Sunday, October 23, 2022

Non-linear D&D

Getting the game running like a machine calls for the DM to manage the co-equal problems of time and space within the model imposed by the setting.  Space and time function in two ways in D&D.   First, these define the momentum of game play: time is needed to describe the game's setting to the players, who must use time to choose how they'll move from space to space.  Secondly, the characters lose resources as time passes, so that taking more time to move from space to space reduces the survivability of the characters.

Running the game, compressing time spent increases momentum; the more things a party encounters in the space of a four-hour session, the "faster" the game seems to run, increasing it's potential for being exciting.  However, if we compress time too much, the players can feel rushed, even cheated out of enjoying the excursionary aspect of play, as players like to emotionally and mentally involve themselves into what's happening.

However ... we can also build sequences that cost the players' resources in order to reach their goals, such as lengthening a journey so that it requires more food, the replacement of equipment and more opportunities to soak hit points from the players' reserve.  This demands more resolve from the players.  In fact, by deliberately reducing momentum, to stretch out how long it takes to reach a goal, we can whet the players' appetites ... actually improving the game's excitement by decreasing momentum.

As such, there is no definite formula on how time and space is managed.  Knowing which dynamic to apply, and for how long, to make distances "feel real," is a considerable obstacle to good DMing.  It is so easy to take too long to describe parts of the setting and make the game feel dull.  It is just as easy to hurry the game to the point where the individual events just don't matter, giving the party has little reason to invest themselves.  Like telling a joke, each word must be stressed just so, with just the right degree of pacing.  We must "time" our delivery with pauses, holding the listener's rapt attention as much when we're not speaking as when we say the next line.  This is the underlying substance of DMing that calls for artistry.

Most do not have it ... largely because the need for pacing hasn't been explained.  We are instead consumed with the problems that arise from needing to know what happens next ... because it's perceived, if we don't know what's going to happen next, we won't know what to say when it happens.

The fundamental structure for game play is the railroad, defined as a sequence of events that have been predetermined, providing the DM with foreknowledge of what the players experience as the game plays out.  This "script" strengthens the DM's presentation when the game is running, especially if the DM has run the same script on some previous occasion with another party.  With script in hand, the DM feels a greater confidence in knowing what to say and when to say it; he or she has time to hone their performance, inserting jokes, clever moments of drama, practiced speeches given by NPCs and so on.  He or she need not sweat the problem of what happens next; everything "unexpected" is accounted for.  And because the players haven't experienced the railroad's sequence of events, they feel new and shiny.  Further, if the railroad is written well enough, many players will commit to the railroad even after they've seen where it goes, because they want to try a different strategy from that undertaken on previous trips.

Railroad settings can include multiple tracks, giving a greater illusion of player choices, since the choices and their consequences can also be predetermined.  With sufficient time spent, players can experience twenty or more pleasant excursions, jostling back and forth between stops, switches and roundabouts.  The format reduces the DM's stress and can even be packaged for other DM's to enjoy.  These virtues have established themselves as "how the game is played," being seen as vastly superior to any other approach ... which, in any case, would defy the ability of most DMs to deliver.

The problem with the railroad, then, is not its basic structure, nor in inability to supplying DMs with practical, useful material for play.  Arguably, the adventure module has been wildly successful ... and must continue to be so, given the audience it has.  The problem is in a railroad's limitation as a form of transport.  To work — that is, to provide material that predicts game play — the railroad is highly dependent on game forms like the dungeon, which provides a highly linear game experience.  The population of the railroad has to be minimal; groups that are encountered must be generally of like mind, with perhaps a single deviant that takes the party aside to show them the "secret way" out.  The setting itself is infertile and passive.  To function, the railroad's information must be hidden before it's discovered, and gotten past before the next hidden thing can be learned.  This disallows any possibility of the participants "playing off" their enemies against one another; they don't know who the enemies are.  This leaves only the very narrow tactics of immediate response.  Larger strategy is out of the question, unless the intended strategy has also been predetermined for the players.

As such, for all their fine qualities, railroad games become tiresome for most participants within 60 to 100 hours.  Participation for many hinges on the "sociability" of chatting and joking with other players ... which quickly devolves into mocking events of the game in order to maintain one's interest.  There are only so many ways to open a door, or collectively fight a group of enemies, or take down a "big bad."  Over time, the repetitiveness leads to other player behaviours and game-rebuild formats that don't need to be discussed here.

The problem remains one of time and space.  Desirably, we should wish for an approach in which the DM can expand rationally on what's already happened; can formulate play from moment-to-moment, in the present; and can predict, from the present circumstances, what ought to happen next.  Handling these matters in one's head can produce a fluid, logical pattern of events, with future moments becoming self-evident through examination of the past.  This pattern can then be "monkey-wrenched" with random events that can be generated with dice, or as suggested things likely to arise from the specific character, culture, vegetation or habitation of a given part of the game's setting.  All without predetermining anything.

Effectively, the players create their own fates based on the actions they've taken thus far.  If they venture into a dungeon, then for brief periods the game can become linear; but once the dungeon is left behind, there are greater opportunities for both random events and player interventions, as they decide the scope and temper of the non-linear adventure they want to pursue.

With the last post, I proposed a long-scale structured existence based upon the movements of pieces on a chess board.  Expanding on that metaphor, consider: at some point in the distant past, the game setting was brought into existence out of the void by the dungeon master.  At the moment when the players enter the campaign, an amount of time has passed — presumably, many thousands of years, but not necessarily.  Our metaphorical chess board began with the advance of a single piece, followed by move after move until the arrangement reached the moment where the players entered the campaign.

I ask the reader now to imagine the game's continental setting as a chessboard of enormous proportions, with half a trillion squares and tens of millions of pieces.  Pieces can move anywhere on this board, but they're limited in how many squares they can move per turn.  It's fairly easy to find space to oneself, but to compete with other pieces requires coming into their influence, where they can kill you.  As with the previous metaphor, there are intrinsically "whitish" pieces and "blackish," ranging into grey pieces.  These work independently or in groups ... with allegiances potentially changing from moment to moment.  Unlike chess, most of the moves taken by these pieces are non-threatening (but we need not concern ourselves with this nuance, at present).

The players, then, are pieces themselves, moving from sphere to sphere of controlled areas, separated by dozens or hundreds of squares through which the players travel towards their next intended goal.  The party's colour on the board is entirely up to them; they can move about doing good or evil as they wish, depending on how they judge the threat imposed by other pieces.  As a faction, the party threatens groupings that form villages, but are not so much to those conglomerations that form towns and cities.

Wherever the players go, the pattern of response reflects what the players do or say.  There are already pre-existing factions operating wherever the players go; it's possible for the players to win one of these over, or more than one, or alienate one or all the factions that are present.  The players may potentially expand their faction by picking up stray pieces or stealing pieces from other factions.

An important point is this: chess is a game where little or nothing is hidden.  The board is open; the factions are obvious.  As the players remain in an area, we can pour information into their kettle and in no way ruin the quality of the game ... because the non-linear game is strengthened by information.  Information allows navigation of the various factions; it allows long-term strategy and the acquisition of power.  We may choose to occasionally obscure a motivation, or provide a secret ... be we can clearly see the lord in his town on the hill, his power over his village, those who attest to the lord's power and those who don't, and whom we might approach, or what actions we can take, to either aid or obstruct the lord's dominance.  The game ceases to be the piercing of mystery and becomes the assumption of authority.

Both are puzzles to be solved.  One is a vastly more difficult and uncertain puzzle.

As I delve deeper into this discussion of non-linear D&D, I'll be expanding the use of chess as a metaphor to describe relationships between time and space, and the acquisition of power.  If you are unfamiliar with chess, and wish to be a DM, then you have done yourself a disservice.  Chess is a game that teaches the player how to predict the moves of an opponent, while building a strategy of one's own moves into the future ... a strategy that has to repeatedly be adjusted each time the opponent moves.  While more highly structured than D&D, the habit of constantly playing in the future terrifically strengthens a DM's predictions of what players might do before they do it, especially as one gets to know one's players very well.  As I played chess for decades in my youth, preparing for as-yet-untaken actions, and changing my preparations constantly once actions are taken, has hard-wired flexibility into my performance as a DM.

Learn to play chess or give up DMing.  Or accept that you'll always be limited as a DM.  If you're over 40, and chess still isn't part of your experience, then chances are you'll have difficulty applying anything you learn in chess to D&D.  You're just too old to change.  With a lot of effort, and a thousand hours of play, you might advance as a DM; but it's more likely that, since you've never played chess, you see chess as silly and not worth your time.  Meaning you'll never accumulate those useful thousand hours.

Chess is a linear game, in that the pieces have a limited space in which to move, which consists of two dimensions.  Each side alternates in moving one piece, controlling the measure of time over what becomes a complex space.  That said, the gestalt of chess is multi-dimensional, in that different pieces move according to different rules, producing a non-linear interaction between single pieces or groups.  In the right arrangement, a bishop can attack a rook, without that rook being able to attack that bishop; in a different situation, the dynamic is reversed.  The strategy, then, consists of making it possible to attack one's enemy, while simultaneously reducing the enemy's opportunity to attack.

