems ... but it doesn't make suitable subject material for a game being marketed to 9-year-olds.

It's not that 9-y.o.'s don't understand power and dominance.  They understand those things better than you do, because they haven't learned yet the guilt and regret that many, many humiliations will help them develop.  But an adult that knows enough to feel guilty and regretful can still remember how much gawddamned fun it was to lord power and dominance over others.  Much, MUCH more fun than it was to pretending to be a fairy.

And this is the fatal flaw of the company's rhetoric.  D&D as they sell it is "fun," but it's only a little fun.  It's kindergarten, colouring book fun.  It's approved fun, or acceptable fun.  It's not up-to-your-elbows-in-the-enemy's-blood fun.  It's not slaughtering a whole village fun.  It's not seizing-control-of-an-empire and forcing-it-to-its-knees fun.  And it can't be, because these are scenarios that are too extreme for a module, or can't be made to happen through a linear series of events.  The greater sort of fun I describe is what the 9-y.o.'s will play anyway, because they're nine, and they don't give a fuck what kind of game the company or their parents want them to play.  But its the sort of fun that you, the adult reading this, don't play because it's too hard, it takes too much work, it's wrong or there's no module that covers it.  Because you've forgotten what it felt like to be nine, to spend nine hours tiring yourself out building a sandcastle on a beach that you may never come back to, because you wanted to.  Because seeing that castle grow mattered.  You've forgotten what it felt like to bury yourself in work that mattered to you, because you've been emasculated by work you don't give a fuck about.

And because of that, you're ready to buy your D&D colouring books from the company, and hand them out to the players in the form of character sheets, which they can fill in with their crayons, before proceeding through the CandyLAND version of D&D you've purchased for them.  Telling them, and yourself, that this is "fun."  Sure it's fun.  It must be.  We're not bored.

It's this disconnect, this utter failure to understand what D&D actually allows, that blinds players and DM alike to the fundamentals of game design inherent in the system.  Because they've never worked at their game, they can't conceive of the benefits that work offers, or how the fruits of work lead to the desire to work harder, to produce larger rewards.  It's this ignorance that encourages players to think that they'd rather vacation in the D&D world rather than live in it ... because they don't understand what the term "live" even means.  Or what that would feel like.  Like most children who get excited about colouring books, it never occurs that the bigger thrill is in drawing the lines rather than colouring between them.

Monday, September 19, 2022


Imagine that in nine days, you're getting on board a plane to Montreal in Canada, for a week.  Consider for a moment how you'll have to prepare.  You'll need your bills paid, you'll need someone to look after your pets and perhaps your plants; someone here in town will have to be designated to contact you should any emergency arise, most likely either your parents or your adult children.  Your bills should be paid; if it's nearly winter then any water that might freeze in pipes should be turned off.  Any last details at work should be handled or passed off to someone whose able to stand in for you.

Then, you'll need luggage, in the best possible shape.  If you haven't got it, you'll have to buy it, or borrow it from a friend or family.  Luggage is one of those things that people don't use all the time, but they do tend to store old clothes in such places.  Once you have this luggage, you'll need to make lists and start packing.  An appropriate wardrobe comes first — Montreal is somewhat damp at the end of September and gets chill in the evenings.  This isn't a problem if you're a resident of England, Denmark or Wisconsin ... but if you come from Florida or Mexico, you'll need to buy special clothes for your trip.  There's bathroom articles of course, and medication, plus any emergency things you might want to take.  You might want a notebook or tablet, or kindle, or an ordinary book, plus other things with which to amuse yourself on the plane.  You can at least be sure that if you've forgotten something here, you can buy it in Montreal.  We'll still be in civilisation.

And this is key.  A trip might be an "adventure," but it's not a threatening one.  You're off to a hotel that's managed by people who want your stay to be comfortable and stress-free ... so you needn't worry about food or finding your way around.  There's a team of people waiting to help you.  Likewise, with your flight, so long as you make yourself ready and available in time to board, the little inconveniences along the way aren't really fearsome.  Money has been paid to all the persons involved so that your holiday, which might be scattered with difficulties, shouldn't seriously challenge you.

Not so a D&D adventure, where you're distinctly leaving the company of a medieval town or village that is mostly indifferent to you, for a wilderness where you definitely can't replace your sword, should you misplace it.  But before we plunge into the depths to which that might go, let's take a moment and examine the traditional game adventure we've all come to know.

First, you're introduced to the scene by the concierge, who introduces you to the character who will provide all the details you'll need to know before the adventure begins.  This person's goal is to provide you with orientation, so that you can buy exactly what you need from the Gary Gygax Pamphlet of Dungeoneering Stuff.  Then you'll be assigned a guide, or given a brochure that will help you reach the excursion entrance that you'll be embarking upon this evening.

Once you've reached the entrance, by following your brochure and the organised sequence of corridors that will take you to your adventure, by drips and drabs, you'll enjoy fighting a remarkable collection of beasts that are carefully tailored for your level and ability, so as not to upset or spoil your excusion.  However, this may take some time and things are bound to get sticky in spots, so you'll be provided with sufficient bottles and other doo-dads that should mitigate any discomfort you feel along the way.  If something untoward and unexpected should happen, like one of your number being turned to stone or unfortunately killed — yes, unfortunately, it has been known to happen — then you may be rest assured that one or more of our staff will arrive in the nick of time to ensure your safe withdrawal from the adventure, with our assurance that any of your number will be raised at no disagreeable cost to you.  We here at Coast Wizarding Properties treat this sort of thing very seriously.  Our goal is to ensure that you have FUN, and so you may rely on us to live up to that promise.

