Friday, March 31, 2023

End of March, the Streetvendor's Guide

Pardon me as I interrupt this series.  It's the end of March and I promised a 5-page preview of the Streetvendor's Guide at this time.  If the link doesn't work, you can find the preview on my Patreon page.

It's been a helluva month. I roared through March, finishing up the livestock and the 20 pages related to foodstuffs, as well as nearly six pages of fish, plus all the research for these things and other details written besides ... and I have, I confess, finally hit my wall.  It was threatening as of two weeks ago and then I had that experience where I deleted my own work ...

And yeah, it's felt like I'm not superhuman and I've needed a vacation.  The book is not the only thing on my agenda.

I've reached the stage in the creative process where it's necessary to remind myself that it's not important how quickly I complete the work, nor does it matter what other people are going to think about it.  Those are things that I can deal with later.  For the present, I know, the only thing that matters is that I keep moving forward, at whatever pace I need to at this moment.  I've got a good start under me; the response has been completely positive.  The work, I think, is good; the research has been enlightening.  The only burden on my imagination at this point is the sheer scope of the thing.  I've completed 60 pages, 56,000 words, and I can see the remaining text to write being three or four times that.


I'm going to take a few moments and address a question that's been asked enough that it needs a public reply.  No, I'm not going to provide a pdf version of the book.  I understand the benefit of such a thing: that it's readable on all platforms, that it's uniform, that it can be read easily on a phone, for those who don't own a laptop or a computer.  But understand ... the primary benefit that a pdf has for the reader is that it's sharable.  That is of zero benefit to the writer and publisher.  For corporations with great big pockets, they can afford to lose some business online for the sake of advertising, a "loss leader," as it were, but here's the thing.  I don't have deep pockets.  I don't have a lot of other products that this one work will help sell.  I can't cash in on a smash of publicity, except in book sales ... and there will be no meaningful book sales if I produce an official pdf.

Now, some diligent thief can easily produce a pdf from the physical book, if they wish to buy it, and put that pdf online ... but the thing with that is, it's not "official."  An "official" copy says, effectively, please give this to all your friends and take money out of my pocket; after all, I've only struggled to write the thing, I don't deserve to earn more than peanuts for it.

Whereas a bootleg copy says, I've decided to fuck the artist out of some money because I'm a prick, especially since I'm getting nothing out of this effort except some unearned cred.  Here's a free copy of the guy's book.

With the second one, users tend to feel, ah, guilty.  And if they like the pdf, they tend to think, I ought to give that artist a little money and buy his book, since I do in fact like it.  But with the first one, that guilt goes away.

And sorry, I want that guilt.  I want to be able to impress people with the heavy volume I'm writing.  I don't want them to easily get a copy online; I want them to pay for the privilege of reading the product of my exhaustion, misery, sweat and nagging creative burnout.

I don't mind that people ask.  I do think, though, that if you could possibly forego wanting to possess the book in a manner that's convenient for you, you could pause and consider for a moment if that manner is convenient for the author.

Please be well, all.

Thursday, March 30, 2023

The Dungeon's Front Door

Yes, I have a book with this title.  Yet it seems appropos for this post.

Our party has come to the entrance of the dungeon they were seeking in the last post.  This is a critical juncture in the player's experience.  The moment of committing, as it were.  We would do well to examine what happens within the game at this point, and how best to exploit it as a dungeon master.

Let's review first.

1) It's the players' agenda.

2) The player's agency is constrained by what the players have control over, and what they do not.

3) Everyone is bound by the rules, players and DM alike.

The player's are here at the dungeon's door — whatever it looks like, we'll come to that — because they wanted to be.  They asked to be here.  They deliberately sought out the entrance ... and because we've identified this as something that's within their control, they have a right to be here.  Let's give some thought to point 3.