To explain how this dynamic materialises in D&D, beyond obvious comparatives relating to combat, allow me to use various chess tactics as metaphors for role-playing situations.  The seven I'll be discussing are forks, pins, skewers, batteries, discovered attacks, zwischenzugs and sacrifices.  In each case, try to think outside the limited theatre of combat, and rather in within the context of the players moving through the game's setting, encountering enemies or friends at a distance.  These are strategies that both the DM and the party can use, to gain advantage in either producing interesting situations, or overcoming obstacles to obtain power.  


In chess, a fork is a tactic in which one piece threatens multiple pieces simultaneously.  Because only one move is possible in response, the defender can't counter every threat.  When used by a DM in D&D, this is a situation where the party and others are being threatened by a single force ... for example, an army approaching a city or a tsunami flooding inwards from the sea.  A similar situation might be having to deal with a large organisation seizing multiple, lesser groups in its collective tentacles.  The players may be able to flee from the situation, but in doing so they have to sacrifice others.  The DM can then stress the party's selfishness by forcing them to see how their self-preservation led to the suffering of others, preying on the player's humanity and building up the resentment needed to make the players act and not run.  The best strategy against a fork is to force the enemy's flank, to attack something the enemy has spend its energy to protect, so that the forking piece is arrested in place and can't move.  Then, all those threatened by the fork have time to escape the threat.

The players can use a fork by simultaneously threatening two enemy assets at the same time; this encourages the DM to create enemies that are more complex, and HAVE two or more assets (and not just one "big bad").  By learning which asset the enemy protects, the players can learn more about the enemy and succeed in weakening that enemy at the same time.  How the plan is accomplished is the party's problem.

Once either of these strategies are put in motion, it becomes fairly easy for the DM to see how a sequence of events can be built up on the fly: (1) there's a general threat against multiple entities; (2) the players decide if they have to save themselves or try to save others; (3) it's made clear to the players that the enemy has an alternative vulnerability; (4) the players decide if they dare to flank the enemy; (5) the players choices play out with a confrontation, deaths on both sides; (6) the players improve their position or the enemy does; (7) as DM, we introduce a new dynamic, either another fork or one of the other situations described below.  This pattern applies to all the situations named, with additional nuances and opportunities as can be proposed by the DM in game, based on what the players propose themselves.


In chess, a pin is a tactic in which the attacked piece cannot be moved without causing the loss of a much more valuable piece.  For example, in D&D the players are caught in a chasm, facing an enemy force ... and yet have the opportunity to escape.  However, if they do escape, the enemy will pour through the chasm and slaughter women and children, or the rescued king laying on his sickbed, or destroy the gateway the party needs to return a lost party member.  The players are pinned, forced to resolve the situation by fighting the enemy ... or potentially, sending one of their number, or a message, to some ally the players have in order to attack the enemy's flank from outside the chasm.

Once again, this encourages the DM to create situations where the players HAVE allies, of some kind, whom they can call upon in times of trouble.  It calls on the DM to build situations where the players are either depended upon in a crunch situation, or are themselves the more valuable piece, while their allies are the ones being pinned.

Players, in turn, can use the pin by trapping an enemy in such a way that it dare not move without surrendering something more important.  For example, the players want to obtain the dragon's egg, but the dragon will die first in defending it.  IF the players can figure a way to "pin" the dragon, so that it cannot move without losing the egg, then the dragon's inability to move makes it more vulnerable to a prepared attack.


In chess, the skewer is similar to a pin, except that it's the valuable piece that's threatened.  When the valuable piece moves to protect itself, a lesser asset is easily seized.  In D&D, the DM threatens the party to a degree that they have to give ground and protect themselves, certain that they're going to die otherwise.  Whatever the party is protecting is secondary; the players won't give up their lives for it, but they're going to lose that thing because they were driven off.  Used by the DM, the tactic is cruel and effective, and sets up a series of adventures as the players struggle to get back whatever they've lost.  Likewise, the players can feel the pang of self-recrimination if their choice to protect themselves ended in the permanent loss of a thing.  Forever, the players will wonder if they could have held their ground, which affects the way they think about similar situations in the future.

The same applies to situations the party presses in its tactics.  If the vampire is sufficiently threatened, it will flee it's lair to protect itself.  The lair isn't as important as the vampire, but by destroying it, the players hurt the vampire's chances of protecting itself in the future while reclaiming a desecrated place.  The situation is thus ongoing, with the party obtaining a small victory.


In chess, a battery is a formation that consists of two or more pieces, usually pawns, that stand on the same rank, forming a blockade defending some portion of the board.  In D&D, a battery is any situation where an enemy force is protected behind a fortification, or controls a part of the setting to such a degree that any approach is spotted and threatened.  In chess, batteries are broken apart by sacrificing a piece in attacking the blockade, or drawing the enemy out into other parts of the board so the battery lacks support.  Then, a supported piece can rush in, take a pawn, threaten the king behind the battery and survive, because there are no sufficient threats to the attacking piece.

If the players use this tactic in the game, they can figure out how to take down a castle, or root a villain out of a town quarter where everyone is the villain's ally, by systematically taking apart the defenses piece by piece.  Using distractions and sorties, the players can draw off a part of the enemy, or destroy a part of the enemy's camp, leaving the remainder less protected and less in number long enough for a well-focused attack to rush in and take the defenses apart.  The players dig under a wall, or sneak half a dozen members into the castle to start a fire, or kidnap an important person, or poison a well, or whatever hampering plan can be conceived of in order to weaken the defense for other assaults that come later.  Over time, with numerous "moves," the players can eventually take down any defense.

The DM can, of course, do all this to the party's castle.

Discovered attack.

In chess, a discovered attack occurs when a friendly piece is moved out of the way of an attacking friendly piece.  For example, a knight is moved, revealing a bishop's attack on the enemy queen.  As the enemy moves to protect the queen, the knight can move again, causing much havoc.

This is a great way of creating a threat to the party.  They are introduced to a potential enemy who, after negotiations, agrees to step aside to let the party act freely as they wish.  As the first enemy steps aside, the party suddenly finds there is some other enemy, who won't negotiate and will fight the party directly.  The party sets out from their holdings to take the fight to the second enemy, only to discover upon returning home that their holdings have now been destroyed by the first enemy.

Dealing with both enemies is now the party's problem and the set-up for a lengthy in-town campaign, which enables us to aid the party by providing allies who have also been wronged by both enemies.  So the fight goes, with the players being harassed on both sides, but encouraged to feel that if they can eventually wipe out both enemies, they'll own this town.

The players can use the tactic exactly as above, with one half of the party pretending to be the first enemy, while the other half acts as the second.  Similar situations can be invented by both DM and players through the use of additional groups of monsters and allies who weigh in on one side or the other.


In chess, a zwischenzug is a tactic in which the player, instead of playing the expected move, does something wholly unexpected while imposing an immediate threat the opponent must answer.  For example, instead of attacking the battery and threatening the king with my rook, instead I take this opportunity to exchange my bishop for the enemy's knight ... because my opponent's taking my bishop changes the position of his pieces in a way that works in my favour.  THEN I attack the battery.

There are all sorts of bizarre ways this can be used by a DM and by players.  Most of the time, doing anything unexpected is good.  The effect of altering the circumstances for the players, by introducing some element of the setting into the mix, makes them hyper-aware that they can never be sure of anything.  For example, the players decide to break into a workshop to kidnap the blacksmith, who knows how to get into the town's North Tower.  Just as the players are about to kick in the front door, a fireball engulfs the formerly quiet, dark apothecary's shop across the street.  In seconds, the street is inexplicably filled with some unnatural creature that the party must confront ... until the blacksmith also comes out from the workshop to see what's going on, with varying other peoples too.  Is this a good time to still kidnap the blacksmith?  Only the party would know.

If the party is clever, they can set up distractions like this also, but obviously the DM has many more opportunities to do so.  The key is remembering that the zwischenzug mostly likely has nothing whatsoever to do with the adventure ... except that once it's occurred, it can add flavour by creating a completely different sequence of events with which the party may also have to cope.


In chess, a sacrifice is a move in which one side surrenders a piece with the objective of gaining a tactical advantage.  A caught informer kills himself rather than surrendering information; a low-level mage uses burning hands in a shed full of lamp oil, to destroy an enemy protected behind guards and wards next door.  A high-level lieutenant dies in an attempt to overcome the enemy's bastion, which temporarily offers a reprieve from the enemy's siege weapon batteries.  A non-levelled hireling tries to hold back a dragon "for a few rounds."

Players can sacrifice themselves with the expectation that their body can be recovered and themselves be raised; or they can sacrifice their hirelings or followers.  The effect this has on a series of events making up the campaign has much to do with how well the players have thought the sacrifice through, and what steps they've taken to exploit it.  The DM's part is to give the players the benefit of the doubt, to rationalise what the probable response would be and then to play the game out as honestly as possible.