Now, in this sort of adventure, you the player have plenty of time to dabble and mess with your character's intangible characteristics, since it makes little difference to your survival.  It can be fun to view yourself as a member of a cult, a spy, a student of the arcane, a simple peasant, the son of a God who one day will make a call on the Old Man, to let him know, or simply to bear a grudge against the dirty so-and-so that killed your parents.  But in fact, none of these fluffy backgrounds have much to do with the adventure that takes place.  They are window dressing; somewhat pretty and artistic, but ultimately superficial and misleading.

Let's discuss an adventure that isn't sponsored by Wizardland, Inc.

First of all, sitting in this village and thinking about where you might go, there's no one here to relay the information you need.  Those here in this village are not concierges and adventure orienteers, they're people, busy getting the dandelions pulled, the front door patched or the beefsteak pounded, while worrying about getting caught with the cistern empty on a Saturday night.  They don't stagger themselves out in the hinterland, since hunting beyond the village boundaries and we have none of us days to waste mooning around the wilderness getting ourselves eaten by wolves.  So with no idea what's out there, the players don't know what they'll need ... and what they'll need isn't gathered in an easy list tailor-made for dungeon wanderings.  No, those things are scattered among tables for the blacksmith and the turner, the silversmith, the grocer, the town market, the armourer's and the leathercrafter, among 1,500 other things that might be useful but then again, might only drag the party down.  Hell, there may not even be a dungeon out there, so why would we logically drag along a ten-foot pole?

Who your father is matters not at all.  What your father taught you does.  See, all that business of my character loves this or believes that, or has joined what now or wears this tag, none of that helps you if the world hasn't been designed with a concierge in mind.  The game world isn't Montreal.  There's no taxi waiting to take you to the dungeon, no doorman to unload your luggage as you rubberneck your way into the dungeon's front lobby.  When you're on your own in the wilderness, without that support mechanism, then what matters is what you firmly know, what you can certainly do and how much resilience you have.  All the rest is dingo's kidneys.   You have to piece together your own approach to the game world ... because the game world I run has no institutions set up pre-made to help you.

Now, of course my world has institutions ... but to get their support, you have to hope for the luck of the draw the background generator might offer, or you'll have to prove yourself to these places before they may deem you worthy.  Proving something demands that you have something to exchange ... and your claim that you're the son of a god doesn't qualify.  Neither does any other window dressing you might muster.  Nope, you'll have to earn your qualification, in a world will no one, absolutely no one, is invested in showing you how.

Imagine that in nine days, I'm going to club you in the back of the head and then leave you somewhere in the world with clothes, some money and that's all.  There's no way you can prepare for that, because I won't be allowing you luggage.  It would help, though, if you had some skills.  It would also help if you chanced to have your health, your feet and hands ... and your self-reliance.

According to the background generator, you'll no doubt get a little more.   A supportive family nearby, maybe, or a friend or two, or some unexpected social privilege.  How you manage these quibbling assets is up to you ... and the more assets you have, the better, so getting along with the rest of your party is also going to be important.  After all, you may not have a supportive family, but maybe Jean does, or Hal, or Dennis.  And maybe Jacqueline is a sailor, so the party can buy a boat, or maybe Isabelle knows how to find her way through an untracked wilderness.  Those things matter ... because no one's just going to show up and do it for you. 

Sunday, September 18, 2022

How Intentions and Bad Ideas Fucked over D&D

In considering character backgrounds and insertion into campaigns, regardless of the level of characters in my campaign, I was reminded of this post from 2018, and this forum page that followed it.  There are a few interesting details on the forum page, particularly about how not being allowed to choose a background is a bad thing.  I don't know how the one guy equates his hatred with desecrating Gygax's grave, but if building a background generator inspires that kind of behaviour, I'm all for it.

The board is also quite resentful of my policy regarding all players starting off as 1st level, regardless of the pre-existing party's experience.  I quote:

"His views on starting a character at level 1 even if the party is level 8 or 9 are frankly baffling, and not supported by most games. Yes, there's a little bit of rubber banding in D&D, but not to the point that you can have a first level character adventuring with a mid-high level party and have it not be a big deal. Anybody who's ever had their friends 'power level' them in an MMO will tell you, it's not fun for anyone. The low level person just gets dragged along for the ride, and the high level person has to stop whatever he's doing to help his friend so they can get back to the 'real' game."

I think this is extraordinarily revealing, in relation to how most people play the game.  It's very clear that "Linklord," expressing positions I've heard from others, feels strongly that the game is about "character skill" as opposed to "player skill."  Right off, it's "baffling" that the presence of another human being at the game table could possibly have value strictly from the fact that he or she is a human being, regardless of their character's game power.  That speaks of a game where planning, discussion, even the enjoyment of there just being another player has next to no place in the games he plays.  Which, I must say, fits with those games I remember from decades ago.