There is a trust issue here.  The players don't know what's behind the door, yet the game dictates they must commit.  The DM ought to know what's behind the door ... and knowing it, properly should respect that content just as rules are respected.  If I imagine the entrance way leads into a forward guardroom of some kind, with three goblins whose role it is to warn the rest of the community if something bad comes in the door, then I'm resolved to put three goblins there and not seven or nine or fourteen.  The only reason to change the number of goblins would be if the players killed them "too easily" — which shouldn't matter a damn to me because I'm impartial.  It shouldn't matter any how, because the other goblins in the lair are also there, anyway, no matter how easily the front three die.  Frankly, I don't understand a lot of what motivates a DM to mess around with dungeon contents, but the principle should be that whatever's there is there.  The party can always find something else to kill later, if they still have an appetite.

To be clear, I'm not saying this dungeon starts with a three-goblin guard room.  That's just an example.

In any case, as long as the party is outside the door, there's another bit of duality at play.  There's a distinction at this point between what the party believes and what's true.

Moving back in time a moment, the party ought to have been given some information about the dungeon before starting out for it.  We tell them there are goblins in these mountains, or that the dungeon was originally sought 25 years ago because a princess was kidnapped and taken there, and though there was a rescue planned, no one of the rescuing party ever came back.  We don't know what became of the princess, or the rescuers.  We know there have been other parties who set out for the dungeon, but the party doesn't know if any of those groups even found the entrance — as none of them came back.  These bits of information are floating in the party's consciousness, and we can be sure some of them are going to be hashed out by the party before they commit themselves to first finding the dungeon, then entering it.

Physically, the dungeon entrance takes space.  This space is exception in the game setting.  It's the doorway between two worlds: civilisation and, as I said in my book The Dungeon's Front Door, a dystopian unreality that exists below ground.  How we depict the crossover matters.  It's best if we don't make it look like a traditional Gygaxian front door, which might just as well have a neon sign out front stating, "Dungeon, -- Vacancy," for all the ambience most modules offer.  And note, giving the entranceway "ambience" matters to the player's mood when they arrive at this point, before crossing the threshold.  We can do better than a plain little hole in the mountain fastness, or a benign little concealed door.  Early D&D subscribed to the "less is more" motif, which may have worked when the game was new and the players unjaded, but we've got to do better.

We can provide ambience by fixing the players' imaginations with intense flavour text, as James Raggi perceived and had a great deal of success with.  Of course, that's become a trope also, and in reality there's only so much that text can accomplish.  It's been over-used since the mid-00s and is apt to leave any experienced party cold ... though it probably will still enjoy effect if the players have only 2 to 3 years of gaming experience.

A better approach is to mix said text in moderate doses with the visual qualities and aesthetics of film.  The strongest benefit of film is that it shows movement ... and so, when introducing the entrance, try to think of some element of the scene that's shifting, stirring or flowing.  Drift snow into the scene, which greater distinguishes the outside, where the players are, from the inside, where it's dry and perceivably warm.  Roll steam or cold air out of the entranceway, with an explanation the players can't know without investigation.  Allow voices, or noise of some kind, to drift out; perhaps unseen creatures are having an argument, or there's an inexplicable rattling or booming sound.  Have a creature actually step out of the entrance, then go back inside before the characters have time to fully react.  Tease, tempt, taunt the players with such.

It's fully in the rules to make the entrance seem more dangerous than it is.  Although the party wanted to be here, it's in our interest to make them question that intention as much as possible ... to force them to push past a legitimate reason to fear and actually BE brave.  In all the various make-believe elements of the game, one thing that is not made up is the real emotion possessed by the players.  It's this real emotion that makes the game so satisfying.

