Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Boat Docks, Travel by River and Freight

What an enormous headache:

No doubt, there are details involved in the above that I hadn't considered.  But the nice thing about a wiki page is that it can always be improved.

The reader might wonder why I would take so long to outline what most games would consider a very simple situation.  Most DMs, no doubt, would be ready with a boat whenever the party got to a river, as the main thing is to get the party across and off to the adventure.  Who in the hell wants to sit around waiting for a boat when there are dungeons to be plumbed?

I see the question in the same way that encumbrance is viewed.  In reality, boats aren't waiting conveniently for party members.  What's more, in a wide and complex world, there are dozens of different circumstances to account for.  Obviously, it's easier to find a boat in a big city than it is at some obscure back-country cart track dead-ending in a river like the Mississippi or the Loire.  I've tried to account for that in a way that's predictable for a party familiar with the area, but very difficult for complete strangers.

Consider the effects of arriving, by surprise, at a river too wide to cross safely.  Yet there's a small dock here, and a few souls around in the "thorp" to tell us when the next boat is expected.  They tell us it'll be 26 hours.  It's four in the afternoon now, on a Wednesday, so that means, what, Friday noon?  Thereabouts, given that the boat might be early or late.  Do we go back to town and try a different route?  Do we wait?  If we ask the locals about going following the river in one direction or the other, what do we think if they say the next place across is six miles down river?  What if it's 12 miles, or 20?  Do we wait?  Do we go?

And if the boat won't stop where we want, do we wait for another boat?  Do we act as pirates, seizing the boat for our own purposes, hoping that if we give it back to the boathandler, he'll forgive us?

These questions may seem mundane, but a party will argue about it vociferously if given the opportunity.  Because they'll care what they do.  Yes, they may hate the situation; they may wish there was a game-story boat waiting for them, but there's a bigger gain to be made rather than assuaging their immediate wants.

Whatever they decide, they'll be in control.  Do not underestimate the emotional effect of this.  There's something soul-crushing about knowing that you're constantly in the DM's charge as he or she shuttles you from place to place, without your freedom to make the decision.  If you go back, or wait, or follow the river, the DM has to adjust to YOUR choices.  YOU'RE in control here, not the DM.  Over time, with multiple situations beginning with boat docks and reaching to much larager facilities, this provides a feeling of ADVENTURING that being shuttled across the river to the next prefabricated dungeon can't provide.

It's hard to grasp that for a lot of DMs ... especially if they're the sort that's moving the party along because it's the DM who hates having to wait at the river more than the party does.  Believe me, that's a thing.  More often than we'd like to admit, the momentum of a game is based less on what the party wants than what the DM wants the party to want.

You can detect this rather obviously if your DM ever says impatiently, "Make up your minds, dammit!"  Hm.  If the party isn't in such a gawddamned rush, why is the DM?

Is it because he or she knows everything already, and is bored by the unpleasantness of the players enjoying the game world?

Saturday, November 26, 2022


Chose to dig in last night and a bit this evening and build a page for "farmland" on the wiki, the lowest level "facility" on the hammer page, as encouraged by yesterday's post.  In keeping with the traditions of approaching D&D, I'd write a paragraph that was dead obvious to a person who'd ever watched a television show not about crime.  Something like,

"Farmland consists of fields, houses and storage buildings, where food is grown for the general community.  Crops are harvested in the fall and that not consumed by the farmer and family are generally sold in the nearest village."

We need to get away from this kind of "design."  Like any other part of the game, what's needed is hard information the players can exploit, as well as setting standards for the population's diet.  This means knowing the amount of food that's grown and the number of farmers that exist, and not in a homogenous, every-farm-is-the-same manner.  Thus, the page below, which attempts to capture a gradation in farms according to the environment they're located ... based, of course, on the maps I've created.

Adding more it probably necessary and eventually, maybe, I'll come round to that.  Nonetheless, this is the general idea I need to incorporate in all the facilities that need development and explanation.  It's not just, "what is it?"  It has to be, how precisely can the players use this knowledge to their advantage, and how does the fact of this thing establish order within the game's setting ... from how many people live here, to how much excess food can I produce in a year from as much land as I can plant?

Recently, with a short back and forth on JB's blog, Jacob72 chose to testify about worldbuilding in a way that's emblematic:

"Having read both replies several times I've concluded that we're probably going to have to disagree on the degree of world building that a DM has to put in to provide a fun and satisfying D&D experience to their players.

"World building can be fun. My entry into the hobby was influenced by the maps in the Hobbit and the campaign maps of WW2 in my Dad's history books. As well as wondering how these places were pronounced (especially Eastern Front ones) I would wonder what the terrain was like, what goes on in these places and what the people did. Peter Fenlon's maps for MERP and the world building detail in the MERP supplements fascinates me and continues to do so. I even try to sketch out fragments of these maps to get a feel for the places.

"But is it necessary that the DM needs to do it in order for the players to have fun?"

It was clearly necessary for someone to engage in an incredible level of worldbuilding so that Jacob could enjoy his fun.  The map in The Hobbit took a lot of hours to design and draw, probably going through multiple incarnations.  The campaign maps from WW2 he cites were created by people who gave their lives to mapmaking, sometimes within the time space of WW2, since those designers remained close enough to the fighting in some cases, and certainly within the scope of being bombed in London and elsewhere.  Fenlon and others burned midnight oil aplenty to produce the work they did ... even I recognise that, and I don't even like it.

In effect, the answer to Jacob is that, apparently, so long as someone else does it, no, it's not necessary for a given DM to work for the players to have fun.

My typical answer is that this is the kind of fun that's okay for the first few years, but for a nutjob fanatic like me, it fell way, way short by the time I was in the hobby for ten years.  Undoubtedly sooner, since I did all that I could to advance my world as much as possible based upon the work that others had done.  They buried themselves in work; it seemed right that I should do the same, to achieve the best possible result.  Folks like Jacob have a tendency to think on the scale of "good enough."

But there's a wider point to be made.

For many, I know from personal experience, most game DMs don't engage like this because committing themselves to this degree of scale seems unimaginable.  For them, there's no possibility of putting in this kind of work.  True, they haven't the time ... given what they choose to put their time towards.  But more importantly, they haven't the will.  Since they are having fun, they can't see the point of it.  So they invent an argument that states, "I don't have to."  As if having to has anything to do with this level of dedication.

Just now, I'm well within the understanding that much that I've started to design will NEVER achieve completion.  I will never finish all the sage abilities that I can envision.  Nor will I finish creating the world in 6-mile hexes.  Nor can I conceivably write all the pages on the wiki for which I've created links.  The vision I have for D&D's development is too large for the time one person has.  All that I'm doing is going to end being unfinished.  There's nothing I can do about that.

Some might think, then, that I'm going through the motions to entertain myself.  Obviously, I'm entertained, but that's not the goal here.  If I were doing this to suit me, I'd hardly need to spend extra time explaining it in blog posts, or posting it in a wiki.  In reality, it doesn't matter if I complete the work.  The work I do is merely a stub for the work that someone else will do after I'm gone.  And the more I do, the more others will have to work with.  Just as it is with everything related to humanity.  We did not make this society in a generation.  It took millions of people who were able to envision a world that would exist after they, personally, were gone.  And so they worked towards making that world possible.  Not because they'd be able to sit back and enjoy the fruits of their labour.  They died before those fruits matured.  No, they worked, knowing others would gain.  Others would comprehend how the world is made ... not by any one person, and not in projects that last only a lifetime.

Jacob, and many others, can't see that.  They can only measure the value of things in what they do for themselves.  Thus, when they see something bigger, something too big to scoff at, they make excuses for why they don't want to climb aboard.  They don't need to.

But the Jacobs of the world can't see how they might provide knowledge and value to others.  It's not just what Jacob does for his world.  It's what Jacob might do for every world.  Everywhere.  He can't see that.