I've played with others who LORD their character's abilities and powers over others, particularly the magic items they've collected, as evidence of their prowess, superiority and expectation of being obeyed when choosing which dungeon door to open.  I've played with others who used their higher level to dictate where "subordinate" players should stand, and what kind of support "subordinate" players should give to the "leader" players.  I've watched the lesser, obsequious players tolerate this, accepting it as "normal" or "appropriate," waiting for the day, I suppose, when they'd get to lord their special status over less worthy participants.  I have not continued to play in these campaigns.

When I introduce a new player to my campaign, let's say "Judy," her contribution is the person she is, the excitement she feels, the evaluation of events in which she takes part in discussing, her perspective, and the simple pleasantness of having another person who's joined.  Nothing in Linklord's evaluation takes any of that into account.  Judy's value is reduced to her character's prowess, and nothing else, with the expectation that the other players will be toxic fucktards, pissed that Judy isn't powerful enough for them, ruining everyone's "fun."  Why does the low-level person get "dragged along for the ride"?  Because "the ride" is a straight two-dimension slug-fest.  "Helping" the friend is a chore, a diversion that takes away from the "real game" ... which paints a very plain picture of what sort of person Linklord is when playing D&D.

Something else I find interesting is about a player entering the campaign when the other players have all reached 9th level is the assumption that the new player ought to be instantly granted all the powers and capabilities the other players have accumulated over time.  If my players have been running in my game for three years, and have succeeded in moving from 1st to 7th level, then why should you, new player, be awarded everything they worked for, for free?  Why should you, new player, NOT expect to have to spend three years getting to the place they are?  And surely, you won't spend three years, because you'll have help from the higher level players, which those players didn't have when they were 1st.

Yet, no, the assumption is not, "Yes, I'd like to join the campaign and earn my way up to where you are."  No, it's "Fuck yes, I deserve everything you have, because I'm a person too."  This is an intrinsic notion buried deep into the game's culture, built from the resentment a new player feels at not being an equal, of having to earn equality or respect.  DMs in the day weren't ready to stand up to such players 40 years ago ... because, frankly, DMs were, by and large, spineless.  Those standards were passed along from DM to DM through the generations, and are hard-wired into the participant's mind-set today.  "I'm a person, I deserve what every other person has.  It's not a question for debate."

Where it comes to a physical game, this egalitarian notion doesn't hold because it can't.  If you join a soccer club of experienced, highly-interactive players who have built up their game, you won't be given carte blanche because you're new.  You must bend and break yourself to learn the game as they play it, if you want to play on their level.  If it's a good group of people, they'll help; but if you show no interest in earning your place in their club, then you'll be shown the door.  Because there's no such thing as a free lunch.

This is the MAIN reason I demand a new player start with a 1st level character.  And, I suspect, is the real cause for resentment from commentors on boards and my own posts regarding the matter.  Irrational as it may be, given that the game's present policy is never going to change to mine, these people still feel the idea of earning levels has to be stomped out of existence, lest it become a popular idea.  People like starting at 7th or 14th level.  They've played scores of such characters and they've become accustomed to those easy extras they never struggled to acquire.  Starting at 1st feels, well, like the "real game" is being taken away from them.  And with nothing they can add to a campaign except their character's prowess, THEY feel pathetic and "dragged along," and bitterly self-conscious when a 9th level has to stop killing someone and help their pathetic asses.  That makes them feel embarrassed, and worthless, and dependent, which they hate ... and which they assume everyone else in the same situation would also feel.

It never occurs to them that as a person, they're able to contribute to the game on a level way, way above that of the character.  They don't reckon their own value as people; they reckon their value on what they can do, what they have, how much power they have over others and so on.  It comes back to the specialness observation I made last week.

Beware this attitude.  Giving these players high level characters for free will enable their entitlement, while forcing them to play 1st level characters from the outset will quickly reveal their inability to participate as people in an open, interactive game.  Overemphasis on their character, far over themselves, speaks of a sickness, which will undermine the positive, spontaneous nature of your campaign.

Several persons on the board took time to explain that in later editions, starting a new character at 1st level is next to impossible.  Again, this speaks to a tremendous failing in the game as it's evolved.  It says that the manner in which the game handles increased character power has trumped the value of the  human being's engagement.  Without the tool, YOU, the person you are, the collection of corpuscles and sinew at the table, have no value.  That's corrupt.  Why would you play a game that sets out to devalue you as a person, the longer the game continues?

Why have you not considered that?

And finally, let me address the demonstrable resentment the board has for "random backgrounds."  Because, you know, I'm writing a book on the subject.

The phrase in the original post reads,

"Since I generate a background, rather than have the characters invent one, there's not much investment there, either. Oh, the character might have been terrifically lucky, been of noble birth or with some unusual extra skills, but again, there hasn't been time to play them and at any rate, the background is rich with extra skills."

The post wasn't about the background generator I was using ... and so, this is nothing more than an abstract reference, that would mean nothing to anyone not familiar with my blog or my system.  It's fairly clear from the board's comments that what's imagined is a collection of, say, 50 backgrounds that form a single list, on which you roll.  And I can hardly blame the average D&D commentor for thinking so.  Anytime I see a "generator" for anything, it's a pathetically simplistic list that any campaign lasting longer than three sessions would make redundant ... if it could sustain itself for that long.