In each of the above cases, an action sets up a counteraction, just as we'd expect on a chessboard.  Opponents move to protect their assets, or regroup to try a different attack, while the players do the same.  Once the moves begin to take place, the next logical move on the DM's part should emerge just as if the DM were a player and the players were the DM.  As the players invent a strategy, the DM puts his or herself into the head of the NPC, decides how the NPC responds, expresses that response by providing players with information about what effect they've had on the campaign (Remember: hide as little as possible!) and the back and forth alternate play of the campaign should develop organically.

This ideal isn't based on some silly theory of always saying "yes" or "no."  It's based on what ought to happen, given what we know about what's previously happened, and given what we know about how the NPCs would respond, given that they're peasants, guards, a particular kind of villain or monster, or whatever else we've assigned to their personality.  That response should be defensible, rational, reasonable and with an eye to contributing to the ongoing process of the campaign.  Choices by the DM should reflect the creation of more possible choices for the players, which they'll limit by making their choice and thus rendering former alternatives now impossible.

Above all that's been said on the subject so far, we have a singular constant that we can turn to as a model on which to render this game proceeding:  human history.

All that I've described is visible in the interactions we've witnessed as a people and as individuals since the beginning of the world.  We can study conflicts to understand how people respond to conflict.  We can study the creation of good things, like supportive networks and civilising projects, to discover what resistance arose in response to those efforts and how that resistance manifested.  Looking around for what the players can do in a game, we have millions of examples of what people HAVE done, locally, in foreign places, last year, a hundred years ago and thousands of years ago.  The pattern of human history has been an exercise in the ongoing patterns of time affecting the available space, with humans choosing how to make use of time to change space.

Understanding the human project, studying psychology, anthropology and other subjects I mentioned with the last post, explains what I mean when I say that something ought to logically follow if the players do "this," just as we can guess what the players will do if we as a DM have the enemy do "that."

This formula transfers our power as DM to willy-nilly do things ad hoc into a dynamic frame in which we do things as we honestly believe would result, whether or not that "fits" into our desires or expectations.  Letting ourselves accept results because they're what we would expect to happen, and not what we want to happen, drives an engine that does run the game world ... and yes, almost as if by magic.

If you've enjoyed this post, and yet you find yourself so overwhelmed that you're unable to produce a rational comment, don't worry.  You have an alternative.

Wednesday, October 19, 2022

Pursuing a Dynamic, Running Model

The matter of running players in a game world should be seen a problem, in the frame of something to be solved.  Like the riddles inside D&D, the game itself, and how it's mastered, is a riddle.  The joy and satisfaction inherent in being a dungeon master derives from one's fascination with this riddle, and the various efforts by which we set ourselves to solve it.

The verb "run" is commonly used for something a device does - for example, a car runs, or a watch runs.  And so for the present, I propose that instead of thinking of the game world as something that we run, that we set out to design a setting that runs itself.  Such a design would exist to provide answers to the riddle of how to master the game, providing for the intents and desires not only of the players but also the dungeon master.  The setting would therefore have to surpass the limitation of being an artistic rendering of maps, backgrounds and collections of monsters organised as dungeons.  In effect, the setting would exist to suggest, even compel, certain answers and explanations that the DM could draw upon during the game's running.

We have numerous frameworks in place that we can invoke to aid us in conceiving a dynamic formulation of the game's setting ... one in which the various active forces are out of balance, producing motion through the exchange of power throughout the system.  To explain that another way, we're seeking a world that is in a constant state of energy, potential and kinetic, that drives a pouring out of conflicts that the players may encounter at different times, and in different ways, as they move about the setting.

For the traditional theist, this sounds like a grandious embellishment of a far more moderate difficulty.  The solution, most would say, is simple: build a closed system, populate it with monsters, puzzles and traps, then introduce the players so they can investigate and sort the arrangement.  Repeat.  Various closed systems can then be strung together and that is called a "campaign."

I do not concur.  I believe the problem lends itself to a more dramatic design, though such requires the designer to wrestle with various metaphysical concepts, the scope of human knowledge, facts, fancy and narrative fabrication ... subjects that, typically in case of most people, are abandoned upon the day of one's graduation and never juxtaposed with activities seen as "entertainment."  The Venn-diagram of "play" overlapping with "think" presupposes a mere sliver of the populace ... but since I find myself in that sliver, let's move on with how we might achieve a dynamic setting design for D&D.

To understand conflict, we need to grasp the distribution of power within the game's setting, beginning with the single entity whose power is absolute — the DM.  Thus introduces the first problem: the DM cannot exercise power and maintain the game's integrity.  We must therefore restrain the DM's power to keep ourselves from using it.  Cosmetically, this is done by requiring the DM to adhere to the same rules at the players, including tossing the dice openly where they can be read and interpreted by everyone ... but there are too many instances where the game demands the withholding of information from the players in order to make the narrative functional, such as the space behind this as-yet-unopened door.  In such cases, the DM's power continues to be unrestrained.

We can provide limitation by insisting that the DM predetermine events before the players arrive on the scene ... but again, to rely upon this all the time depends on creating game elements that quickly become stale with repetition.  Dynamism requires the DM to react and respond intuitively to the players on matters that cannot possibly be predetermined, since the DM does not know what a player might say or do before that moment in the game.  Predetermination makes fair dungeons; it's a disastrous tactic when any other part of the setting is in play.

Therefore I propose a strategy in which the DM is required to share and divide his or her power among the entities inside game's setting [and not, to stress, with the players!].  The power division is arbitrary, of course; the DM possesses absolute power.  Once the division is made, however, the DM freely respects the division, having made it.

This division is profound and intuitive ... and naturally, the reader must be lost until it's explained how the division is made.  Patience ... these sentences can be read again once more context is gained and understood.  For the present, see the DM's power as a collection of game pieces arranged on a board; and suppose these pieces represent the dualism of the DM's personality: darkness and light, evil and good, despair and triumph.  Thus, a given power is not bestowed into one game piece, but two ... so that in the vast dynamic driving the mechanically running setting, there is a piece dedicated to destruction and evil, and a piece dedicated to nurturing and good.

For simplicity, imagine that we are speaking of pieces on a chess board; each of the 32 pieces represents a super-ranking power, something far larger than individual empires or religions, races or ideas.  Let's say for the present, individual powers that are too large to grasp.  At the moment when we decide that there will be a game world, none of the pieces have moved.  Yet we plan to move them, and have them war against one another.  Every move is up to us; we can therefore decide, before advancing white's kings pawn, the first move, that white will lose this battle.  Or we can decide that white must win.  In any case, that is not the only outcome we decide — we also decide the order of the moves.  If white is destined to win, there are still trillions of ways the pieces can be moved to ensure that win.  Until, of course, the game is set in motion.

With each move, the number of possible variations rapidly dwindles, especially if we already know that either white or black must win.  Consider: the game must be ongoing when the players are introduced into "the game."  When the game is over, so is the universe, so presumedly the players are introduced at some point when it's still impossible to tell which side has the better position ... especially since the board still has most or every piece upon it, in play, while importantly the players are utterly unable to see the whole board.

From the perspective of an amoeba poised upon the chess board, the setting's powers appear as an immense forest of immovable, unassailable towers of unimaginable strength and endurance.  That pawn is as large as a continent; it has stood there since the world's construction and it looks as though it will stand there forever.  This perception is all the more certain if the amoeba's consciousness is a few seconds, when a move on the board takes place once a minute.  And that move may happen on the other side of the board, out of sight, with the elimination of a piece the amoeba may never have conceived of, much less grasped the importance of its disappearance.

In dividing our power among the pieces, we limit ourselves by setting up the game's arrangement so that only a few possibilities are rational.  Yes, we could have white stupidly move its horse to an untenable position, but that would be devastating to white's survival.  If we want white to win, then we must not do that, no matter what our powers may be.  Nor if we want white to win, should we allow black to make a stupid move, because for our purposes the game is better if black fights back as best it can.

Nor will we simply restore white's horse, on a whim, using our absolute power.  We've agreed to distribute that power into the pieces, wresting it from ourselves.

To step out from the metaphor, then:

The various entities of the game world are a vast collection of individual pieces, each of which has a varying amount of power.  The combined influence of all the religions of the world, for example, has enormous power; a single goblin has much, much less.  Yet each possesses it's tiny influence, like the butterfly's wing that beats upon the air.  Ahead of time, as DM, I've decided not only what exists in the world, but the general trajectory the world is taking towards some other world it will become in the future.  Like the game in play.  The tiny, insignificant pieces the players encounter in the world each have their part to play in that trajectory ... and therefore each must make moves that make sense in the context surrounding the players at a given time.