He can't see that this is how humanity functions.  That this is a greater reason to do everything we're capable of doing, as designers, as workers, as people committed to a better world.  I make cute little maps and write annoying little wiki pages.  That's my contribution.

What's yours?

Friday, November 25, 2022

Whole Facilities List

I've finally complete this page:

Personally, I consider it a work of absolute genius ... remembering that every facet of the page depends upon a random generation determined by my infrastructure distribution rules, which in turn are entirely developed out of information on encyclopedia-determined towns and cities, systematically calculated population figures and a distribution of "settlements" that I apply according to GoogleEarth, not my own reckoning.

Thus, the whole system builds and functions spatially in the setting without my personal intervention.  I build as the numbers tell me.


Thursday, November 24, 2022

An Unhealthy Dependency

Now the reader can see why I wanted to put these maps on another blog.  And it's evident that I'm not dead, since I've posted there every day since November 9th.  But yes, I understand, I'm not posting here.  I'm not saying how to build a world or be a DM, or what rules to make or why rules are important.  I'm not counselling the reader on how to manage their players, or how to prep, or what's wrong with the game company.  I'm not bellyaching about someone else's blog, module or perspective.  It's all terribly dull because instead, I'm making maps.

But, if I must have some thoughts ...

This, said very earnestly, by a young woman leaning repeatedly into the camera to hammer home just how gawddamned earnest she is about what's she's saying:

"We want to continue to reach out to folks who are interested in fantasy, who love storytelling, who enjoy spending time with their friends and creating these collective stories that they can remember for years to come."

Not what appealed to me from the beginning, no.   Myself, I liked the depth and complexity of the game; the widening of possibility for action, the requirement to express one's actions in words, accurately, regardless what the actions were.  When I think of D&D play, I see it in very thin slices:

Me: "You see this, and this, and this ... what do you do."

You: "Fuck.  Do I have time to do, um, this?"

Me: "You can try.  Roll.  High."

You: "Omfg ... a 20.  Shit."

Me: "They shield their eyes and fall back."

You: "We fucking run!"

Clickety-click.  There's little time to think.  The back and forth relies on the space described; the limits are what's possible based on believability, rules, precedent.  Jump in, fight, defend, back out, escape.  So much happens, with so many people speaking, that there's no time to remember anything except in sweeping generalities.  We might remember that Tamara threw the critical when it was really needed, but after the fact, the details get muddled in the other hundred things that happen.  From the beginning, I've never been interested in one "amazing" narrative.  I'm interested in fifty narratives.  When my sessions really work, they're like those stage farces with people popping in and out of doors, each with their own agenda, where the audience gets lost remembering which of the four identical suitcases had the diamonds and which had a bomb.  The players jump from frying pan to fire to shark-infested tank and so long as they survive, we keep going.

As near as I can tell, I'm the only person in the history of the game to see it this way.  I'm the only person who doesn't give a flying fuck if the players want to hear a story or not.  I do not care if the game is memorable after ... "after," I'm not running the game.  As far as I know, no one has time for a collective anything, except to figure out in the immediate what's going on, what they need to do and whether or not it worked.

I'm definitely not interested in creating D&D as a "legacy."  My daughter has become a DM, but that's because she heard me doing it a hundred times, she had an opportunity to play it with her friends and she likes to run.  She plays in my game, likes the patter and duplicates it as best she can.  She's nowhere near as obsessed with it as I am (obsession = "unhealthy dependency").

In truth, no, I don't think of D&D as an "edition."  I don't play "AD&D", or "old" D&D, or "original" D&D, or any other manifestation of the game that someone else has invented or labeled.  I certainly won't play "One" D&D.  I don't play the game I played ten years ago, when I didn't play the game I played ten years before that.  I won't be playing this game ten years from now.  The game is too far-reaching, too full of possibility, too rich, for me to restrain myself or my practices when designing or running it.  It's always just been "D&D."  But in truth, it's "my" D&D.  It's better, deeper, more flexible, more advantageous to both me and my players than any set of rules in a book ever will be ... even my own book, since to publish something, I have to stupid-simplify its structure.  It takes someone obsessed to play my D&D.

Like anyone whose self-reliant, it's a joke when I hear someone talk like this:

"The sort of change you're going to see isn't about taking anything away from you, it isn't about changing any of that stuff you love.  It's much more about giving you more.  Giving you more options, giving you more choices you can make, more character types you can play, more magic spells you can cast ... basically, you know we're very happy with the game the way it is today."

More "choices" and more "options" are the same thing.  As is listing the example of what the choices are.  With acknowledgement that this is the same "more stuff" the company's been providing since 1977.

As an obsessive, self-made, self-sufficient, self-supporting, self-sustaining, independent, self-contained, autarkic DM living on his own hump (all the words, straight out of the thesaurus, that mean the same thing), I've chosen to create my own options.  When I want more, I'll make more.  Myself.  Using my brain.  I'd like to see the company come into my game and tell me how to run it.  That'd be a hoot.

But you see, none of this is new.  I've been saying this sort of thing for years.  The maps are new.  The maps are a steady, comprehensive investigation into the game world on a ground level.  They're not just opinions spouted for the sake of opinions.  The world being examined, taken apart, rebuilt, is the real world.  It's places where you or I could fly to, and look around, and see how the goblins would look rushing out from the trees ... those trees, right there.

I appreciate that the mapping seems somewhat repetitive.  Or that it lacks verve.  In reality, every section has a distinctive character; every tiny corner of the world has some element that's worth examining with a magnifying glass.  None of these corners are a "story."  They're framed pieces of setting in which events have or might take place.  Where history has already left its mark over millennia.  The very place where I mapped today was once visited by Huns, who slaughtered the residents there, who looked at those same mountains, who fought with the ancestors of the people living on the map in my game time.  It's all a fathomless tapestry ... but to use it, to gain from it, to discover what sort of DM it can make a person, it has to be seen and puzzled over.  The daily constructions of map that I've been doing are far more valuable than the boilerplate deconstruction I've just written above.

This is why, at present, I'm not driven to write here.  I have the splat book to design.  I have the maps to draw.  I have the ongoing game responsibilities I've lately assumed again.  I just don't care to write another chapter on how the reader should dungeon master.  You want to worldbuild?  Get down on your hands and knees and look at the dirt on which you stand, and grok it's fullness.  Action, not words.  Comprehension, not counselling.  Get out your shovel and dig.

Friday, November 18, 2022

Next Step Unknown

This post occurred to me while doing dishes with my partner Tamara, talking about video games.  The conversation reminded me of a comment from JB's blog, a week ago, from Jacob.  This was in answer to something I said about how I'd want to play in a campaign, but that's not relevant.  Here's the paragraph that needs attention:

"All of that commitment by the DM to generate systems to provide the sort of rational and believable campaign world that you are after would be better spent coding it up and selling it to the masses as a game rather like Sid Meier's Civilisation."

Funny that Civilisation still gets attention as the height of believability, given that it's woefully out of date.  There are far more elaborate and complex logistical games in existence now, such as Europa Universalis ... but of course, no game is remotely as complex as D&D.  This evening, for my running, the party is going to be travelling through Hades, participating in a series of meetings that I've conjured in the last two weeks.  If I'd spent my time trying to code these events into a computer program, the result would be (1) half-assed, because I wouldn't have near enough time, even if I could spend 80 hrs. a week at it; (2) cheesy and crappy, because I'd have to predict all the players' responses to code them ... and of course I can't know what the players' responses would be, because I'm not omnipotent; and (3) non-existent, because I can't fucking code.  Moreover, I wouldn't have time to earn a living, love my partner, play with my grandson, cook dinners every day, make maps and write these posts for people like you, the gentle reader.  So fuck coding.

Still, that's not the point of this post.