Without having seen my posts on the subject, or a preview, no one could guess what my generator actually is, or how far it goes.  The generator as it appears on the authentic wiki is 30,000 words ... and not completed.   The book is steadily advancing that depth, in a manner that asks for the wiki to be eventually updated to match the book, once the book's sales fall off.  And that doesn't account for the 50,000+ words of additional background content relating to skills and knowledge that support the character generation.  So I don't resent someone when they write,

"Yeah, random is at best something for people who've Never played before, to get into the spirit of 'R'-oleplaying.Most people I've played with (anecdote) have some idea of what they want to play ... they like being in charge of themselves.  I guess that's called Adulting these days?"

Once again, it speaks to the way preconceptions have been inculcated disasterously into the game's culture.  So many shit tables, so many garbage approaches to important subjects, so much half-assery when attempting to adapt ANY depth into the game has brainwashed the participants into a certainty that any "random" table is sure to be simplistic, childish and suitable for noobs and no one else.  By dumbing down the game consistently over five decades, we've provided an enormous feeling of superiority for anyone who can put a sentence together and fill out the prerequisites for joining a forum.   Expectations for game design are at a remarkable basement-low ... which makes possible recent company garbage pretending to be "game design" seem plausible.  The audience reading and listening to the company preach its new model have been primed to treat garbage as edible ... and won't be aware of the difference until their gag reflex lets them know they can't swallow garbage.

So, on one level, it's discouraging to be designing in this market, since I'm assumed to be producing the same crap as others.  But at the same time, it's very encouraging to design in this market, since I know if I can put the physical content in front of real life eyeballs, as opposed to writing about it in text, selling said content will be like shooting fish in a barrel.

Friday, September 16, 2022

Why I Still Bowl

With my last post on tobogganning, I didn't add that one reason I stopped doing it was that, on the whole, sledding is not a high-skill sport.  It can be one, if you greatly reduce the size of the sled and place it in an remarkably tailored environment, but I had no access to luging as a boy or a young man so those options were closed to me.  When we ran out of cool new things that we could do on a traditional sledding hill, the sport lost much of its verve.

But today, I still bowl.  I fell in love with bowling very early, and it was my choice each year of what to do when my birthday rolled around.  I do it often enough now that it's no longer "special," so though my birthday was yesterday, we didn't go bowling.  Instead, we went out and bought some clothes for our trip to Montreal and some unusually expensive wine.

Why is it that I didn't quit bowling?  I've easily bowled hundreds of games, and yet if the reader showed up at my apartment today and said, "Hey, why don't we go bowling?" I'd probably answer, "Heck, sure."  And look forward to going.  So why is that?

Bowling, for all the bad press it gets as a boring activity to watch, requires tremendous control over various parts of one's body, to make them work together in synch in a way they're not really designed to do.  It's like tapping the top of one's head and rubbing one's belly, to the third power.  The approach, one's footing, the balance of one's hips, the delivery, the follow-through and what both hands and arms are doing, not just the one throwing the ball, all matter.  They all have their little adjustments to be made, and those adjustments have to be made in the space of seconds, because the tiniest misalignment or misstep or poor delivery will result in an unwanted ball.  And anything that isn't a strike is unwanted.

For a few months, about 20 years ago, I worked as a cook in a fitness centre that included a bowling alley ... and after my shift, I was free to use the facilities until closing.  This allowed me a hour or more of bowling five days a week ... which was heaven.  I worked out kinks in my game that had always been there ... and which are still, to some degree, there, and literally had the time to become absolutely obsessed with the game.  Without, I must explain, tiring of it.  Today, I have access to private bowling lanes for which I pay a modest fee, and I try to get out and play once every three weeks.  I've been doing this regularly since April.

I'm no where near the player I was.  There are things going on with my hips that are only going to get worse, and elements of my approach that frustrate, but I manage well enough.  I haven't given my scores yet ... I occasionally break 180.  I used to break 200 fairly regularly.

It is wonderful exercise.  Unlike a stretching routine, or walking, or swimming, every part of me feels completely loose when I'm finished, like getting a deep massage.  I'm not breathless or bent or sore-footed.  I sleep really good that night.

Thus, the effort of bowling is physically satisfying, mentally involved as I calculate each physical correction to make frame-to-frame, endorphin and dopamine rich and altogether, something I like doing.

You know, like D&D.

The reason why I'm still playing, designing and talking about D&D multiple decades after the fact is because the game is in no way repetitive for me.  I am not running different players through the same modules, I'm not on some routine where I have to go to a game store to buy modules, I'm not endlessly starting new campaigns because I can't maintain a single fluid narrative thread that's able to last years, I'm never out of material, I'm never in need of someone else's new designs ... and I'm not getting calls from players who want more character classes, more spells, more magic items and so on.  My players are getting all they want in GAME ADVENTURE and are not trying to augment their game experience with doodads and new character skins.