The emotions offered by a video game are frustration, exhaustion, sometimes boredom, occasionally relief and, after a long time, a sense of accomplishment, self-esteem and even triumph.  But rarely can a canned experience, like a pre-programmed game or a movie, or a book, offer an emotion like bravery.  It doesn't make you "brave" to willingly sit through a movie, or buy a game, or finish a book.  Deliberately choosing to enter a dungeon run by another human being who is under no obligation to make that dungeon "popular" to a vast audience IS a legitimately courageous act.  For myself, I carefully cultivate the attributes of a demented, somewhat unwholesome sociopath who could conceivably put something in his dungeon that would be, well, very wrong.  My players sense that about me.  They know that whatever's lurking in there, it doesn't need to sustain itself against a focus group, it doesn't need to answer to a market's whims and it definitely doesn't have to fit a politically correct model.  I might very well include something so upsetting that it takes a few sessions to get over it.  It's one of the reasons why my partner Tamara has decided to stop playing.  She prefers to hear about it, before I unleash such a scene upon the players.

And so, as the players stand outside the entrance, remembering the stories of other parties, remembering how long this dungeon has been "known" without anyone properly cleaning it out ... and knowing that once they commit, getting out might not be so easy — it stands to reason that they'll hesitate.  I want that.  The more time it takes to screw up their courage, the more satisfying it'll be, for them, when they marvel at their boldness to take this chance.

For that's what this part of the game is.  Commitment and chance.  They've invented stories, letting their beliefs get the better of time ... but it's the truth they'll find, that they can't know without first finding it, that really discomforts them.

It's ridiculous when some director like J.J. Abrams makes an argument that what we don't see is the more frightening thing.  What a soft, pampered life Abrams has obviously had.  Numerous film directors have shown us things plainly on camera that shake us to our core ... because we're SHOWN these in their full horror.  Abrams makes scary films for children.  Scary films made for adults are terrifying.

I run adults in my game.  For adults, the yawning maw of a waiting entrance is a passage to hell.  Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.

Wednesday, March 29, 2023

Along the Way

At the beginning of a running, my players usually arrive ebullient, arms full of food, folders, backpack, dice bags and so on — much more than they need, I think, because it seems like they're preparing to camp out for several days and not just a Friday evening.  They arrive in groups, as couples or as one heading out to fetch the lone player who has no car.  They unpack their gear, help me move the 120 lb. table from against the wall into the center of the room, sort out the location of their chair, dirty my dishes as they make up their food plates while, all the while, chatting constantly.  They hug me, they ask after me, they haven't heard from me in two weeks (they don't read this blog).  Now there's a 2-year-old running in circles underfoot, whom my partner Tamara will manage as she's decided D&D has become too stressful of late.  In all honestly, I think she better prefers being a grandmother.

Grazing on food takes up much of an hour, as does the plugging of cords, the outlay of dice trays to roll in, connecting to the internet (as access to the wiki is de rigueur), plus discussion of recent movies, global events, the best recent uploads to youtube and so on.  I talk, I rest, I gorge coffee and sugar, I work to get myself "in the mood."  If I don't call the game to start, this warming up period can spin into an hour and a half, two hours, three hours, possibly all night.

The best way to grab their attention is to stand up and say in a DM's voice, "Okay."

That brings silence and complete readiness.  No one has to do a last minute shuffle, push food out of the way, rush to the kitchen for a drink, or anything.  When I say okay, no matter when I say it, they're ready to go.  Just like that.  For all their casualness, they've been ready to start for quite some time.

And where do I start?

I ask the question of the players, "What do you want to do?"

This fits into all we've said thus far.  The game begins with the party's answer to this question.  We may have stopped the last session in the middle of a fight, but the continuation of that fight starts with the players stating their next round's action.  It may be that I don't get an immediate answer, because they party needs to collaborate on the question for a bit.  There are times when I rise, start the game, ask the question ... then go to the kitchen and refill my coffee, because I'm not needed.

For this post, let's suppose that the party has just awoken at the usual inn, this is their first session, and they answer the question, "We'd like to go to a dungeon."

"Excellent," I say.  "I just happen to have a dungeon ready.  Are you ready to leave, or do you still have equipment left to buy?"