This context defines what I'll let myself do as a DM and what I won't do.  Therefore it doesn't matter what I can do as "god" ... my powers as god are divided into the limited choice of movements available to that river, this cultural group, that besieging army or this goblin.  Not all the intricate, tiny moves are planned in advance, because as I've said above, that would produce a tired and stale, lethargic campaign.  But where the players are concerned, their direct influence simply isn't enough to easily unbalance the huge pillars of the world.  Try as they might, the players may bring down a kingdom, or a series of kingdoms, but they won't destroy the institution of monarchical power, or the ongoing march of scientific exploration.  The players, and the things they affect, are paltry compared with the gigantic 32 pieces on my chessboard.  They cannot even grasp the fullness those pieces represent.  I'm certain I can't.

That doesn't matter.  There are various grand forces aligned against one another, blasting the players this way and that, as they try to make their way through the world.  The particulars of what those alignments seek to achieve, and how they conflict with one another, is measured by an entirely different set of parameters, which I shall undertake to describe with the next post.  Here I take my leave, first taking the time to express once again that an approach of the kind I describe requires a constant and thorough investigation into the premises upon which our real world is founded.  Those premises are all around us, characterised with labels we scarcely understand: psychology; anthropology; politics; philosophy; relativity; religion; evolution; economics; and so on.  Subjects that even experts admit to understanding only in part ... and yet I ask the gentle reader to become as familiar with each as they can, to empower the fundamentals on how to transfer one's absolute power as DM to a dynamic-creating framework that will run one's setting almost as if by magic.

Sunday, October 16, 2022

A Furtherance to the Effects of Guidance on D&D

D&D is a religion?  Alexis is well off his cracker this time.

I had a lot of trouble with the last post.  The subject material kept drifting, whereupon I'd kill several paragraphs and start again.  Altogether, I wrote three times as many words as the post ended up being.  Worse thing is ... I want to write it over.

Religion is theatre ... but unlike the theatrical play, that's been around for only 500 years, or film that's just over a hundred, or television that's passing 80, religious theatre has been in development for more than 5,000 years.  As it happens, "theatre" grew out of miracle plays, recently mentioned on this blog.  The Passion of the Christ grew from Medieval performances taking place 900 years ago.  Where it comes to reworking and rewriting the same story over time, there's something to be said when dozens of generations take up the pen to address the plot line.

Each nuance, each line, gets remarkable degrees of attention.  The same can be said for every visual cue we might witness laid out in a Cathedral, even something as late as the Notre-Dame Basilica in Montreal, which was constructed in stages between 1824 and 1843.

Nothing is left to chance.  Every inch is built upon a precept existing in other churches reaching back to Roman temples and earlier.  The presentation dwarfs the viewer.  Not only does it seek to awe the viewer, it also forces the viewer to look upon the scene with affection and attachment.  Imagine growing up as a child in this church ... visiting it up through the years until becoming an adult.  And then imagine having some reason to take a stand against the church, and risk never being allowed to enter this place again, that you've known since being a child.  Compare churches like this to what the world was like in the 12th, 13th and 14th centuries.  It's miraculous.  Can you imagine the self-will it took, the degree of anger and resentment required, for the iconoclasts of any century to enter a place like this and tear it apart?

All the hundreds of variant elements of D&D, as a body of design and rules, puts its unique pressure on the DM to see that it's included.  We must have magic; we must have these races and these classes; we must have critical hits and shields must be smashed.  We must have dragons and giants, medusae and chimera, ghosts and vampires, gods and alternate planes of existence, because all these things together have their individual parts to play.  From this I acknowledge how this same argument calls for the needful inclusion of all those modules that players have grown up with, that reach back in time to the 1970s.  That too is part of the game's core for most.

Deviations, then, are difficult.  Your choice to include calculating encumbrance, or how much food is eaten, or spell components, risks a player declining your game after a single session.  You'd better know what you're doing before heaping a lot of new rules on players who are used to playing the familiar form of the game ... because up front, they're not going to see the benefit of new rules.  It's easy for me, now, to bring a new player into my campaign, since there are seven other players who have already embraced all my new rules.  Peer pressure works in my favour.  But if you, the DM, are the only one defending your rules to a mob that knows none of them ... beware, because none have any reason to be on your side from the outset.

This is a point that I must stress regarding both your game building and the setting you put that in.  Start with the familiar.  Get them on board with your DMing style, your skills at presentation, your ability to play back-and-forth with the players as they make decisions and you offer consequences and returns.  Prove that you can run, first.  Only then should you ask for a little more.  They have to know us, and trust us, and have reason to invest in us, before we jump in and start changing their game to ours.

That approach improves the possibilities of our building the game and setting with these specific players in mind.  We can feel their resistance to some proposed rules more than others.  With time, we're able to sense with what, and when, to introduce a bold new concept into the campaign, not only in terms of rules but also as to the behaviour of NPCs or cultural norms the party might confront.  One reason why I've been able to inculcate sex into my campaigns originates with players who have come to trust me as a DM, who know that if I bring up the subject, it isn't going to somewhere lewd and tasteless.  I've worked for that trust, as much as I work to maintain it.  No matter what I might theoretically discuss as a rule for D&D, I always have the voice of my players in my head constraining my willingness to introduce that thing.  I know them, just as they've come to know me.

This is where the metaphor of religion comes into it: the priest is as beholden to the flock as they are to his counsel.  A priest is a fool to think it appropriate to act like a dictator; and a fool to let others bully and dictate what they want from their priest.  A priest leads.  It's done humbly, with concern, with kind words ... but the congregation is led despite themselves, often without knowing it.  That is the essential skill of DMing.  To lead without looking like we're leading; to make the players see what's best for them while letting them decide it's what they wanted the whole time.

Saturday, October 15, 2022


Note on the last post:

Further content in this series assumes a game world that sits somewhere on the scale of setting approaches between "fair" and "indifferent."  Creating a setting that's entirely insouciant would be next to impossible for a single individual working within the constraints of time and the necessity to occasionally acquire income ... thus, some elements of the setting do work towards providing players with structured opportunities to enrich themselves, both in game terms and experientially.  No effort, however, is granted the approach of appeasing and servicing the players wants and desires, like a cruise director on a luxury liner.  If that's the approach the reader desires, then you'll have to find your wisdom for that approach elsewhere.

Part II

Though we are mere dungeon masters, and perhaps correctly described as "workers and students in an industrialised and technological society," the condition remains that the game setting is brought to life out of a void — in principle unchanged from any creation story we might have learned.  Naturally, our game setting is rather crude; it depends thoroughly upon the deity's constant, clumsy attentions; because it's all imaginary, the new world lacks the benefits of spontaneous, physical biological creatures roaming about on it's surface.  Nonetheless, it is real; and we have conjured it out of, as they say, nothing.  Whatever the setting's shortcomings, we did the actual making of the thing.  It's ours.

I speak of "my world" when I discuss the setting with my players or anyone else that listens, brushing off the dusty chair next to Yahweh and taking my place among the Gods.  This is a joke, naturally.  If there was such a chair for me, it would be rude stool indeed.  Still, no one familiar with D&D will give a moment's thought to the gargantuan assumption that a person, a DM, can "own" a whole world.  World ownership can easily be assumed by anyone who scrawls make-do lines on blank paper, arbitrarily dividing the firmament from the waters, and seeing that it's good.  No one thinks a thing about it.

Viewed through the lens of "fantasy fiction," the medium underlying D&D is a mixture of believable elements and unbelievable elements — with the latter included into the mix as though they were believable.  When introducing the presence of a God meeting the players, fifty or sixty feet high and resting down on one knee to speak gently to the party, the unbelief of the situation is intensely played down, while the players conjointly agree to suspend that unbelief for the overall benefit of the game.  Much pleasure is obtained in the understanding that imaginary things in the setting are "real;" everyone here wants them to be real; and thus it's taken as a premise that they are real, and woe betide the naysayer in the crowd anxious to spoil everyone's fun.  We don't question the arrival of the god; we want to know what the god has to say.

Where, however, does this shared agreement begin?  We can argue that the originators of the game stuffed it full of practical forms of magic and unnatural beings, and therefore we continue that trend, but the originators are hardly the source for why this sort of thing appeals.  They merely thumped a big red button that humanity's been carrying around with them since the time of the world resting on the back of a turtle and talking snakes whose day job is "apple salesman."  The originators are come-latelys to this love affair ... and in fact provided the disservice of throttling much of the distinctive character extant in many a mythical beast and fantasy myth, to reach a press deadline.

I think we can take as a given that any D&D setting must possess this reality/unreality mixture.  The degree to which we embrace it varies; and we'd be silly not to expect that.  The question, therefore, is not whether fantastic elements are present in the game setting, or which elements are included, but rather what is accomplished by having them at all?  And by that I mean, beyond the factor of "cool" they possess.  An argument is called for that explains to the DM why a world should have gods and strange beasts in it, or comprise elements of the supernatural, or any of the features that we've come to associate with D&D.