Over the years, this has made me a terrible person.  Not kidding.  It's the only way I can possibly describe myself.  I have practically no empathy for people who try to defend versions of games that smack of game campaigns I refused to play in 30 years ago, I despise people who claim to play 5th Edition because "It's alright," I have only contempt for people who buy modules or who attend league adventure groups.  As regards every word that was officially written in the years between 1974 and 2002, I have already made up my mind about ... and any argument that's put forward that maybe I should reconsider those decisions sounds like a 12-year-old standing next to me while I bowl, telling me I'm throwing my arm forward wrong.  Fuck.  Of course I am.  Every bowler, regardless of skill, is throwing his or her arm "wrong" — that's why we don't throw 300 with every game.  That's why bowlers have terrible, crippling elbow pain.  But what does a 12-y.o. know about it?

My game, the way I play it, the way that it works and the way that players in it praise me constantly, and go through pain in order to play, has much to do with my inexplicable, unreasonable, utter disrespect for so many people.  When someone makes a claim like, "I've been playing D&D for as long as you have," as an argument for why their opinion has as much merit as mine, my thinking goes to a place that asks, "If you've been playing for as long as I have, then what the fuck is wrong with you that you still have such stupid fucking opinions?"  I mean, seriously.  How can you have played for 40 years and NOT LEARNED ANYTHING?

I am a bad person.  This should be understood very clearly.  I am the Anton Ego of D&D.  The reader has to imagine that if I were playing in your game, you know, because you asked me, I wouldn't shut up and be polite if you did something idiotic or blatantly self-serving as a DM.  I'd call you out on that shit, right there, in plain English, because I love this fucking game.  I don't love you, I don't respect your ignorant position on 5th or 4th edition, I don't give a royal gawddamn about your personal grievances about finding players or keeping your campaign going ... because if you LOVED this game as much as I do, you'd break yourself to make your game better and the players would come running.  Your game isn't better because you won't BREAK yourself.  You won't change your mind about a lot of things you should have changed your mind about 20 years ago, and I have zero sympathy for you.

As you might guess, I'm a very serious bowler.

Making my body obey my mind is the hard part.  I can visualise what my body should be doing; and I can force parts of my body to obey, but then some other part slips my attention and fuck Alexis!  That should have been a fucking strike ... fuck.  Fuck fuck fuck.

It's all attacking and blaming myself, you understand.  I'm not the tiniest bit competitive.  I don't care about winning.  I care about making my body obey me.  And I will tear my body apart until it does.

I don't know why anybody would think I'm "nice."  Nor do I know, after 14 years of this blog, why anyone would think my being nice is something that matters to me.  I care about exactly two things:  making my game better, and making YOUR game better.

If any of you think that making your game better is done by convincing me that my game needs some garbage bit of mechanic that replaces some bit of my game that works perfectly, you've missed by a long shot what this blog is about.  The reason why I don't want to hear how YOU do something is that you're almost certainly doing it wrong.  Otherwise, you and I would already be doing it the same way.

Anton Ego.  Head the size of a planet.  Right here.

Deal with it.

I Don't Toboggan Any More

I don't toboggan any more.  Once upon a time, I did so at every opportunity in the winter, because it used to be a thing and because I was young and fit and could climb up a 100-ft. hill dozens of times.

I took this shot last night from atop St. Andrew's Heights in Calgary, usually considered the best sledding hill in the city.  The sign indicates clearly that it's still possible to freely participate in this somewhat dangerous activity.  The hill is 100 feet, according to Google Earth, though it looks somewhat higher.  A photograph, and even a video, doesn't do it justice.  I've added a photograph below, but in two-dimension it just can't capture the sense of vertigo I felt standing atop the hill last night.  It's strange to think how I went down this hill, alone, when I was the same age as the boy in the video.  Once, I was that happy.

A quarter-mile from the Foothills Hospital, which has a helicopter available if they can't get your body up the slope by carrying.  It was occasionally needed.  I've been down this hill on a wooden tobaggan, a sled with metal rails, a truck's inflated inner tube, one of those discs with handles and on a crazy carpet.  My father and I broke a toboggan in half jumping off a glassy-iced snow jump once, scattering us and pieces of the toboggan down the slope.  Note that the sign above says "no jumping."  In the 1970s, there was no sign.  But there were super-bright sports lights atop poles so people could sled at night.  Those poles are gone.

Why did I stop?  Hm.  My hard-core tobogganing days took place between the age of 9 and 13 ... with a few occasional times taking place in my teens and then a few more times with my daughter, who wasn't that into it.  When getting down to it, tobogganing is fun, but it's ... well ... repetitive.  Each time down the slope adds to a store of memories that steadily reduces the excitement and newness of future runs.

To compensate for this, we build new ways to make the tobogganing fresh again.  Once, we piled nine people on a four-foot wide inner tube and, clinging as tight as we could to one another, we went down the slope.  And then we did it again, only this time we went over the jump.  When we hit the ground, it was like a bomb made of people and kids.  No one was hurt.  We chose not to do it again.

New toys, new combinations, deliberately choosing places where the snow was ice, deliberately making ice ... we kept our interest going for a while.  But there's always the hill to climb up again.  And the next run is always a little bit more disappointing.  And the winter weather is never a plus. Until finally one day you're with a bunch of your fifteen year old friends and someone suggest sledding and everyone says, "nah ..."