This always seems to bring them up short, as they think, "Oh, yeah ... we had better get ready, hadn't we?"  So I provide them an equipment list, then go to the kitchen and get another cup of coffee.

They have questions, I answer.  They buy, they set about calculating their encumbrance, they loan each other money ... then they drift into casual discussions about things and when I see no one's eyes fixed on a screen, I ask, "Are you ready to go?"

A few last things and yes, they're ready to go.  I explain how they know about the dungeon (they grew up in this town where they're starting, so they already know all the rumours any NPC might know), they know what road to take to get sort of in the area, after which I explain they'll have to search.  This all follows some background exposition that several groups have already entered the forested mountain-hills next to the swampy-sandy lakeside, at the end of the trail-cart-track road, and never come back, so if they head out to said road, they ought to be on the right track.  That sounds right to the party, so they head out.

The reader shouldn't think that my description goes, "You leave town ... and you've just found the dungeon entrance."

As a DM, you may think that it's important to get the party to "the good part," but doing that would miss opportunities to deepen and enrich the players' connection with the setting.  My game's generator isn't a one trick pony.

The space between the town and the dungeon creates rhythm, a flow at which controlled time passes, according to how much experience I wish to insert between the players and their goal.  Rhythm in this case has a strong positive/negative polarity that increases as the party gets further and further from the town in pursuit of the dungeon.  While the dungeon is closer, the town's being farther away preys upon the players' sense of safety.  Should it matter that getting back to town in a hurry might decide a character's fate, if something happens, distance is key.

As is difficulty of terrain.  Both vertical upness and flooded downness create immense difficulties to travel, especially should an escape occur in which the party is being pursued by something unknown.  They know that every step forward is also one they'll have to take back; impressing the difficulty of the forward upon them, it builds tension.

Additionally, the harder it is to reach the dungeon, the more concerning and dangerous the dungeon becomes.  Something easy to get to can't possibly have anything really bad in it, or so parties tend to think.  Something really hard to reach is, maybe, and perhaps should be, out of reach.  Make the journey hard enough, and parties will stop and debate, arguing whether or not they want to go on.  This makes terrific gaming.  Not only is there an irrational fear at play, there's also pride and bravery that players ought to have, which is being challenged.  Forcing a balance between the two produces a feeling of adventure that can't be produced by an hour of meaningless flavour text.

During the rhythm of travel, too, there's the possibility of showcasing a part of the world.  Look at what the other people are doing; look at the world's layout in this small part; look at the people on the road and where they're going.  The players can meet persons travelling to some important city that they might want to travel to themselves.  They can see people working fields that someday might be a part of the player's own lands.  Envisioning the world, the players begin to shape a larger picture for their agenda, because it's all here, laid out in front of them.  It's not just a jump to the dungeon.  The world is a real place that the players are moving through.

Plus, there are hooks to cast.  Hey, there's a father walking along with two little girls, all three of them singing together, as they head off to town.  The party doesn't know it, but not long after they get back from the dungeon, they're going to see that same father standing on a scaffold, inches from death, as a town clerk asks if anyone's willing to pay for the father's bond to spare his life.  Oh, and here's a rather elaborate camp along the side of the road, where the tents are marked with a heraldic symbol of a three diamonds and a dagger; upon inquiry, the party is told its a travelling noble, and to "Move along, move along."  The party doesn't know it, but the ring they're going to find in the dungeon was owned by this noble's father, who died in the same dungeon 14 years ago.  And here's a peddler heading to the party's town, asking if the party wants to buy something from his rather sad little cart, where the pastries he has are stale, and the fruit on the overripe side.  The party doesn't know it, but this peddler survived the dungeon the party is about to enter, four years ago ... and after the party gets back to town, he's going to overhear them talking and ask if they encountered the "lizard door."  "What, no!" the party will answer, because there was no lizard door, whereupon the peddler will chuckle and walk away.  Though likely, the party won't let him.