For a time, up until 9 years ago, I was pretty heavy into Civilisation, especially Civ IV.  I used the game to build multiple concepts into D&D worldbuilding, the reader will remember.  Since getting the game on Steam, about seven years ago, I've played 2,038 hours of it.  Before that, I owned the disk.  There have been times when I was so down and disinterested in life that I could wake up in the morning, start a standard size game, finish it, start another game, and finish that, before going to bed.  Unemployed, broke, depressed, unable to find work ... 2009 was a very bad year.

When I'd spend four or more hours playing Civ, afterwards I always felt worse than when I'd started.  During the actual game, I'd fall into the flow that comes from managing all the details of a game, but the end result of that management was destructive of my soul.  This is because, for all Civ's elements, the game itself is fundamentally button-sorting.  I understand that sounds counter-intuitive; sorting buttons is usually seen as gathering different objects together according to their type ... and yes, this is what Civilisation is.

Initially, there's problem-solving, yes.  Mostly in figuring out how the rules work, but also in determining the best combinations of units to fight with and more importantly, how to make each centre as productive as possible.  The only thing is, there's a finite collection of city types and forms of development ... and if you play enough of the game, eventually it becomes a matter of taking that button and putting it in the box it belongs.  This can be distracting ... and if I find myself in a mood so that I just want to be kept busy, then Civilisation is "okay."  But I'm not solving problems any more with it.  Mostly, I'm remembering what I'm supposed to do when this situation occurs, or when the bastards next door are the Chinese vs. the Persians ... since we know, eventually, the Chinese ARE going to stab us in the back.  That is, unless we keep them scared.

But, because I'm going through the motions, I'm basically just a Civ-playing machine.  I'm not really playing, since I know that if I don't do this, I won't do as well.  So, when I'm done ... I feel like the previous four hours, or ten, or whatever, were wasted.  For all the intellectual value the game has left to offer, I'd do better spending ten hours selling phones at the mall.

On the other hand, let's take another game: Oxygen Not Included.  Most of you will have heard me refer to this game now and then.  Since I bought the game around Christmas, 2019, I've played 2,368 hours of it.  Some of this includes forgetting the game was still running ... I once left it run overnight and unattended for 13 hours.  Without a dupe dying.  I think that's an achievement of some kind.

What I like about it is that the game provides endless opportunities for problem-solving.  The systems it's built are remarkably intuitive and interactive, so that with time it's always possible to create a better solution or practice for a problem the game provides.  Whenever I think of a "right way" to do something, soon enough I'm deconstructing that way to make it better.  This includes how the rooms and levels are laid out, and how the oxygen, water, power, morale and aesthetic are managed.  Except for the obvious limitations of the premise, I find it the most sandboxy game I've ever played.

When I put it down, I feel fine.  The game sparks my desire to solve problems, so that if I get a game going in the late afternoon, after an hour or so I'll find myself closing it so I can work on something real ... some passage that needs new copy, a map, a blog post, even working on the splatbook.  When I designed the menu, I'd take breaks by playing ONI.

For those who might be interested, here's what happens when you introduce the enormous sea on the bottom of the map to the magma layer beneath:

Still have two dupes left.  Surprisingly, quite a lot of the base, the part around the  is still fairly cool.  See?

Most of the base is trashed, though.  I've been trying to figure out how to rebuild and vent the heat, especially the open hole.  See, the system has become stable, with the steam condensing and falling out of the air, back down into the magma pit where it boils out at 650 degrees again.  So the natural engine isn't cooling.  And if a dupe steps into it, it dies.  I mean, it becomes incapacitated almost instantly.  The heat in the red areas is 250 F.

Here's the thing.  A game like Civ is designed to be played correctly or lost.  A game like ONI is designed to be played badly and struggled back from.  There's always a way back, because the way back depends on the player's creativity and intuition, NOT the game's design.

This is D&D.  At least, the way I play it.  Most see the game as a collection of things the players are supposed to do in order to succeed, such as clean out a dungeon and get the treasure, or recover the McGuffin.  Whereas I see D&D as an endless set of possibilities, where the players can do anything, while I'm able to "code the game" instantly and on the spot, without needing a computer.  Because I am one.

Thus, if the players enter into a valley where anything might be happening, including a volcano having just exploded, the player's responses are ... um ... unknown.  I mean, absolutely unknown, just as I have no knowledge of how to solve the base problem above.  There's no "guidebook" on the internet that will tell me how, because none of the various pundits who blabber about the game have created the situation I've just shown.  The solution has to be mine.

That's what we want the players to feel.  There is no dungeon, there is no pile of buttons to be sorted, no bottles to wash, no pre-set monsters to kill, no thing to get.  There's the situation, there's the players ... 

Have at 'er.


In all fairness, I should show the hole:

Wednesday, November 16, 2022


Okay, if you're not into maps and demographics, get ready to be bored.

An element of my mapmaking requires that I create the infrastructure that's assigned to each hex.  I've shown how this is done previously, here and here, so I'm not going to do it again here.  But I am going to talk about a step I've added.  [Sorry if this feels like I'm rewriting a post]

The area to be calculated is Nyatria Principality, a medieval province of western modern Slovakia.  Here's the map with 20-mile hexes that I made long ago:

Pozsany is the old name for the modern city of Bratislava, for reference.  Nyatria is very heavily populated, 668K people, making it very heavily infrastructured.  It shares hexes with Budapest Sanjak (under Ottoman occupation in my game world), which is also heavily populated (531K).  The three notes at the bottom, 172, 253 and 465, describes the infrastructure of those hexes as calculated from the south side of the Danube, under Budapest authority.

Briefly, infrastructure is calculated by determining a base infrastructure number for each settlement (Pozsany, Komorom, Nyatria, etc.) and then halving that number as we move outwards for each hex.  For example, if the base infrastructure number equals 64, then one hex away it would be 32, two hexes away it would be 16 and so on.  Thus the numbers drop very quickly.  Think of it as each hex dividing the number to the power of 2.

There are numerous changes in elevation throughout the principality above, with each change of 400 ft. adding +1 to the exponent described.  If the adjacent hex is more than 400 ft. above or below the first one, then the number is divided by 4 (2 to the 2nd power, not the 1st).  It gets fairly complicated to sort this out, comparing each hex to the one adjacent ... especially if the province happens to be very up and down, like Nyatria.  Thus, I spend a little time and add some symbols, thusly:

Yes, it still looks complicated, but I'm quite used to this.  If no black line exists, the difference is x2(1), or 2 to the 1st power.  A double line indicates x2(2) ... and where a number exists, that indicates the exponent.  Thus, as I start calculating the various hexes, I can quickly see how much change each hex crossing produces.

I've added the amount of infrastructure that each settlement hex produces as well.  Pozsany has a base of 1348, Komorom & Guta of 230, Nyatria & Galgoc of 333 and so on.  Here's what it starts to look like as I distribute the infrastructure across the map:

As can be seen, it gets very cluttered, very quickly,  Here I've only calculated out four settlements.  What I usually do is that once I collect five totals in a given hex, I condense those totals before moving onto the next distribution.

Those who know me have seen this before, so I won't waste any more time.  I've finished Nyatria, which was affecting the edge of a map I'd been creating for tomorrow's post on my new mapmaking wiki, so now I can put down this sort of calculation and go back to designing 6-mile hexes.

Here's Nyatria, finished.  There are two hexes that need the adjacent territories done before a final infrastructure can be known.

It all looks so simple, doesn't it?

Tuesday, November 15, 2022

Say, Say, Say

There are two kinds of blog posts.

The first are easier to write.  I've written thousands of them.  One simply takes a position on something and discusses it.  Doesn't matter if its a prescription for play, a deconstruction of some element of life, a review, a commentary on someone else's opinion or whatnot.  Basically, just as I'm writing now about blogging, the idea is to sound very intelligent about a thing.  To be accurate, or insightful, or just entertaining.