I've been thinking about Lance's comment yesterday, where he wrote

"At this point I've played so many characters I just don't care that much about the how good or bad my pc is and would prefer to fit into a role than come to the table with my own prefabricated concepts.  There have been times where I've randomized my class choice and equipment selection. For me the choices are presented while playing the game, not before especially because I've made every one of those pregame choices hundreds of times and would rather be surprised by a result I would never choose(I'm naturally a bit of a min-maxer) than feel like I'm just playing the same character with a different name again. ..."

It's a bit sad, I think, when the notion of drawing up a character achieves the status of dragging a toboggan one more time up a hill for one more 27-second run.  Where it's so repetitive we have to design mini-games inside the character creation process to give ourselves a reason to care.  Right there's the slow death of a grognard losing his taste for the game.

I have not, as a point in fact, rolled up "hundreds" of characters, in large part because I stopped rolling my own characters at all in the 1980s, when I gave up playing for DMing.  But I also feel that I probably have barely topped a total of 100 characters for all the players who ever played in my campaigns.

During the one long campaign I ran between 1984 and 1994, I think I helped players roll a total of about 17 characters.  Prior to that, in the two brief campaigns I ran between 1979 and 1984, I could probably count maybe 25?  Six, eight players, occasional deaths, two campaigns ... hm.  Maybe 30.  Then, between '94 and 2003, I didn't run any games; I played in a couple and I worked on my game world, but no actual running.  Then, starting in 2003, out of about 14 players off-line, who have run the same main character since entering the campaign, it works out to about 40 characters and henchfolk.

That leaves the online people.  Maybe 10 characters with the first group, 8 more with campaigns that went nowhere, somewhere around 7 or 8 with the Juvenis campaign?  Call it 8.  All told, in the ball park of 125 characters that I've introduced into my D&D campaigns since I started in 1979.

Maybe that's why I simultaneously don't see D&D being about character creation all the time, and why I'm not bored with character creation.  I haven't remotely been down the tobogganning slope often enough to see the game through either lens.  I still think of character creation as "cool," so that I'm interested every time, while constantly building new angles on it to support the larger campaign game.  And while I do kill player characters, I don't do it that often.  People have seen me do it online, but in fact most of the time, the players live through each struggle and go on.  PLUS, when they die, they usually don't do it by slipping off a boat into the sea, where they'll be lost forever.  Usually they die of wounds.

So, I feel for Lance.  It hurts to see someone talking about character creation in those jaded frames.  It speaks of too, too many one-off games ... of too many 20-foot high toboggan hills.  Just ... just wrong. 

Tuesday, September 13, 2022

Love of Character

Let's take a moment and talk about 3d6 in order.  This was the procedure that began with writing down the character's six stats, usually in the order of Str, Int, Wis, Dex, Con and Chr.  (I don't play this order, because early in my gaming it became clear that by separating the two stats that began with 'C,' new players were able to distinguish them more easily).

Then, the player roll 3d6 and wrote the number down next to strength.  The next roll was written next to intelligence, and so on down the list.  Thus the player was subject to a very rigid system in determining realistically what class could be played ... and commonly, with classes that had high stat requirements, like the paladin, a player had to be very, very lucky to get a set of results that enabled that class to be taken.

I have never used this method.  I have never had a player ask me to play this method, or express any disappointment at this method not being used.  But let me explain my position, nonetheless, because I know that 3d6 was a thing, and may still be a thing, with some people.

Three six-sided dice will produce 216 possible combinations.  If we imagine the dice lined up next to each other, then it needs to be understood that 3-6-4, 6-3-4 and 4-6-3 are all different combinations, even if they all add up to 13.  There are, in total, 21 combinations that add up to 13.  There are 25 that will produce a 12, 27 that will produce either an 11 or a 10, 25 that will produce a 9 and 21 that will produce an 8.  Altogether, there are 146 combinations out of 216 that produce a number between 8 and 13.  That's 68%.

In traditional, Old D&D, the numbers 8 to 13 next to a stat mean next to nothing.  There were no ability checks in the game rules, the range won't give you a bonus to your "to hit" or your damage, it won't give you a wisdom bonus against charm spells, it won't add to your hit points.  If you're a mage in AD&D, the range makes some difference in your spells list, but not an especially significant one.  In any case, if a number less than 12 showed up next to your intelligence, you'd have been a bad player to decide being a mage was a good idea anyway.

In truth, you need a 15 or better in AD&D to have any stat make a significant difference to your character.  The total number of combinations in 3d6 that will produce a 15 or better is 20 of 216.  9.3%.  Not even 1 in 10.

Thus, your chance that any stat you roll in six 3d6 rolls being above 15 is only 56%.  Slightly better than 1 in 2.  Stick a pin in this.

Because 3d6 are being rolled, the chances of you getting a number less than 7 is precisely the same as you getting one above 14.  This means that for every meaningful character stat, one that could make an actual positive difference to game play, there's an equal possibility of a stat that provides a negative penalty against game play.  It's true that this sounds like balance ... but it's not a balance when there is a 56% chance of your character having one stat less than 7, AND a very good possibility of having one negative stat, and NO positive stats at all.  The reverse of this situation is eagerly anticipated, while the converse is, well ... shit.