The answer is that while we might question the validity of unreality, it's reality that we should sincerely question.  You and I are sure to come closer on the subject of what kills vampires than we might on how to kill a serial killer.  The vampire is a myth; and the defining characteristics of that myth provide for a totally evil being that can be killed indifferently, by necessity.  But a serial killer is a flesh and blood soul, and however we might want to assess that killer by the same standard as a vampire ... the fact remains that the killer is made of the same corpuscles as ourselves.  Worse, the killer has a family, and defenders, who offer a version of reality different from ours, as does the killer too, and the whole matter becomes increasingly more complicated the more we know.  A necessity of killing the vampire is, however, appealingly lacking in vagueness.  There's no question of guilt.  It's a vampire.  Of course it has to die.

By extension, for a thousand years there has been no reason to regret the death of Grendel, nor the rightness of Edward Spenser's Red Cross Knight killing a dragon at the outset.  Much of D&D's appeal comes from a cultural attachment to these tales, explaining why the killing of monsters and the acquisition of treasure maintains it's allure.  Creatures being unreal provides the solace from our day-to-day morality that frees us from second-guessing our actions and the remorse we'd ordinarily feel if we did something wrong.

Further, we're compelled by the enormity of our actions, including our perceived bravery to just stand there as the unreal god bends down to speak with us.  We're fascinated.  We're in awe ... not only of the god, dragon or giant, but of ourselves, for taking part in this experiment of game play.  We cannot wait to jump in again, to see what happens next!

This is something the dungeon master needs to apprehend in the creation of the game's setting, so that the feeling of being magnificent is bestowed upon the player — not in the sense of granting them an ponderous ego, but in making them feel part of something larger than themselves.  The sense of grandeur that accompanies jaw-dropping awe contains, within it, a deep intuitive sense of fear, a legacy of our ancestors who stared at lightning storms and fire without comprehension, yet with an intense appreciation for nature's frightening beauty.  This mix of awe, fear and beauty underlies the fabric of the successful game setting, with it's source in the manifestation of religion and religious adornment.

The intensity of religion lies in its capacity to fire the imagination ... while at the same time motivating it's proponents towards right action and right belief in a manner that unifies them together as a body.  The rich splendor of the religion's buildings, the spectacle and pageantry involved in the proceedings of spiritualism's ritual, the terrifying sense that one's soul is on the block and being discussed, combine together to form an impression in the worshipper's mind that they are part of something huge and incomprehensible ... and yet beautiful and impossible to abandon.  Each element of the exercise has been carefully crafted over millennia to seize a precise, intricate human capacity for emotion and give it substance.  It matters not if any of the words are true; if the promises given have authenticity; or even if the end purpose of the religion's toffs falls in line with the purported goals of the sacred texts.  What matters is our feeling, sitting in our pew, surrounded by the vastness of ornament, history, sacrifice and compassion that form the fundamental tenants of what brings us to this place, tiny beings that we are.

D&D is a religion of sorts.  Not one that cares about our souls, or what happens to us after death, or  how we should act ethically towards our fellow beings.  D&D is concerned with our sense of action.  It dresses that action in conflict and consequence, risk and high spirits, adventuring and desperation.  The game has the bigness of ornament, at a premium as it's ever-present in our collective thoughts; it has all history to play with; it recalls our sacrifice and the sacrifice of so many player characters that have gone before, that we feel keenly in our hearts ... and in those moments when we work and fight together, triumphing against impossible odds, there's compassion for our fellow players.  D&D, too, taps into a complex human capacity for creativity, resourcefulness and fantasy, giving purely imaginative moments a substance that astounds and awes.

Comprehending the means by which this game inserts itself into the human's thinking process is critical for the DM who wishes to dig deeper than setting up stick figures to roll dice at one another ... though it must be conceived that we'll never really understand how this works.  If we could, we would not be awed by it.  The game would not possess us with its wonder.  Therefore we should approach the elements of the game, it's trappings and direction, with the expectation that it should subsume into our consciouseness without our ever truly understanding how.  Then it should be embraced, and loved, and left to grow healthily on its own account, as we become slaves to it, and not it to us.

Thursday, October 13, 2022

The Underlying Philosophy of Worldbuilding

Sometimes I write a post where I find myself wanting to say more than one post will cover, spawning a series, and sometimes I think of the series ahead of time, based on some list I have where I think, "I could write a post about each one of those things."  I think, on the whole, the first kind is better than the second ... this is the second kind.  But I'm not going to talk of what the list is, or where it came from.  At least, not for awhile.

I've argued that your game world's structure depends a great deal on how you approach ethical play.  What you believe about your world is essential to how that world is going to interact with the players, as it defines what you'll do, what they can expect, how legitimate your form of play is and the probable sustainability of your campaign.  Yes.  It's going to be one of my heavier posts.

Your legitimacy as a dungeon master begins with the amount of voice you grant your players during the game.  They need the freedom to push back against your dictates — which is why the argument, "the DM is always right" fails the test of justifying our right to make a ruling on anything.  No one is always right ... and to argue that we are is more than a hint that we're dealing with an asshole and a coward, who hasn't the ability to defend his or her privilege on any other scale than, "because I said so."  That's not legitimate and it will subvert any chance of ever running a long-term campaign.

Many will claim that, however; they'll say they're always right, but they don't run that way.  When they actually run, the smug entitlement gets put down in favour of the greater good.  So why argue that the DM is always right, if even the speaker doesn't believe it?  Damned if I know.  The fact remains, players must believe they have a voice in what the DM says and does.

Secondly, legitimacy demands that we act in accordance with things we've said and decisions we've made, day to day.  If the NPC can throw a sword, then the players deserve to have that power also; and if the player is given that choice today, it can't be taken away tomorrow.  This is why game rules exist: to establish, as an agreed-upon context, what's permitted and what isn't, always.  If a rule is retracted, then this demands a discussion, because the players deserve a voice in that discussion.  We've always done this, this way.  It can't be changed ad hoc.

This obliterates the DM's fiat, and that gets some folks in a knot.  DM's like the power to arbitrarily decide that something that players are entitled to do is suddenly not permitted.  A DM with the wrong attitude can make a call like this without awareness that it's been done; and players often let it go by, because that judgment isn't enough to make them quit a game that's giving them their only opportunity to play ... but the tension cause by this arbitrariness grows, session-by-session, until the players get sick of the bullshit.  This helps explain why a player "loses it" over some small ruling — because it's the last straw on the camel's back, and fuck you.  This ruling may be small, but that's why the idiom uses "straw" and not "anvil."  There's only so much we'll take.

Finally, authority has to be fair.  If Jimmy gets more attention and choices then I get, then to hell with this game.  A DM must remain constantly aware of everyone playing, not just his or her favourites.  This gets increasingly difficult with more players, as it calls for more and more of a DM's time to provide attention to so many.  It's a juggling act.  Moreover, in the best parties, not only does Sam feel overlooked, Barry will notice that Sam's being overlooked.  And Jane will notice that Barry's pissed off about something, and steadily the cracks grow.

Sorry to go off on a definition of legitimacy, but it matters.  A sustainable world must address these matters.  At the same time, that world has to be active, it must have an overarching game structure that permits play.  Here, we're not talking about the physical world, but the way the DM approaches what the game IS and how it RESOLVES.  The game of checkers is a game of movement and strategy, that resolves by eliminating all the enemy pieces.

D&D cannot work like a game of checkers, or most board games.  It's not only about strategy; it's also about personal growth and proving one's bravery against unseen odds.  Moving a checker is a risk; and it requires at least a little courage to push the piece forward ... but a concession is made prior to the game that someone has to move or else we're done.  D&D has no such concession.  If the players have come to the understanding that sieging this castle is going to be far too difficult, or dangerous, because they are simply lacking in the bravery to take on this attack, then unlike checkers, they don't have to move.  They can do something else.  That is, unless the DM says, "We're taking on the castle today and I have no other adventures to offer."  In which case, you get the pleasure of the other fellow reaching across and moving your checker for you.  Though only the first few moves.  After that, you're on your own.

The way that "moves" work in D&D are radically different from any other game, including all video games — largely because they're not limited by any predetermined construction.  A designer does not need to conceive of what I do in a bar at a given time with my character, for me to have the option of doing that thing.  All "if-then" game function occurs after the character is made and the game is set in motion ... and the "then" part is conceived after a random person round the table, including the DM, spontaneously invents the "if" part.  This far-reaching fundamental nature of the game offers unfathomable possibilities — which most DM's seek to limit harshly, because that many possibilities seem impossible to manage.  Most DMs, and company-designed products, strive to brutally restrain player choices, essentially destroying the game's potential in order to make it manageable for the inexperienced and uncreative.