The other kind is harder to write.  Hardly anyone does it.  Whole blogs do not contain the second kind.  These are posts where the writer explains, "I've done something ... this is what it is and how it works."  What's different with these posts is that they rely upon doing, not saying.  The saying is irrelevant, really.  If the thing itself has any merit, then very little, or nothing, needs to be said.

I've felt lately that I'm not writing nearly enough of this second sort.  Spiritually, I'm far more gratified when writing doing posts.  See, it's rather easy to tease oneself into thinking that a stream of commentary posts are pushing forward the envelope of knowledge, but that's just hash.  All one needs to see that is to do something.  Once we've done, its painfully clear how long we've gone without doing.

This is where I am.  I can see the map-making blog isn't nearly as popular as this one.  That's fine.  But just now, between working on the maps and working on the splatbook, and my job, it seems like such a waste of effort to wallow around here writing posts about ... well, empty air.  With nothing in it that I've done.

I'll be back when I have something to show. 

Sunday, November 13, 2022

Judgement Calls

So, a few hours after writing my last post, I settled down to in bed to read some before going to sleep.  I typically read between 20 and 30 minutes a night.  Of course, I'm still reading Michael Lewis' The Undoing Project ... and right off, it punched me right between the eyes.

The book is talking about how things that have happened recently have much more effect on how we judge situations, because they're recent.  For example, I was recently in a car accident; the first one I've experienced in 38 years (the last one was a "bump" also).  While I know it's bogus, going out to the new car (we were covered by insurance), I can't get it out of my head that we're going to have another accident, and soon.  It's there in my face.  I tell myself there's no reason to think one will happen; I tell myself that even if one did, that's how statistics work.  But in fact, the only thing that will shove this persistent feeling aside is time.

So then I read two quotes on two pages, one after the other, at the end of chapter six.  Here's the first:

"What people did in many complicated real-life problems — when trying to decide if Egypt might invade Isreal, say, or their husband might leave them for another woman — was to construct scenarios.  The stories we make up, rooted in our memories, effectively replace probability judgments.  'The production of a compelling scenario is likely to constrain future thinking,' wrote Danny and Amos.  'There is much evidence showing that, once an uncertain situation has been perceived or interpreted in a particular fashion, it is quite difficult to view it in any other way.'"

There.  That's what I'm doing.  I'm making up a "story."  But can the reader see the implications this has for any social interaction?  Right now, it's exactly what every pundit is doing discussing the recent American election: they're making up stories about the future based on the very flimsy, immediate incident in the recent past ... and doing it as though everything they're saying makes perfect sense.  It's your mother, or maybe it's you, claiming that your knee hurts because there's a change in the weather; some bias you have about your knee, and some coincidence with a change in the weather you've experienced recently, assures you that your knee always hurts when the weather's changing.  But it's just a bullshit story you're telling yourself, like the nagging feeling that I have about another car accident.

Once you embed yourself into that story, however, it's THE reality you can't dismiss.  You've created your own bullshit and now you've bought in, and there's no path out, not mentally.  What's more, according to research, we all do it.  Once we've decided what the future's going to be, based on next to no evidence, THAT'S the future now ... for us.  Not for anyone else, of course.

It's not that we go on the internet and get hauled into some conspiracy bubble that programs us and constantly reassures us about things we want to believe.  It's that at some point we heard something, it made sense, and now we've locked onto that thing so hard we can't be argued out of it.  It doesn't matter if there's a bubble or not.  "We" are the bubble.  It's a bubble of one person.

Near as I can tell, the solution is that when we have an uncertain situation, the one thing we absolutely must not do is to interpret that situation at all.  Don't make a guess!  Any guess we make is almost certain to be wrong, and if it happens that we come to believe that wrong guess, it's going to lead to bad places.

I think, too, there's application for the way situations arise with players in D&D.  More often than not, as I introduce the players into some kind of danger, they begin to get themselves worked up over some specific kind of supreme danger that's only just popped into their minds.  Suddenly, they're panicking before every door, certain that this next one's going to unleash something that'll kill the whole party.  Quite a lot of the time, especially with parties that don't know me well, I have to stop the game and effectively say, "Buttercup does not get eaten by the sharks at this time."  Everything's fine, guys.  I'm not just going to kill you.

['course, I killed the offline party last week, so recent events might suggest that yes, I am going to kill you, but in fact I have no plans in that direction]

The practice of trying to "play the DM" encourages players to seek explanations for the DM's motives based on bad judgements.  The reverse can happen just as easily, with the DM assuming the players' collective motives are completely at odds with the campaign.  It demonstrates the importance of maintaining strong communication between all the participants.

Here's the second quote:

"The stories people told themselves, when the odds were either unknown or unknowable, were naturally too simple.  'This tendency to consider only relatively simple scenarios,' they concluded, 'may have particularly salient effects in situations of conflict.  There, one's own moods and plans are more available to one that those of the opponent.  It is not easy to adopt the opponent's view of the chessboard or of the battlefield.'  The imagination appeared to be governed by rules.  The rules confined people's thinking.  It's far easier for a Jew living in Paris in 1939 to construct a story about how the German army will behave much as it had in 1919, for instance, than to invent a story in which it behaves as it did in 1941, no matter how persuasive the evidence might be that, this time, things are different."


It's incredibly important that the DM see the game from the player's point of view, and vice versa.  This means having a very clear idea of why the DM wants to run the campaign.  What is the DM getting out of it?  I mean, specifically.  The tendency, like the quote above, is to produce a super-simple explanation: "Why, the DM wants to have fun."  How is that remotely reassuring?  "Fun" might include killing off player characters; it might mean deliberately humiliating people; it might mean getting one's jollies by forcing people to sit through boring speeches while walking through empty room after empty room.

The same is true of the DM: why are the players here?  What do they want?  Is it good DMing if we set out to create some profound scenario that the players have no reason to like?  Again, it's all communication.  We know ourselves fairly well; we know why we're in this.  We have to tell others.  We have to explain ourselves out loud, and often, rather than reserving ourselves and making probability judgements without any idea of the probabilities.

As a player, you don't know what I'm doing as a DM.  That's deliberate.  To make the game exciting and unpredictable, and therefore rewarding, I have to withhold an immense amount of information.  If I'm a good DM, then none of my scenarios are simple.  As a player, this is something you have to trust.  You have to believe that my first responsibility here is not my own fun, but the well-being of everyone present, with myself being no more important than anyone else.  If you don't believe that, we're going to have problems.  Your distrust will repeatedly manifest as a series of wrong, simplistic statements that you've decided to believe based on zero actual information.  As a DM, I've got to address that.  I need to know why you distrust me; why you think I have any agenda that's designed against you or any other player; and I've got to lay that distrust to rest.  If I can't do that ... if I can't convince you that I'm trustworthy ... then we can't play together.

Likewise, I have to trust you.  I have to believe you're not trying to undermine the game or the other players.  I have to believe you're ready to act on the information your given, and not on information you've invented, as a player, on the fly.   I have to know that you're here to play D&D and not some other game.

This could be a good explanation for why those who try a more complicated game run into such troubles.  If we're participating together in a predictable module adventure, there are less opportunities for distrust.  If you know that I'm running a module provided by a game company, then you don't have to trust that I built a good adventure; you only need to trust that I'm accurately presenting the game company's module.  That's an easier assumption.

As a DM, running a module, I know, doesn't ask as much from you.  I'm not laying my creativity on the line, I'm leaning on someone else's creativity.  If the module doesn't work, I'm less invested.  We, DM and player, can bitch together about the lousy module.  It's not you bitching about my work.  For a lot of people, especially those who find it hard to take criticism, that's a huge bonus.