It's often said that players who roll bad characters will suicide by monster, which is sometimes presented as a "fix" for the 3d6 system and sometimes shamed as "bad play."  I consider the argument immaterial.  The bad characters are not the real problem.  The real problem can be found in the good characters.

Using the 3d6 system, there is a 1 in 216 chance (0.46%) of rolling an 18 ... three sixes.  When this is done, the character having succeeded is awarded by vastly overpowered benefits in the case of strength, and moderately improved benefits in dexterity and constitution.  NO significant powered benefit in Old D&D is given to an 18 that occurs with intelligence, wisdom or charisma.  This means, even IF you roll an 18, you have a 50% chance of that 18 being wasted on a stat it doesn't help.  But if you roll that 18 on strength, then you have the benefit of being three times more powered as a fighter and combatant than a character with a 17.

A player with a charisma of 17 is very nearly as charismatic as one with 18.  As far as needing to be a paladin, either a 17 or an 18 will get you the ticket that lets you BE a paladin ... but the 18 is really wasted.  It might as well be a 17, for all the good it does.

The problem is that whomever rolls an 18 in a set of players, who happens to roll it next to strength, wins a bullshit lottery that puts to shame every other character round the table.  Since most of the stats that everyone rolls are essentially useless, and everything between a 7 and a 14 provides NO meaningful survival benefits (81% of stats), the 3d6 method demonstrates only that the original ability statistics design was a shitty, shitty rule set.  They only work now because we've found ways in the last 40 years to lend additional meaning to stats of every amount ... but that meaning did not originate with the arrival of AD&D in 1979.

Now, 4d6.

By rolling 4d6 and discarding the lowest die, we produce 1296 possible combinations.  The chance of rolling a 3, which can only occur by rolling four 1s, is 1 in 1296.  But the chances of producing an 18 by this method, where the lowest die might be a 3, a 5 or a 2, is 21 in 1296.  That's a 1.62% chance that any given throw will be an 18.  That's almost four times the chance of rolling an 18 over the 3d6 method, with 9.72% of all characters rolled at the table having at least one 18.

Using the same Old D&D rules regarding adjustments produced by ability stats, this increases the chance of a character having at least one stat of 15 or better.  There is a 300 in 1296 chance of doing so ... or 23.1% of any stat doing so.  This makes 15 or better stats far more common throughout the collection of player characters ... importantly reducing the excessive value bestowed upon a very unlikely but inevitably occurring 18 in the 3d6 method.  Because more characters have more 15s, 16s and 17s, the 18 is devalued.  That makes it LESS a game breaker when it occurs ... especially when there's a fair chance that two players at the table will have one.

Now, getting rid of the roll-in-order expectation.

IF the players can choose where to put their 15s, 16s, 17s and 18s, this diminishes the special importance of the character who happens to roll an 18 with their first roll.  He or she feels no special responsibility to be a fighter and make use of that 18 where FATE dictates, and can instead be the character class he or she wishes to be.  This means that any fighter with an 18 can be looked at by another player with the thought, "I could have put my 18 there if I'd wanted, but I'd rather be a mage."  Or a paladin, or whatever.  Less resentment, therefore; a greater personal sense of connection with the character; happier players all around.  AND the essentially broken ability stats system as it existed originally is smoothed out considerably at a time when other fixes were not yet conceived.

I have made the point repeatedly with my character background generator that a player ought not to be able to choose a character's birthplace, parentage, social status and class, or skill-sets that the player learns as a childMy only exception in this is that I allow the player to choose the character's sex.  That is because, realistically, it would be stupidly obtuse in this day and age not to recognise that many people will never be comfortable or encouraged to play a sex that they do not feel able to play.  I'm not stupidly obtuse, so I don't insist on this.

That said, a character's class IS something that the character LOGICALLY should be able to choose.  Before the character can become that class, he or she must raise the money for the necessary training, and then as a fully-functioning teenager and afterwards an adult (as some classes require more than a decade of training), that person must WANT to work and train and pass tests and overcome shortcomings in order to be that class.  If the character didn't want it, then the character would never have excelled in the trainer's expectations ... and thus, would never have been that character class.

Thus, it's reasonable to ask the player to suffer not having parents, or having been raised as a poor street urchin in a whorehouse, or accept that when they were 5, they accidentally got a limb caught in a mill-wheel and had it torn off ... because the character's intelligence isn't that high and hell, the character was only five.  But it is stupidly obtuse to tell the player that his or her character became a fighter because there was no chance of spending years studying books to raise his or her wisdom, or years in the wilderness learning about plants and animals, or years cheating and killing people on the street while increasing his or her reaction time.

See, here's the thing.  That baby there might someday have an 18 strength, but when it's a baby, it's strength is 1.  And the argument exists, does the adult have the 18 strength because the baby was destined to have one, or is it because the baby slowly gained a point of strength every other year until it was 11, and then it began training as a fighter.  Because I think it's the training the baby, later the child, got ... and not the bones or the blood or the speed the baby had as a baby.  Maybe those things helped.  But without the training, there's zero chance that whatever the baby starts with is going to become an 18.  18s are not born.  Like with Olympic athletes, 18s are made.  Just as my intelligence was made with conversations I had with my father, who continually challenged my logic until I went out and found smarter people than my father.  Just as my wisdom was built with books and experience and not my mother's womb.  Just as my charisma was born from my empathy and not my wavy black thick hair (which is now salt-and-pepper).  We are not designed by our attributes!  Our attributes start off as little stubs, that have ever possibility of remaining stubs if they're not fed practice, direction and effort.