So there we are ... three adventures in the queue, and the party hasn't even reached the dungeon yet.  Throw a couple of red herrings into the mix — a son helping his father fix a cart wheel, a tired woman beating out sheets in a stream bed, across from a dilapidated road house a mile out of town — and we're all set to see the wheels churn in the player's head as they struggle onwards to find that elusive entrance.  

Build this kind of pattern session after session, and you need never worry about the players "finding something to do."  There'll always be some connection they need to make, some person they do a favour for, some choice that seems imminent, just as soon as we get done what we're doing right now.  The realm of characters encircling the party, aiding them in their quests, choosing to stand against them, demanding something from them, sets out dozens of little goal posts that are ready to matter when the party has the time.

At first, you'll struggle thinking of examples like the one's I've just given.  But they'll come to you in time.  None of these are, in fact, time sensitive ... nor even by necessity game critical.  If the girls' father is hung, he's hung; oh well, it's a Medieval world.  If the players never do sell the ring, and thus never know it's a legacy, c'est la vie.  If they don't care about the lizard door, okay.  It isn't going anywhere.  The trick as a DM is to make these things fit into the player's ordinary behaviour, without ever forcing the encounter.  Make each part of the narrative "happen" in its own time, with its own rhythm.  With practice, and patience, a DM can understand why we don't have to throw out the hook until the time is right.  When the players happen to be in the centre of town.  When the player wearing the ring happens into the company of someone who recognises it.  When the players happen to be talking about the dungeon, when they're supposed to be at the bar, or shopping, or hanging outside their inn getting their horses saddled to ride out of town.  And what do you know?  The peddler happens to be right there.

Tuesday, March 28, 2023


Very well: in this post, you're the DM.

Nevermind the players whom the last post addressed.  Your players in this post are excellent, focused, capable persons with tremendous skills as gamers and role-players.  They've got loads of experience, they know precisely what their agenda is and as they sit down at your table, they've begun to deliberate how they're going to achieve their agenda despite you.  Let's take it from there.

To begin with, you don't have an agenda.  You DON'T start unloading your books and the adventure you wrote up last week that the players have never heard of and start, "This is going to be great!  I've got the whole evening planned."  I understand you think that's your role; you've been told by enough sources that this is what you're supposed to do.  You're convinced that the difference between a good DM and a bad one is how much preparation you do, and with this running, you've been working like a dog for three weeks to get this adventure ready.  You're proud of the work you've done and damn it if you're not better prepared that you've ever been in your life.

We stated clearly that the players are faced with a distinction between what they can control and what they cannot.  This distinction does not apply to the DM.  It may be easy to say that you don't control what the players do, but that's patently ridiculous.  As DMs, we can create any circumstance we wish, we can have invented character tell any lies we wish to tell, while the setting can be easily arranged to produce a con job of infinite proportions.

The players MUST rely upon the information they receive from you, their DM.  They have no information of their own.  This gives us vastly more power than how many orcs we can have appear at a whim, or how devastating lightning bolts from the sky might be.  We control everything the players see, hear, touch, smell and feel.

Our only limitations are how devious we wish to be, or how devious we can be, given our human limitations.

Since we don't want to be devious, we need to start with two fundamental premises as dungeon masters: (1) we have no agenda, period; (2) the more control over the game and the setting we can reasonably give the players, without breaking any of the established game rules, the better.

Let's break down number 2 first.

Whatever those rules are, as they vary from game to game, as DMs we still have to respect them.  The rule says that if the characters roll a die that hits, or saves their lives, or succeeds in knowing something, then we are beholden to accept that result just as the players are required to accept results that don't go their way.  If the rule states that a weapon does this much damage, then it does no more or less than that amount.  If a spell has this sort of effect, or this bit of technology has, then we're bound by those rules too.  This should be obvious.