Putting that aside.  Our choice in "moves" includes talking to an NPC, buying an object, choosing a direction to walk, choosing the speed of movement, choosing to fight or not to fight, choosing which weapon to fight with, switching weapons continuously in combat, giving up a fight, deciding to die if that's what it takes, choosing whether or not to raise a dead character, reincarnating a character instead, rolling a new character, choosing to be an elf, choosing to travel by horse rather than on foot, buying a stable and food for horses, building a house next to the stable, building a yard around the house, plowing a farm, building a mill to make flour, selling the flour in town, joining a farmer's cooperative, buying more farms, heading out to adventure again, saving an innocent, getting decorated for bravery, being given a title, turning the farm into a fief, settling strangers on your land and collecting rents, raising an army, going to war, usurping a commander or a king, putting yourself on the throne, studying dark magic, calling forth demons from hell, using them to open a gate, speaking through the gate with gods, etcetera, etcetera.  And all of these are legitimate, fundamentally purposeful aspects of the game and are in no way remotely 0.01% all the possible moves a player, or group of players, can make.

Therefore.  Given the immensity of possibility, even when that possibility is drastically constrained, as a DM it serves to have a specific philosophy in mind where it comes to running the game.  With each player move, it serves to have SOME idea how that move should be worked into the game's overall structure, what responses ought to be given, what measure of recompense ought to be given for what player "moves" and — to put it succinctly — what is all this moving supposed to accomplish?  Remember ... in checkers, the goal is to win.  The goal in D&D is very definitely not to "win," though various salespersons will twist and torment the moves and rewards of the game in a hundred varied ways to argue that you're achieving "a win" if you do this or that or some other thing.  That determiner is doing a lot of work here.  None of the "wins" suggested equate remotely to checkers.  There is no end to the game that a win achieves.  So let's stop using that word as a wished-for shorthand and get down to brass tacks.

D&D offers something other than wins and losses.  It's up to us to determine what that is — because, like all the choices we make as players and DM, there is no definite answer to this offering.  This is, at last, what the post is about.

I'd like to suggest three philosophies to consider.  They're not the only possible approach we can offer, and each can be easily blended with another.  So think of these as markers on a linear scale rather than three camps of belief.

The first is the proposal that the players are owed something for playing.  They've shown up for our game, we're running them, we have a responsibility that the players won't walk away from the session without something in exchange for their time.  Our role as DM is to provide that.  We can variously define the thing they're being given: a exciting adventure, a sufficient amount of treasure and experience for their willing involvement, the time we commit prior to the game in preparation, perhaps the recognition that they deserve to go up a level, or get a treasured object, once they've committed a certain amount of their time.

Arguments supporting this philosophy propose that characters have the right to expect going up a level every two, three or four sessions, regardless of what's transpired.  Or that character should be in possession of certain objects once they've reached a pre-determined level.  "You're 7th?  Then by now you should absolutely have a +3 shield.  Here it is.  It arrives in a velvet bag, sent by the local king."

There's a great deal of comfort in taking this approach.  As a DM, you more or less have assigned what you're supposed to give ... and since, in effect, the players are paid for showing up and participating, they feel compensated for the time they've given.  Quite a lot of the tropes with which we're familiar fit into this ideal.  All adventures are built around a few minor monsters and puzzles in the beginning, and when the end comes there must be a big bad and a pile of treasure, because this is what players expect ... and our role as a DM is to ensure the players get what they expect.  Because if they can't get that, then why should they play at all?  If they're not ultimately receiving steady compensation for their participation, then why should they participate?  Therefore, when you play as DM, you think clearly to yourself, "This is what the players want.  This is how I'm going to give them what they want."  Deciding they can't get it, with this approach, is off the table.

Before discounting this approach, mind you dear reader, you are on the hook to explain why this shouldn't be the way the game's played.  You can't just decide not to give the players what they want.  You can't decide that they don't deserve to be compensated.  It's not enough for you to recoil, or illegitimately refuse the players what they've come here expecting to receive.  You need a damn good argument for incorporating a different philosophy into your game's play.  Have you got one?

Okay, the second proposal argues that you can't always get what you want ... but if you try sometime, you'll find you get what you need.  This proposal has legs.  It says that the game isn't about getting rich and powerful, it's about trying ... and enjoying the successes when they happen, while overcoming the setbacks.  As a player, you learn to be resilient.  You learn to take it on the chin.  But when all is said and done, the compensation you receive for your troubles is the knowledge that everything you've done and achieved in the game, was fucking earned.  None of it came free.

For those resistant to this policy, who prefer the "I'm owed" perspective, it can be hard to explain how much sweeter something is when it's suffered for.  As people get older, starting from around age 9, they start to select themselves into two categories: the first argues that the world's wronged them, that they got sold a bill of goods and the world didn't pay the bill, and that everything's gone to hell in a handbasket.  "Damn it, I was promised," they say, and though the so-called promise is never fulfilled, they keep harping on it anyway.  They never let that promise go.  They never cut their losses and move on.  Never, as they say about Batman, get over anything.  Never get over anything.  Carry that shit to your grave; coddle it in your breast and build it a nest under your heart, but never, ever, let that shit go.

The other group shrugs, understands the promise was false, understands there are no promises, understands that life is different from that, and gets on with getting what they need.  And when things go right, and gives them more, usually because they worked for it, they again self-select into two groups.  There are those who share those fruits of their labours, and there are those who don't.  The first group usually acknowledges that while the bounty came from work, a lot of it came from luck also.  They have the ability to look around and see that not everyone's lucky, so they share some of that luck.  This type makes a damned fine group of players, let me tell you.  The other kind of soul looks at their bounty differently.  They look at it and think, "I worked hard for this, and I deserve ALL of it."  "Fuck you," they say.  "I got mine."

So, what does a DM do when they choose this path, the one where at least you get what you need?  Well, to begin with, what do players need ... keeping in mind the principles of legitimacy, above?  They need a fair way to equip themselves, so that they can think their way through strategising against disappointments when they occur.  They need a very clear understanding of their abilities, because talking their way through problems won't work — the DM is under no obligation there to ensure their success just because they can talk a lot.  We need a clear idea of what "problem solving" is, so we can define when the players have solved something, as opposed to going through the motions of solving it so we can give them the solution before we all get bored.

We need clear-cut rules the players can exploit, because their ability to exploit those rules is not the guide path between success and failure.  They're not guaranteed success, so if they get it, that will happen because they did the right things in the right way to achieve right results.  "Right" in this case being a rational, logical, believable way to solve a problem, rather than that the problem exists as a cardboard cut out of the problem that the players are guaranteed to knock down.

It's easy to see this asks a lot more of the DM than giving the players what they want.  Whereas with "success is the only option," the end-goal is clear, now the DM is forced to divide every move the players make on a scale that either says, "Not a believable solution at all," or, "That sounds reasonable."  Die rolls really mean something; they can't be fudged to ensure the players get a victory; now they have to be viewed as something that might seriously fuck up the chances of a player EVER succeeding.  And the players, in turn, have to know this plainly when they roll the die.  They must have it in their heads that if this die roll does not go well, that's the ball game.  We were able to play, but we failed.

What they say about a baseball season is that everyone's going to win 61 games and everyone's going to lose 61 games ... it's what you do with the other 40 that counts.  There's a tacit acceptance that sooner or later, the dice won't go our way, we will lose player characters, my own player character may ultimately die in a way that he or she can't be raised ... and that's okay.  Many players, and DMs, can't live with that.  Especially in a game that's supposed to be "fantasy."

D&D is not my fantasy.  My fantasy involves waking up each day to another producer's phone call to offer me half a million dollars for the rights to my book.  My fantasy is to meet Madonna, and when I tell her that I've loved her music, she tells me that she thinks my book is fucking awesome, and can I sign a copy.  My fantasy is to stand in the Hagia Sophia for about a week, then to get on a flight and stand in the Taj Mahal, for about a week.  I have much, much bigger fantasies than having my 6th level character become 7th level just because I want that.  Any fantasy that involves changing a written "6" to a "7" is a pretty cheap fantasy.

How "fantasy" changed from a game based on fantasy-era fiction to a game based on allowing people to live their fantasy, I don't know.  Sounds like a marketing strategy.  In any case, that's not what's promised by giving the players what they need.  They don't need fantasy.  They need breakfast.

Still, "need" seems like a bottom-level benchmark where play is concerned.  We are talking about a game, where decisions get made that enable the player to either succeed or fail.  Surely, that's a reasonable ask.  Surely, that's "fair" ... and that if we don't want to give the players their heart's desire, it's correct that the game ought to be fair.  At the start of checkers, everyone has a "fair" chance of winning.

That said, if you're an 8-y.o. playing against my uncle Tom in 1972, fair has not one thing to do with it, because my uncle's going to win that game, every time.  Oh, you'll play him again when you're 14, and again when you're 22, but you're never going to win that game, because he's going to die — and that's what he did — before you ever win a game against him.  Because that's how it happens sometimes.

Our third proposal is that life sucks.  Which it does.  But why play that way?  Why pursue a position that counts on disappointing the players, since the point of the game is usually seen as succeeding, having fun and being challenged?

Take a moment and examine the precepts of the game as we know them.  So far, either the game guarantees them a win, or guarantees them a fair contest.  But is this D&D, really?  Because both of these premises presume a game world that specifically exists to serve the players.  Which in fact limits D&D on what it can be.