It's not how I want to go.  I don't want simple scenarios.  I don't believe in easy, simple explanations.  It's why I spend so long deconstructing D&D over and over.  Because I don't believe that a game built almost entirely on human interaction can be simple.  I don't think the probabilities that might come up can be known.  At all.  I think the best players are those who DON'T make judgements about the future based on what's just happened.  I think the best strategy to employ, whether one is a player or a DM, is to take one's time and presuppose, "We'll see."

And no more than that.

What you remember about your past is more apt to warp the future than you realise.

Saturday, November 12, 2022


I wanted to write one more post in this long series, about education, but I'm afraid I'm dry.  The basic idea was to educate your players how to be dungeon masters, in the sense of driving them to make their own adventures out of the guidelines provided by the game, but somehow I can't centre my thoughts on the subject.  I'll have to pick it up later.

At present, I'm a bit frustrated by the American election, especially at what's "passing" for journalism ... as in, "toilet."   I'm stunned that so many well-paid, long-standing political pundits are able to spectacularly misread, or staggeringly misrepresent, what's happening.  A whackadoodle losing an election by a thousand votes is NOT "the country stepping back" ... it's factual evidence that the whackadoodles are ready to step up their game and win next time.  We certainly haven't seen evidence that "the Republican party has to return to its roots now."  I mean, wtf.  For the record, the Democrats have LOST.  Even if it turns out they keep the house and senate by paper-thin margins, if this is the best you can do with two years of running the country after an attempted coup by the other side ... fuck.  I mean, um ... fuck.  Some days, I just want to scream and scream and scream.  Everyone lost.  Especially the country.

Changing the subject.  I haven't a post of my own, so I'll steal one.

I'm reading a book by Michael Lewis that follows the work of Danny Kahneman and Amos Tversky, who proposed the term "heuristics" in the 1970s, around the time D&D was born.  It's a fascinating read and utterly misrepresented by the wikipedia article, which seems to have been written by someone who hasn't read the book.  The first five pages suggests the words, "revisits Lewis' interest in market inefficiencies," but since the next 190 do absolutely nothing to discuss this subject, I suspect foul play.

Essentially, the theme of Tversky's and Kahneman's work (they switched their names around with every paper) is that we don't know what we think we know.  That is because we base our guesses about people and events and things on what we think is true, which in fact leads us to be wrong about everything.  I'll quote briefly from the book:

"When people make judgments, they argued [Kahneman & Tversky], they compare whatever they are judging to some model in their minds.  How much do those clouds resemble my mental model of an approaching storm?  How closely does this ulcer resemble my mental model of a malignant cancer?  Does Jeremy Lin match my mental picture of a future NBA player?  Does that belligerent German political leader resemble my idea of a man capable of orchestrating genocide?  The world's not just a stage.  It's a casino, and our lives are games of chance.  And when people calculate the odds in any life situation, they are often making judgments about similarity — or (strange new word!) representativeness.  You have some notion of a parent population: 'storm clouds' or 'gastric ulcers' or 'genocidal dictators' or 'NBA players.'  You compare the specific case to the parent population."

What happens is that, in fact, we don't really know storm clouds or ulcers or players as well as we think we do.  This ends up in our making a decision about something that sounds absolutely dead on to us, but is completely, totally wrong in practice.  For example ...

Once you played with someone who fudged dice and the games were pretty good.  You caught the DM fudging and the explanation you got back sounded "reasonable."  The game was, like I said, "pretty good."  You made the connection that "pretty good" = "dice fudging" ... and this was supported by meeting other interesting and cool people who also fudged dice and for the same reason.  You never actually played in any of their campaigns, but you assume from your representativeness that their games were probably also pretty good.

So, you fudge dice yourself.  Because that's how your best representative DMs in your past did it.  You have no actual knowledge if your game is "pretty good," but you assume it must be since you fudge dice.  But then one day, for no specific reason, people drift away from your game and it ends.  Why?  Well, you make up reasons based on your past experience with players.  Players are busy, you tell yourself.  Players have other things to do.  Sometimes, players don't stay around.  People quit the game all the time.  You absolutely DON'T question any of the practices you maintain as a DM, because those are the practices that other DMs — whom you don't play with anymore, for reasons — used.  It never occurs to you that one of your players discovered that you were cheating and decided to tell the others when you weren't there.  And because they found the behaviour so disingenuous and repulsive, they decided not to confront you.

But you're fine.  You're telling yourself now that Alexis is a person too, and makes judgements based on his representativeness, which is obviously wrong, because he's just basing his opinions on what he thinks is true, based on HIS past.  That has nothing to do with your past.

I admit, it's frustrating ... but this is why the book about Tversky and Kahneman is interesting.  It challenges us to think through the difference between making a decision based on reality and one based on judgement.

[notice: when I quote the American book, I spell the word "judgment," but when I write in the King's English, I spell the word "judgement"; I've done it both ways over the last fifty years and I've finally decided I'm a Canadian.  That's why I spell it "realise," "armour" and "manoeuvre" now]

Let me give you a simple example, one not fraught with arbitrary Alexis-bullshit judgements.  I'll continue to use examples I haven't found in Lewis' book, but I've only reached page 190.

Suppose that you're doing a very difficult multiple choice exam ... and although you've studied, it's very difficult and many of the questions and answers have been deliberately designed to mislead you.

About halfway through a four-hour exam, starting with question #117, you start to notice that every correct answer is (a).  You start to notice when it's four in a row, and soon enough it's eight in a row and then twelve in a row.  What's going on?  Glancing over each question, you're never quite certain of which is the exact right answer, because in many cases throughout the whole test, it really could be the choice you didn't pick.  And now you've stopped and looked at this list of 12 (a)'s in a row and you're seriously questioning your judgement.  Why?

Because, basically, if you were making a multiple choice test, it wouldn't occur to you to make 12 answers in a row all be (a)'s.  You'd mix them up.  You wouldn't decide to make every answer an (a) like this.  Which means, since you wouldn't do it, obviously, neither would the professor, or the tester.  Multiple choice exams just are done this way.  Right?

Is it right?  Is it logical to go back over your answers for the last twelve questions, wasting time, and making sure that you're absolutely correct with every one?  Is it logical to change your answers on some of them just to break the streak.  Is that good thinking on your part, or is it bad thinking?

Are you protecting yourself, or are you fucking yourself?

Who's to say the prof wouldn't put the string of (a) responses there just to screw with you?  The answer to that is plain.  You're there.  And you're sure the prof, whom maybe you like, or maybe you respect, wouldn't pull a rotten trick like that.  Only ... is it a "trick?"

You're supposed to know the right answer.  If you know it, then what difference does it make how many times it comes up (a)?  Isn't knowing the answer what we're testing you for?  The only reason why you'd want to go back and doubt yourself is because you don't, in fact, know the right answer.  You're guessing.  And the pattern that your guessing is creating is what's stumped you.  Not the test and not the prof.

For me, this is the quintessential underlying basis of Kahneman and Tversky's work.  I haven't read this yet but I'm certain (representativeness) that it's coming.  It's not just that we guess wrong when we're asked to make a judgement, it's that we're certain we're right.  We don't evaluate the possibilities beyond our immediate gut-judgement.  "That's a storm," we say, even though we're talking out of our ass, and when the storm fails to materialise, we ignore it.  Usually, we think, we're right.  But are we ... "usually"?  Or is it just that we want to be usually right?  Because judging by the work I'm reading, I think we decide what we are usually and then ignore any expectation of living up to that claim.

So when I tell you that more people play 5th edition than any other, you think in your head and say, "Yeah, that's probably true."  But what's that based on?  The people you've met?  If, like me, you meet people who actually play D&D, it happens in very specific places like game stores and promoted events.  BUT ... what sort of players show up at game stores and promoted events?  All of them?  I don't know.  Because I don't know how many people actually play this game.  Nobody does.  I have numbers from the company, and from journalists who talk to the company, but the company HAS reasonably expected ulterior motives.