Thus, I let players be the characters they want.  Thus I let players organise their ability scores.  And thus I further insist that if the player does not roll at least one 15 AND one 16, or otherwise at least one 17, then all the rolls are scrapped and the player starts again.  As many times as it takes.  Because a player deserves more than a character who "happens" to be what it is.

A player deserves a character that can be fallen in love with.

Sunday, September 11, 2022

Old D&D

The game of D&D, as I was introduced to it, provided a collection of rules that asked for the participants to succeed on their merits ... that is, the quality of being particularly good or worthy at the game's operation, so as to receive a reward following the game's play.  Survive the dungeon, haul away the loot.

This expectation did not encourage a great number of participants, however, for numerous reasons.  The game was not designed very well, so that "success" seemed to come more from pure luck than as a result of actual skill, or otherwise that success seemed to arise far too often due to the DM's inconsistency and obvious favoritism.

The presence of the DM was, in fact, a huge failing in the game.  The ask for a single individual of dubious ability or personal approach to manage all or most of the game's play, without clear and plain guidelines provided by the rules, was a recipe for corruption, vindictiveness, ego and excessive advantage for the DM's favorites rather than equal treatment for every player.  Although the potential the DM's presence offered for a game, increasing it's scope and excellence beyond what most games could provide for participants, that promise demanded far more explanation and demarcation of the DM's role than the game's original writers were either willing or ABLE to produce.  So, instead, despite efforts to explain what the DM was more than what the DM absolutely ought not to do, the actual can of making the DM's place in the game legitimately was kicked down the road ... where it has remained, unsolved, to this day.

Instead, energy has instead been given to commercialise the DM's role by supposing that providing modules would, magically, cause the DM to cease being corrupt and would instead run the game like a robot.  At the same time, excessive effort has been made towards specialising the game's character, almost to the exclusion of any other writing about the game, by providing more classes, more races, more spells, more magic items and more monsters for the character to fight ... while utterly ignoring the player's actual participation, such as content clearly indicating the player's responsibilities towards other players, towards the DM, or even what the player's place in the game is.   SOME of these things have been casually and inconsistently been written about on the net for the last twenty years, but since the "official" company refuses to weigh in, since taking a stand on anything might threaten profits, no agreement has ever been achieved by any group anywhere.

The closest that anyone has come to policing player behaviour has materialised as a set of approved condemned subjects that players are NOT allowed to present in play, for the sake of creating a "safe" space, which turns out to have nothing to do with game play and everything to do with morally provocative people seeking to censor the game's communication for political reasons.  To the best of my knowledge, this putsch has failed, since I rarely hear anything about it in mainstream circles, but then I spend no time at all reviewing pages on Reddit, Quora or other popular but academically deficient circles.

Therefore ... without formal communication to the contrary, the success that was intended to evolve from the player's merits has been shifted to choices the player makes which ensures the character's success, regardless of the game's play.  Essentially, as soon as the character is made, the character is already a success, and everything afterwards is mere theatre, like a Kabuki theatre, where all the stories are already known, where the actors movements are already known, and in which the end is already known.  Participation is, therefore, reduced to ritual and expressly for the purpose of obtaining satisfaction from the ritual being performed correctly.  That is, to produce "fun" that is less spontaneous than a mere repetition of player-used phrases, like having the players constantly checking their perception.

It's no wonder that after two or three years of this, players drop out to seek other forms of amusement.

What the game has become also explains the survival and appeal of the "old" game, which the modern version has failed to stamp out.  Since the old game isn't officially popular, DM's who play the old game cannot rely upon an easy acquisition of players ... not that they ever could.  This acts as a heavy deterrent against DMs who are corrupt, since expressing a willingness to play the old game is already a difficult hurdle for new players — who are less encouraged to tolerate a corrupt DM when the system is unfamiliar — or for old players, who know better.  Where the DM is compassionate, fair and legitimate in his or her presentation, however, old D&D continues to offer a gaming experience that new D&D simply cannot produce.  For a grognard like me, this makes hunting for new players like fishing in a barrel.  I never lack for experienced players, bored as shit with new D&D, who are anxious to try a more meatier game ... and since I can deliver, I never need worry that my game won't measure up to the Kabuki theatre the company provides.

This is why I believe that old D&D won't disappear when the grognard's generation passes away — because the earlier game IS superior, vastly so, though it requires a practical-minded DM to adjust and shape the old game to make it palatable in a way that the original founders were incapable of describing (or even recognising that it needed to be described).  My generation is already producing a field of 20 and 30 something DMs who are seeing the game for it's original value, who will be hardened grognards themselves in another decade or two.  There will always be cast-off players from the "official" bullshit system able to recognise what new D&D might be, despite what the garbage face it shows.  Those players will never have to build a proper D&D from scratch ... they will always become aware of what's out here, despite the company, because we always will be out here.

We love this game.  And we know how to make others love it.