Consider: you've invented a time machine that you can use to travel back to the year 1635, and let's say for argument's sake that you've chosen the northern slopes of the Carpathian mountains, near the German-controlled Transylvanian town of Kronstadt.  Let's add, retaining the principles of The Terminator, you have to go back naked, without money or anything.  And finally, let's add that by virtue of the time machine, it will turn on again the moment you've gone back in time, but from your perspective, you have to wait five years before the machine pulls you back.  This means you've got to survive, by your wits, for five years ... without help, without the guarantee of survival, without a DM to ensure that the experience is "fair."

Would you do it?

Speaking for myself, I would.  I don't see that adventure as a game, because by the principles that I've laid out, it wouldn't be.  I'd have to actually survive in an very unfamiliar environment, by my wits, using the 21st century knowledge I've accumulated to out-wit the locals and anyone else I might confront.  I'd have to avoid getting into fights, I'd have to find a way to make a living that would sustain me, I'd have my health to manage in a world without medicine ... and in return I'd obtain a perspective that is, in fact, impossible to obtain.  To see the way people lived, to obtain their trust, to witness their strategies for living and to adopt them, to be one of them, to share and explore what part I could play in their lives.  Why ... it would be incredible.

But there'd be no safety net.  No assuredness that the game was fixed or fair.  Faced with that, a person must be of a certain character.  Arguably, the person might be called a dare-devil, but I think that's a simplification.  I think, rather, that someone would need to be very confident; self-reliant; bold.  And a little stupid.  I feel I have those qualifications.

The thing about a game world that would reflect — NOT "simulate"! — that opportunity is the sort of player it gathers.  No player around the table whines about not getting what they want, because they don't expect that.  No player whines that the game was "rigged."  They expect it to be rigged.  They want to play the game because it's rigged.  Not in the sense that a game of chance is rigged, but in the way that life is.  Life isn't fair.  It isn't kind.  It won't assure you survival.  It will spontaneously wreck your gawddamned year.

A game that does that has to be built very, very carefully.  We're not speaking of a game world that's out to get you, or one that's full of clever traps designed to assure your death ... I'm not discussing the Tomb of Horrors.  I'm proposing a game world that's indifferent to what you want or what you're doing.  Yes, it will contain completely friendly people.  I would expect to find those people in 1635 Transylvania, after all.  Nothing about 1635 would be lying in wait to kill me.  There's no design in place along those lines.  The difficulty isn't that I'm facing a world that's destined to kill me ... it's that I'm not facing a game at all.  I'm facing a setting that has evolved for a purpose that is not about me.

That is largely impossible for most people to contemplate head on.  The universe, whatever it is, does not care about me, or you, or anything that presently exists in our experience.  It doesn't "care."  It merely is.

But a game world that's built that way can't be, until the DM reasons that the main goal in designing such a setting is to take the DM out of the loop.

Monday, October 10, 2022

Bread upon the Waters

The problem with writing something aspirational is that these posts rarely get any feedback ... and that's reasonable, because when someone places themselves in a position of, "Now I'm going to spew wisdom," what can we say?   As Omar said upon sacking the Library of Alexandria in 642 AD,  if the books agreed with the Quran, they were superfluous, and if they disagreed, heretical.  And thus was all the wisdom in the world destroyed ... representing billions of hours of work accomplished by people wanting to make the world a better place.

Any wisdom I have receives the same fate; if the reader agrees, then it doesn't need to be said.  If the reader disagrees, then it doesn't need to be read.  There's blogging in a nutshell.  But part of this blog's core agenda is to write about things I believe, and why I believe them, and how I feel the world can be made a better place.  So if this seems a waste of time for the reader, too bad.  I'll write something aspirational today and then tomorrow, or the day after, I'll take a swing at another series of posts on worldbuilding.

Among the more aggravating of human traits is the continued resistance, especially from artists, against people improving themselves or their lives.  Nearly all of this has to do with perception.  Individuals either talk themselves into believing that the effort won't do any good, or that it's somehow not for them, or that it certainly has to be some kind of scam.

Take, for example, Patreon.  During my time in Montreal, I met the couple who were among my absolute best friends in the 1990s, with whom I collaborated on several artistic works.  Jesse was the director behind 2001's Coil ... and for those who may wonder, I have acquired a copy of the film on disc, given to me by Jesse.  These last two decades, he's continued to write and produce, he's doing very well for himself with projects he's getting paid for without getting official credits and he's every bit the fiery, passionate companion that I knew when we put on plays together and wrote together.  He learned that I have lost none of my passion, either.

Yet while Jesse had heard of Patreon, he knew nothing about it.  I don't understand how that's possible.  Patreon has been ongoing for 10 years now; I've been a part of it for seven and a half.  Patreon has been a strong, steady source of productive income for me.  It's not a scam.  It's not a waste of time.  It's a means to connect and network with others on a level that's never existed for a grassroots artist at any time in history.  And so I found myself, again, in a conversation where I tried to convince a fellow artist to get on board, to embrace this wellspring, to reach out and grab this very easy brass ring ... only to encounter doubt and resistance.  Nor is this the first time.  I know many, many artists.  And in all the time I've been on Patreon, I've convinced none of them.

Which baffles me.

Allow me to explain the secret of doing well in the world.  I won't charge you $60 for the book saying how.  I won't put off the explanation to the end of this post, only for you to discover I haven't said anything.  No, I'll dive right into it, because I care about you.  I care about everyone.  I want you to do well; I want you to find comfort and happiness.  And I think the method to achieve that should be free and available to all.  Because every person who reaches out and takes it will make this a better world.

This comes in two parts.  The first argues that you, Dear Reader, must commit yourself to learning a craft.  Here, I don't mean an art, but simply that you teach yourself how to make something, from scratch.  This could be anything, but the very best sorts of crafts you can acquire are those you can apply in the home ... and by yourself.  Why?  Because then you are dependent on no one else's space, and no one else's commitment.

Let me be clear.  Fixing things is not a reliable craft.  It can do you for awhile; you can sustain yourself on being able to fix things for a long time.  But sooner or later the thing you fix will either be supplanted by something you don't know how to fix, or replaced by something that doesn't need fixing.  The same can be said of any craft that's only a means towards a more core design.  My uncle fell in love with a career in drafting.  In the 1970s, he obtained his certificate and committed himself to a lifetime in which he would happily draw lines and shape things on paper.  Then the 1980s arrived; computer drafting obliterated paper drafting.  The latter simply evaporated.  My uncle couldn't make the leap.  He never understood how to make the things he was drafting; or how drafting was potentially a path to other forms of drawing or design.  He just loved taking spec and applying them to paper.  And when that was pulled out from under him, he found he had nothing, and no where to go.  He never recovered.

A proper craft depends on manipulating something that cannot be supplanted.  A leather-worker may lose work on account of industrial materials ... but these will never have the characteristics of leather.  They will never shape like leather, they will never feel like leather, they will never smell like leather.  Perhaps one day, an industrialised product might be made that is exactly like leather ... but the leather worker is still fine, because the craft is in shaping the material, not making it.

I possess three crafts of this kind.  I can do all three in the home; I rely upon no one else; they will never go away; and as it happens, I've made money from all three.

I am a writer.  Books may go away, this blog platform may go away, but the English language won't and there will always been time for people to spend learning things.  Thus I write, teaching people about what I know, and the manner in which it transfers from me to the reader doesn't matter.  I can commit the written word to voice if need be ... so in truth, I don't even need my hands.

I am a cook.  Food will never go away.  The ability to manage it, master it and feed people food that achieves delight from their taste buds will always be in high demand, even when I'm ninety.  If I were put in prison, sooner or later I'd find my way into the kitchen, and my skills with making even the most unpalatable foods more palatable would assure my security and overall wellbeing.  Putting the cook into the infirmary is not acceptable.  Of course, there might be other cooks.  But I get along with other cooks and I'm always ready to learn from them.

I am a dungeon master.  Now this is odd, nyet?  Will players go away?  Not in my experience.  As with food, if a performance can be given that inspires players to come, and speak excitedly about the game to others, then I will always, always, have players at my table.  This comes from not taking them for granted, but by rewarding them continuously with ideas, humour, intrigue and satisfaction.  Some of these can be achieved by giving the players toys and money, but certainly not all of them.  There's more to being a DM than giving the players what they think they want.  The greatest thing a DM can give a player is to make that player feel smarter, more capable, more successful than they conceived themselves of being.  And since I've always found that players underestimate themselves, this isn't as hard as it sounds.

What do you know?  I don't ask, "what can you do," because "doing" isn't the same as knowing.  If you find yourself in a service job, where you serve people, getting them what they want, finding things on shelves, filling out forms, answering questions, sending tools and transport forward because people need it, these are all things that you can do.  But the "knowing" of these things isn't very much.  Someone can be taught your job, nearly as well as you, in six months.  And some designer can replace your job with a bit of technology, with terrible rapidity.  Plus, jobs that you do rely on companies, which don't care about you, and will cut your hours or your job altogether to suit agendas you have no part in making.  We all know this.  We live with the reality of it, hoping we won't be one of the unlucky ones ... while watching others around us suffer the fate that we know, one day, we'll have to suffer ourselves.