I'm not saying that 5th edition isn't the most popularly played edition.  I AM saying that, statistically, we have absolutely no idea whatsoever.   Because we haven't got statistics.  We've got judgements based on seeing a particular group of people participating in a particular game space ... which is deliberately organised to appeal to that particular group of people.  As such, factually, we have nothing.

But that doesn't keep us from stating as though it is a fact that 5th edition is the most popular.  And because it's stated as a fact online rather continously, it sounds like a fact.  But this doesn't make it one.  After all, it's easy to find hundreds of comments by people who say they don't play 5th any more, or that they never played 5th.  Are we sure that number isn't higher than the number who say they do play 5th?

I don't know.  I have reason to doubt either answer.

We live in an age where we're expected to give an opinion about things and where we expect that opinion to be (1) treated as accurate, based on our "knowledge," and (b) respected.  Most of the time, if we quote a source for that opinion, it's someone else's opinion ... and often the "someone else" is plainly someone who knows nothing for certain.  If we're not treated as knowledgeable and if we're not respected, we get mad, we block the other and we go looking for people who agree with us.

Thanks to the internet, these can be easily found.  Most of the time.

I see no particular reason why anything I say should be treated as "knowledge."  I have no source material for anything I write about D&D.  I cannot for certain say that when a firefighter learns to deal with complex situations through pattern recognition, that's also what a dungeon master is doing.  I feel fairly certain the firefighter's pattern recognition is real, since respected firefighters give lectures to other firefighters and not the general public.  In other words, their knowledge about what they're doing isn't merely representative, it's demonstrable.

That's key.  What I say means zip compared to what another DM says, who has applied my methods and discovered they either work or don't work.  And this is interesting.  My inbox is NOT stuffed with people who've tried what I said and come back to me with, "Yep, tried it, and you don't know shit Alexis."  What I occasionally get is, "I'm not going to try that, because it won't work."

But what I most often get is, "I finally tried it ... and wow.  My players love it."

Is that an ego-boost for me?  Sure.  I'm human.  Does it mean I'm always right?  NO.  It doesn't even mean I'm ever right.  It means I'm valuable as a resource enough of the time to make others examine my words for value.  Others are bringing their own judgements to my words and they're carrying out the experimentation.  I don't know what they're actually doing at their tables.  I'm not there.  As such, how can I ever be "right" in a sense that's reliable?

I know that what I'm doing works for me.  I'm outlining for others why it works, how it works, what I've done to make it work and what I plan to do.  The rest, as ever, is for others to DO.

So I'm not certain I'm right.  I could very well be wrong.  The only thing I'm certain of is that everyone who thinks I'm wrong is ALSO wrong ... for other reasons.

I'm trying to be right.  They're trying to be representative.

Friday, November 11, 2022

Budapest Sanjak, east of Budapest

Today's part is heavily populated.  Here's the map before doing any work; the white numbers indicating the infrastructure that each big, background hex has.

That "5" in the upper right corner represents a group of hills in another province, so it's unaffected by the spreading of infrastructure from Budapest, which has 1792.  That's because infrastructure is the responsibility of each individual province; it does not cross borders.  This is necessary for game play, as we want places of heavy infrastructure adjacent to places that are not - makes things interesting.  Otherwise, we'd have the same over-developed dynamic everywhere.

Doing this, I failed to notice the Danube river was missing.  Remember that the bottom two hexes from this map came from another map sheet.  Apparently the river failed to get copied.  I fix it later.

You can see from this screenshot that the section we're doing is literally on the outskirts of Budapest.

We're not going to do Budapest for months, however.  This is as far west as we go on this pass around the finished map.

Next, I determine the hex types, add in additional water courses, hills, symbols telling me which roads lead out of the hexes in which directions and towns ... and we get this, which is about as messy as we could ask for:

There should be 13 added towns, but when I took this screenshot I'd missed putting a town in the hex southwest of Nagykata.  That's also been fixed.  There are a lot of details and I'm out of my habits, so I'm finding I'm missing things from time to time.  Sometimes, the little coins, hammers and bread under the type numbers are inaccurate.  I change them when I notice.

The secret to clearing up the mess above comes from adding the roads.  Roads make everything make sense.  The towns get connected logically.

I took away the background, to give a better sense of how much cleaner the map is now.  I'll still need those infrastructure numbers for later, as the reader will see.  The Danube has been added but the missing town near Nagakata wasn't added when I took this screenshot.

Incidentally, all the towns are real places.  I've messed a bit with where they are, exactly, since I need them to align with the hexes and the map's random generation.  But all these places can be researched online; most of them have a wikipedia entry, but not all.  Here's a wikipedia entry for Jászalsószentgyörgy, appearing on the map without accents.  Sigh ... these Hungarian names.  Anyway, there's tons of information on the Hungarian wikipedia page, which can be read by simple translation.  Most of it's about the church that was built in 1701, about 50 years after my world's taking place.

Here's a completed, coloured map to finish:

 Crazy, eh?

 Hm.  The label for Tura needs moving ...

Thursday, November 10, 2022

Northern Hills, south of Kovesd

Since it's all me, one way or another, for a time I'm going to highlight posts on the mapmaking blog.  Here's today's.  Hope no one thinks I'm artificially increasing the number of posts I write.

Wednesday, November 9, 2022


Apart from getting the new blog launched, after a couple weeks grumbling about it, let's continue with this series on worldbuilding — if my readers accept that's what I am writing about.   I'm pushing the idea that crafting the setting goes well beyond the visible contraptions with which we're familiar: the traditional map, the names of places and realms, the lines representing roads describing how the players travel from point to point.  Beyond these things there is the essence of the world itself ... it's philosophical perspective, it's manner of organising the forces of power that dominate the strata, the overall sense of cause and effect, not just from the players but also from the whole pattern of history that's gone before the players arrive.  And just lately, the way in which the game world is explained and expressed, right down to the words we choose to take hold of the players' attentions.

I can appreciate how these things are so alien to the usual dialogue surrounding D&D and worldbuilding.  As I keep saying, there is no groundwork for these ideas, except actual human history, geopolitics, religion and so on.  Recently, I've been reading a book from Michael Lewis, The Undoing Project, which is busy deconstructing the manner in which human beings ignore facts, interpreting things from a habit of wish fulfillment ... literally remastering things from what they are into what we want them to be.  This theme revolves around three statistician-psychologists in the state of Israel in the 1960s, each of whom also took part in the Israeli-Arab wars at the time, because every able-bodied male had to.  It's a profound perspective ... and it led to advancements in psychology that shattered belief systems in the 1950s and 60s.

Today's theme is literature, which can mean many things.  Although it technically describes any body of written work, the descriptor is often used to express things we ought to read, in the sense that if you haven't, you're a philistine, barely able to pick your nose with your spear.  [note the Israeli-philistine transition ... Literature!].  My intent is to discuss it in relationship to worldbuilding, as connected to elements of communication, aesthetics and form.  Let's begin with a story.

Once upon a time, a very minor academic without many credits and quite a few detractors stumbled across a theory that continues to hold a wide number of non-academics in thrall.  This theory explains that every popular story through the ages is the same, with the same means of elaboration, the same predictable elements of plot, and most important, the same approximate resolution.  What's more, this recognisable pattern reaches into every culture, every language, every historical period ... why, it's completely mind-blowing.  It's like there's just one massive, um, "singlesaga" that permeates through all Human culture.  Wow.

There's just this little glitch that this multitude of stories lack the same theme.  But what is a "theme," anyway?  Merely the reason the story is written at all.  Merely what the story is actually about.  See, it doesn't actually matter if the plots of two stories match up fairly well, if one of these stories investigates the collapse of military intelligentsia in the 19th century Russian state and the other examines the manner in which mid-20th century ideology forces individual to conform.  War and Peace and The Metamorphosis just aren't the same.  No matter how hard we stare.