Knowing a craft cuts through that ... not because we can do the craft, but because we know the craft.  That knowledge is at a premium.  I could work restaurants into the ground, watching them close their doors and not worry, because there are always hundreds of restaurants and there are never enough cooks.  Anyone who can demonstrate their knife skills and talents in an hour or two is sure to get plenty of hours and respect; my problem was that, when I was working on some project like a play or a magazine article, I didn't want to work more than 30-35 hours a week.  Kitchen Managers like their best cooks to work 50, 55, and so there was always conflict. 

Moreover, knowing a craft means — and now, more than ever — that you can work for yourself.  That's what Patreon does for us.  It enables people to pay for more than the product we produce; it enables a better business model than exchanging goods and services rendered for income.  It enables us to sell the knowledge itself, bypassing the actual product's manufacture.  You, Dear Reader, would like to know how to dungeon master, yes?  Perhaps you'd like to know how to write, or know how to cook?  And if you felt that someone would take the time and teach you, you'd pay for that, right?  Maybe not a lot; maybe only $3 a month; but then, with knowledge, we can give it to a lot of people at the same time.  I don't need you, specifically, to fill my coffers so that my rent at the end of the month is paid.  I only need a lot of people like you.   And if I couple that with working some job where one of my crafts is also part of my day-to-day, as I am now, then as a craftsman, I'm able to be very comfortable.  I have a chance to get lucky and win trips to Montreal.  I am my own person.  I can't be fired ... because even if the job I have lets me go, I'll find something.  I'll prove my worth to someone.

People in the video above respond to being fired with statements like, "This is what I get for 30 years of service?"  The answer to that is pretty plain.  They received pay for 30 years of service.  And pay without knowledge is a trap.  30 years is slavery, a recipe for making yourself redundant, and useless to anyone except your masters.  When you're let go, you've got nothing ... because you've done nothing to change your stars.  You've not learned to be the master of your own fate, because you've been so comfortable letting someone else be the master.  That is not the path to security.  Your path to security is to learn how to do something ... and to start learning it today.  Sew.  Paint.  Make tiny clay figurines of old men and young boys fishing together.  Learn how to make something beautiful from scratch.  Take a class.  Read.  Practice.  Keep at it.  Find something better and go towards that.  Learn to use your hands.  Learn to shape things.  Learn.

And when you're finished learning, teach.  Because that's the secret of everything, really.  Your value to the rest of society is based upon what you're able to learn, and especially what you learn to do that's either very rare, or possibly completely unique.  New things, after all, come into being.  New songs are written.  Advances are made.  And when they are, the people who brought about the advance get all the laurels.  Somehow, someway, you want to be one of those people.

If you're in your teens and twenties, you've got ungodly amounts of time to go there. If you're as old as I am, or older, and you haven't started yet, you still have time to get able enough that you can teach your grandchildren, and let them carry the torch for you.  And if you've been silly enough not to have children, or so coldly inconsiderate that your children won't speak with you, then find your way to some volunteer organisation that let's you teach what you know to a younger generation.  Because this, my readers, is your path to everything.  Your knowledge is going to die with you, if you don't share it.  And if you are privileged enough to share it, you'll find a state of contentment that's unimaginable.

Now.  I know there are several ex-teachers reading this blog, who have every right to be disheartened by the loss of their chosen profession, and what the world has become, and what the young are like, and a host of other truths that we can't ignore here.  But let me remind those gentle souls that the craft you acquired in your desire to teach was sold, by you, to an institutional master, and not to the children you taught.  You were never paid by the children.  You were paid by your masters.  And it is not your profession, or your love of it, that was compromised, it was the brutality of a system that was never designed to enable learning.  That was the pretense used, to cover up the real design ... a design that you know all too well.

And so ... restore yourselves as teachers.  Find a way to achieve that craft as your own master; investigate Patreon as a means to sell your knowledge.  Choose a medium that works for your needs, that you can employ in your homes.  Teach.  It takes time to find students, but you will.  Because there are always students.  They want to learn, and they're looking for you, right now.  Remake yourself.  You'll want to be ready for them.

The future is going to be very, very cruel towards slaves, much crueller than it has been.  Don't be one.  The internet, and your willingness to learn, will set you free.

Thursday, October 6, 2022

The Death of the Splatbook

I shouldn't cackle, but the gifts just keep coming.

In Montreal, on the Rue St. Hubert, I had so-so luck with three D&D related shops within a block of one another ... although, to be honest, although there were role-playing products, and tables to play on, two of these were deeply involved in M the G far more than table-top RPGs.  Still, out of interest and market research, I spoke with the clerks in each.  Of course, there were no managers present.  Both spoke English adroitly and neither had any real knowledge of 5th Edition at all.  Pathfinder and 3rd were the preferred systems.  Moreover, neither had one clue about OneD&D ... they'd heard nothing about the company's announcement and didn't care, because both store clerks (and three customers) did not care what online said about role-playing.  For those interested, the stores were L'Expedition and Carta Magica.

This does much to restore my faith about things.  It was the sentiment I heard in the mid-20teens, and I'm glad to discover there's evidence that nothing has changed there.  These were game stores, in apparently game store central, whose business model did not include what people online said or thought.  What does that say?

I barely spoke to the third store; it was a cosplay design store and very nice, and I must admit I'm beginning to regret not purchasing this monk robe they had, while I had it in hand.  I've been thinking of something I ought to wear when starting my adventures in game cons again (I'm in negotiations for a space in Vancouver in Feb 2023, but I'm having trouble getting the company to respond) ... and a monk or peasant robe would be suitable for a writer, I think.  I'll finish this post by putting up some pictures I took, plus a link to the website.

In other extraordinary news ... I already mentioned the decision by D&D's company to revert it's proposals for 1s and 20s and how this promises the beginning of a lot of grab-ass revisionment on the company's part.  Today's hilarity includes this headline about the company's proposed "Netflix-style" model ... which is a profound association, given that Netflix tanking just now, as other services steal away it's content.  Netflix is planning on adding commercials to their paid-for content.  Does that sound like a company you'd want your new business model associated with?

Chris Perkins wants us to know that OneD&D is "in" ... and thus my cackling, given the response I've gotten from my readers of late and those of the brief investigations I did in Montreal.  "In" clearly means "in trouble," though I doubt Perkins knows it.  The article fails to address the obvious choice of the company to impose a velvet rope on its website, though naturally that's not how it's being sold.  But then, you're not supposed to see the truth behind the lie.

Clearly, Tasha's stuffed book of nothing did not sell well, leaving the company with huge stockpiles of unsold books ... convincing the company that they had to get out of the publishing business and into the "netflix" business.  So, instead of buying a book full of useless shit, soon you'll be able to pay the company every month forever for the same useless shit ... because it doesn't occur to the company that maybe the reason Tasha didn't sell was because it merely provided the same dreck the company's been providing for years.  But no more of that!  Splatbooks are sooooo 2021.

What's also not mentioned in the article is the collection of writers, editors, copyreaders and other associated publishing staff being fired from their jobs to save the company money.  They're not needed ... and is that not better for the subscriber?  You bet it is!

I'm stunned that as late as this, the company thinks that their online presence is so depended upon that by choosing to monetise D&D this way, it will automatically succeed.  I see the faces of those clerks in Montreal and again, a cackle rises up through me.  This is going to be such a bad idea.

Which is good for me.  I did my own experiment with a velvet rope years ago, moving some of my content to another blog and continuing to write here ... and I got hurt in page views and credibility.  I watch others try the same thing and watch the same disaster play out.  Truth is, making people pay for something unseen is a tricky process.  They've got to be convinced there's something there; I don't believe there's a mainstream of enough people who believe that anything good produced by the company behind a rope won't be made available for pirating in a month or two.  There's no sense to paying up front.

As someone chipping away at a splatbook presently, one that is NOT just a rehash of other existing splatbooks, I appreciate the company clearing the road for me.  Less competition is the most I can ask for.  Thank you, Chris-fucking-Perkins.  It's the first time I've ever had reason to appreciate something you've done.

Speaking of people stepping forward to make better products than the company, I give you the Boutique Medievale Dracolite.  I asked the owner if I could take these pictures and he assented:

The two robes I had considered were the ones at the front on the left and the light brown on the end at the right.

Mouthwatering stuff to be sure.  I'd taken my menu to Montreal but I didn't have it on me when visiting this shop, and it had taken me $30 in a cab one-way to reach the place.  So I wasn't ready to rush back to the hotel and spend another $60 doing a second round trip.  But I think the menu would have fit very well into their stock.  Maybe if I find myself planning a trip again, I'll drop in and see if a deal can be made.

There is a lot of money to be made in D&D.  Pity the company is too stupid to realise how.