See, it's like the plot-line of making wine.  We grow the grapes, or fruit, in varying conditions, but in the end it has to get crushed somehow.  In the next act, the resultant liquid is fermented.  Then the liquid is pressed, to allow the wine to run off the pulp.  After that, depending on whether the wine is red, white or from some other fruit extraction, a wide range of processes can take place that, in Act Three, ultimately wind up with wine in storage.  And here's the point at which this metaphor revolves: it's all wine.  Whatever we do, however we convert it, carbonate it, reduce it and so on, the fundamental process of making "wine" is universal ... in every culture, every language and in every historical period.

There are a great many who may nod and say, "Yeah, see, all wine is the same."  Which ... mm ... is not true.  Well, it is to non-academic philistines.

How literature arrives at its meaning, or the fact that it uses words of a given language, is irrelevant to its purpose ... which is why that clever little insight by the inventor of the singlesaga produced no accolades.  Let's forget, then, the standardised D&D notion of coming up with a "story" ... it's going to be the same story anyway, right?  I mean, it's all wine.

The first difference between two stories is aesthetic: not the story itself, but how well it's told.  If you or I were to try and write To Kill a Mockingbird from scratch, without even the title to call it by, even if we stuck to the "story" the end result would be execrable.  Not even because we're bad writers, but because we're not Harper Lee growing up in that era in that part of the world.  She knew how to make that story good because it was her story.  As in, a story fermented into her by the vineyards of her parents and culture.

Like stories all being the same, the events in D&D tend to obey a few narrow parameters: we can make the players fight, we can allow them to explore, we can offer them puzzles, we can set up parleys, we can threaten them with authorities, we can empower them with objects.  I've been playing for 40+ years and I can't think of something else that doesn't fit into what's named.

Does it matter?  A good event isn't based on it being a puzzle ... what matters is what sort of puzzle it is, and how it's encountered, and what the consequences of solving/not solving it are, along with how elegant the solution can be, whether invented by the DM or the player.  It's the beauty of the puzzle that counts.  And beauty, as I wrote in How to Run, is founded on four fundamental principles: (a) we have to begin with the best tools; (b) there must be an evident amount of time spent on the result: (c) it must show skill; (d) and it has to look like you took WAY too much time with it.

As a sum, your players must have the sense that you've created a conundrum (or a battle, or a parley, or whatever) that they know they can't duplicate.  You understand this game better than they ever could, you've spent more time working on it that they can even imagine, you're far more masterful at expressing yourself and what's happening that they can match ... and obviously, you've got time to squander on this game that they know they don't have.  In short, they're in awe.  They don't understand why, or how ... they just know that whatever you're doing, they can't do it.

In real terms, this manifests as a problem solving situation that makes their skulls hurt.  To actually do that, you really DO have to spend ludicrous amounts of time as a DM.  So, short answer: to produce something beautiful requires an excess of ability.

Okay, so, let's shelve that.  You can start working on being able when you finish reading this post, whereupon you'll be good to go in, um, 2042.

What about form?  Perhaps that's more accessible.  Form is the configuration in which a story is told, or in which a narrative is related.  For example, in D&D, the common form is to send the players out to the dungeon, let them pick up treasure and get hurt, bring them back to the village so they can buy stuff and heal, then send them out to the dungeon to get hurt and more treasure, then bring them back to the village so they can heal, then send them out to the dungeon so they can ...

Elegant, ain't it?

Form is easier to manage ... mostly because so many forms are utterly ignored by traditional D&D.  Virtually any situation that isn't organised around a "funhouse set-piece" will confound players sufficiently to think they've discovered a whole new kind of game.  Consider: if the traditional game is to send the players out to the funhouse, er, dungeon, consider how easy it is to turn that situation on its head by having the various denizens of the funhouse randomly and constantly raid the village?  Think of it ... a group of 1st level characters wake up in the middle of the night to find the streets filled with humanoids.  They rush out, kill 8-10 kobalds, only to soon after find a dozen goblins breaking into a shop.  The players kill the goblins, get their treasure from the shop.  Soon, they're fighting a big ogre who's tearing apart the inside of an apothecary.  The party kills the ogre, gets away with a dozen potions ... which they'll need, because now it's thirty gnolls.  These are beaten off as the sun rises and the players get a break.

Only, the humanoids are ringed around the village.  The players heal, sleep, and ready themselves for nightfall, when it happens again.  And again.  And again.  It's the same story.  We've just chosen to ferment it in a different way.

The key to "form" is to find ways to introduce the players to puzzles, parley and panic in different ways than they've already done.  The story lines are all obvious: it's a wagon train that needs protecting, it's different entities fighting over a business asset, it's a group of people who need their village defended, it's a king that needs restoring on a throne, it's a band of rebels fighting against an evil empire that will take new recruits for a special mission ... blah, blah, blah.  It isn't the damned story.  That's just the grapes the wine is made from.  It doesn't matter that the story's been used before ... ALL stories have been used before.  What matters is how well you use it.  And ultimately, if you personally can set up the story better than the players, you'll gather a little of that sweet, sweet nectar that creating something of beauty gives.  Oh, you may realise it's not all that, but the players will think it's beautiful and you'll get the laurels just the same.

Finally, there's communication.  This is tricky.  We've already spoken about language and locution ... this is your use of those aspects to send a message that's worth telling.  And here I know you're a fish out of water.  Creating a message out of D&D feels like ... well, we have no idea what it feels like.

A "message" is a discrete form of interaction that attempts to suggest a response without actually asking for it.  The idea is to signal the reader in a manner that causes him or her to gather an insight into the events surrounding the story, even though that insight was never actually stated.

This can be accomplished in a film by "showing, not telling," though most of the time it ends in a very disconnected insight.  All sorts of people have invented all sorts of messages from the first 20 minutes of 2001: a Space Odyssey.  None of these messages coincide with each other and ALL of those who think they have it believe they're the only ones who do.  It's not hard to send a "message" by creating a bunch of indistinct gobbledy-gook backed by very loud prestigious-sounding horns while human-like creatures are doing vaguely human-like things.  We're humans.  We like seeing ourselves in monkeys.

Messages can be annoying simple and useless.  "Crime doesn't pay" has been a theme of human dramas for centuries ... not that this stops crime.  It works with children if all we want them to do is eat their vegetables — at least, until they actually eat vegetables.  It's not our goal to moralise or send messages that change humanity's focus on science fiction filmmaking.  This is D&D.  Our goal is to enable D&D.

We have a game setting deliberately created to give the players a place to create their own stories — or, if you prefer, to make wine.  We'd rather they made better wine than the same mashed grapes left to rot in a dark cupboard beneath the stairs year after year.  We want them to make excellent wine.

You're the DM and the players have just finished acquiring a big haul of stuff.  They want to go down to the local Magi-Mart and roll it into potions and scrolls.  What do you want them to do with it?  If you want the pathway between the village and the dungeon to become a trench, you'll let them leave the mart with their arms full of flasks and rolls.

If you'd rather they spent their money on something else, don't cripple their imaginations by making the game easy.  If you want them to build safe-houses and castles, make the world more dangerous.  If you want them to spend more time investing in local politics, don't invent rewards for chatter ... denude the dungeons of treasure.  Denude the game world of dungeons.  Push politics into the player's faces.  MAKE them deal with it.  

But, gently.  Let them occasionally seek solace.  Encourage them to feel they can affect their enemies with the right word, or making the right deal.  But move the game towards where you want the game to go by sending messages that worry or dissuade the players from going in directions you don't want.

We're not talking a story here.  We're talking crafting messages that make the party think differently about the world at large.  Sure, there's a dungeon over there.  Sure, they can go to it.  And sure, there's a sign on the outside that says, "Abandon all hope."  Only, um, mean it.  Hey, the party's gonna look at those words and laugh, right?  I mean, they're adventurers.  Abandon hope, surely that doesn't apply to them, does it?

What kind of world do you want to run?  Build the setting to create a message in the player's heads that directs them into your kind of world.  Make it subtle.  Be very definite about not stating the message openly or making your intent obvious.  Give the players reason to pause and reconsider the next time there's a scary message on a dungeon.  Give them reason to believe there's good gaming, and solid value, to be found in other things beside dungeon delving.  It's up to us to reward behaviour we ought to think deserves it, and underwhelm behaviour we don't want.

If that sounds bad to you ... if it sounds like I'm encouraging propaganda, or brainwashing, or coercion, then consider the possibility that you're a little overcautious about how you cope with your fellow human beings.  Personally, I'm completely assured that my players are "getting the message" and not minding it all that much.  Especially when it's coupled with the form of the adventures I create and the time I spend on their elaboration.

I believe in making very, very good wine.  It's not made simply, or doing one thing, or counting on the grapes to do it all for us.  There's a common adage among vintners that a joyous grape, a well-watered grape, grows into the happy part of a lousy wine.  We keep the soil dry; we make the grape suffer, so that it has to pull every bit of flavour from its surroundings just to stay alive.  It's from hardship, not ease, that invention and creation flourishes.  It's from not having everything handed to them, from having to seek their success in every valley, not just the ones planned for them, that a party discovers a fantastic game they never want to quit.

Tao's Mapmaking

I'm going to try this and see how it goes.  Link also in the sidebar.

Tuesday, November 8, 2022


Well, there's this.  A group of wits decided to do a 51 minute podcast about this blog.

And honestly, it's flattering.  We don't rise to this level of smarm without having achieved ... something.

Please support my patreon.

Monday, November 7, 2022


It's essential that we understand how to use language to describe the game world in a manner that draws in the players.  Throughout the game, DMs are asked to give details about places, events, motion and the consequence of actions that have taken place.  Wherever the party goes, whatever happens there, or has happened in the past, and how the players' actions affect the future, is received positively because we've couched those things in rich, interactive language that captures the player's imagination.

Our limitation begins with understanding language in terms of it's rigid structure, because that's how we've been taught language.  The teacher begins by writing a sentence on the board and then strictly describing what is a subject, a verb, and an object ... stale terms with which we have no attachment.  We're given too much information about what the words do as part of a sentence than how specific words affect our thinking and comprehension.  Words themselves can be taken apart thematically as well as etymologically.  I'll take some time to discuss how, while addressing questions about how to manage the game's wilderness without depending on dividing the setting into hexes like a dungeon is divided into room.  For this, we'll keep to little words.

Prepositions are words that govern nouns and pronouns, expressing relationships related to place, time, movement and manner.  For example, the preposition "through" describes the motion of a person or thing as it passes from one side to the other of an opening, channel or location.  We move through a crowd or through a forest.  The word suggests a confrontational element, in the sense that to move through requires threading our way through obstructions.  For example, I might tell the players they are moving through the brush.  This is different from the word between, that more often suggests rigid boundaries with a definite opening.  We say that we move between the posts; we don't say we move through them.  The latter feels less clear than the former, if passing through the channel created by the posts is the meaning.  Through suggests we butt up against the posts as we try to move through them.

So, for example, if I tell the party they're moving through the city streets, habitually we create a crowd that the party encounters.  The sense is different than my saying the party moves across the city.  Through has a 3-dimensional element, whereas across flattens the environment through which we're moving.  We say through a forest, not across a forest.  At the same time, we move across a meadow and not through it.  A forest is three dimensional.  A meadow is flat.  If the grass is high enough, we say we move through it; but if the grass is short, we say we move across it.

Thus, by choosing to say the players are moving through a city, we give the streets three dimensions; if say across, we demote the city to how it appears on a map: two-dimensional.  But there's no definite right or wrong here.  Telling the players they have to cross the river acknowledges their wish to remain upon the river's flat surface.  Through a river is very different; it means the players will get wet.  Over or above the river is better for them, as they can avoid the water altogether; thus we give the players a bridge and stress it's overness when the players are told to look down at the roiling, flooding waters they've avoided.  Under the river suggests we're going through the rock and silt, completely under the river's course; so we say underwater, which means the players will get entirely wet.

These are very common words, used every day ... but the manner in which they're used and stressed during game play matters.  The players must envision what happens, so we are specific about words that have exact meanings for this effect or that.

For example, getting involved is implied by moving into or toward something.  In the question, "Do you move toward the door," it's the positional word that affects, as the player grows more cautious as they approach more nearly to dangerous things.  Into the dungeon equates with in trouble, or trapped.  Out of conveys the opposite.

We can move through the streets, but we can also say that the party moves into the streets.  Through implies direction; into here implies that we're wandering, without going specifically anywhere; that there is some kind of confusion.  If we say to the party, "You move into the city," this calls for the players to suggest a specific direction, while suggesting the city is a sort of maze.  Because there's only so much into that's ever available for movement, since sooner or later we'll reach the center or the bottom, the word itself has claustrophobic overtones.

Out of suggests the opposite.  We free ourselves by getting out of things.  But out also has a sense of coming to a rest at some point, since once we're out of the city, we can stop.  On the other hand, away from suggests an ongoing process.  We just keep moving away.

This should be enough to get across some of the sense I mean when choosing a word.  English has something like 175 prepositions, all of which can be used in some manner to define the player's movements or placement in the game world.  Prepositions relating to time include before, after, until, during and since, all of which can be stressed when characters take some action, or want to.  "Until you get the door open, you're stuck."  "Before the monsters attack, there's an air-shattering shriek that everyone hears."  "After the last squid dies, the ink-filled water begins to clear."  

Prepositions relating to manner or phrase, or context, include contrary to, except, like, instead and including.  These are words we'll use to remind the players of something they've forgotten, or ought to think about, or is suggested by something they've decided and so on.  When giving advice to players, if you're not used to expressing your mind, it helps to clarify our thinking in terms of what concerns there are, or what bars the player's intent, or what acts in the players' favour.  "Instead of that, what might work better?"  "Including these things you've discussed, is there anything else?"  "That might work, except for this detail you've forgotten."

As I said, we use these words all the time without a thought.  But thinking about the words gives clues as to what we ought to be addressing as a DM ... or what things we might want to include in the game world spatially.  Players stand above a valley, a descending slope, a cliff, a river bank, or sights that can be seen in the distance.  The pathway meets a wall or an outcropping, moves along it, or around it ... likewise, that same route might confront heavy vegetation, and outpost, a hostile or ruined village, an enormous hole, a lake or a pond, a river, etcetera.  We move nearer to things in the distance, or away from other things.  We move between the rocks, the canyon walls or the fields.  We're beneath the hilltop, the cliff, the forest canopy, the flying birds, the overhang, the waterfall.  We go up or down the hillside, the valley, the rough-cut stairs.

What can the reader imagine that the party moves over, or up against, or upon?  What is the landscape without?  What's hidden behind a thing, or beneath it, or among these features?  Create something for the players to find.  They won't notice that you keep saying up, up, up, as you urge them up the valley, up the stream gulley, up the outcropping, up the scree slope, up between the cliff faces, up and across the glacier, up into the gap between the mountain peaks ... they'll merely understand that the theme of what's going on, especially as the scenes are peppered with opportunities to slip, slide, tear a boot heel, match wits with a mountain goat, find tracks of some kind and get doused with freezing rain by a flash storm ... and all the while catch glimpses of something unlikely just beyond sight or reach.

The words themselves are only a crutch ... but an important one.  The collection of moments and scenes that we've accumulated through our lives must be collated and managed so they can be used to enable us to create things at will.  Imagination is no more than an immense database located in our minds, enabling us to produce sounds and images from the immense noggin source book we've stuffed full.  Language is the program that opens the cabinets and drawers, with the things you're looking for, when put on the spot to "come up with something" when the players reach the summit.  Language isn't an obstacle ... it's a process.