If a rule exists that says a monster has this many hit die and this many hit points, is that a hard and fast rule?  Yes and no.  In the first place, a player has every right to expect a goblin to have such and such hit points, armour class, powers, capacity to do damage and so on.  In the second place, the creation of wholly unseen monsters is considered acceptable practice in the game world, which every participant acknowledges.  Therefore, the creation of 3 hit dice goblins is accepted practice.

Yet because we wish to grant as much control as possible to the players, we are tasked with providing explanations for the discontinuity, in the form of rumours, hints and visual self-evident that these "goblins" are not your everyday goblins.  "They were goblins all right, but they were huge and strong.  It took four soldiers to bring one of them down.  If you folks are considerin' goin' out to those mountains, you better watch your step."

There are numerous rules throughout the game that are fuzzy in this manner.  With enough experience, their presence becomes obvious.  But hard and fast rules, such as hitting, is NOT a fuzzy rule.  Those who fudge dice are still taking agency away from the players, no matter what their intent.  It's worse because they righteously believe they have the right to decide what's better for the player, when in fact all they're doing is arbitrarily imposing their power as DM by ignoring the rules.  In the long run, they steal the party's sense of measuring their success from one battle to the next, since they all seem to go "so well" for some reason.

If there is a rule the DM cannot abide by, then the DM better get rid of it — and then honestly say they are getting rid of it, and why.  DMs should state clearly that such and such rule is being adjusted because they don't like the constraint it puts upon them.  They shouldn't try to reframe the matter by declaring that they're making matters "better" for the player, who may not even care about the rule change.  Such moments should be a debate.  Any one player should have the right to veto the change, even if every other player wants it.  Otherwise, it's just a tyranny of the majority, which only leads to the one player finding a game that suits.  Once a tyranny is established, it just goes on being a tyranny, forsaking individuals one at a time until only one individual is left, and no game.

Rules exist to provide the players with grounding in what's called "fair play."  When a DM chafes against rules, or when a player does, it's always a means of seeking greater personal power through lies and obfuscation.  Whatever the rules are, when they are respected, they establish a firm, fixed frame in which everyone must play, no matter who they are.  Many people, who perceive their inability to succeed within a given frame, go to war against the frame at the first opportunity.  And since in a role-playing game, the participant with the most power is the DM, it's the DM that goes after such rules first.

But the DM shouldn't care.  DMs should not have agendas.  They should not care if the die kills the player.  They should not care if the game begins with their dungeon or not.  You and I should sit down as DMs and wait for the players to decide what they want to do ... and we should be absolutely happy to do so.

We may create the game setting as a "facility for play," but we are not facilitators.  We are not referees, because unlike referees, our freedom of actions is just as controlled as the players'.  What we are is IMPARTIAL.  That is, we favour neither the party nor the monsters we run in a combat; we favour neither door the players might choose, and neither path the players might take.  We have no selfish interest in any part of the game's play.  We're here with just as much interest as the players have to see how it'll all turn out in the end.  Will the players succeed in their agenda?  We don't know.  We're not meant to know.  We're here to put what would seem to be a rational arrangement of obstacles between the party and their goals, as we would want there to be if we were the party and we were trying to achieve that goal.  No more and no less.  If the party dies, too bad, so sad, they tried, let's do it again.  If the party succeeds, great, terrific, here's your reward, let's do it again.  You, my dear DM, must be "favourably disposed" to neither.

This means that whatever you've done on your own to prepare for this running today, it matters not a whit unless the players first say, "Hey, have you got a dungeon ready?  We'd like to tackle a dungeon."  If so, great.  We can say, "Oh, hey, I just happen to have this one," without expressing a word about how hard it was to write up and have ready, or how many weeks its been since the thing was finished.  No matter.  Eventually the players will want a dungeon.  And when they do, we'll be ready.

But until then, shut up about your dungeon.  Your game setting isn't just a dungeon.  Make the dungeon for yourself.  Make it because someday it's sure to be needed.  But DON'T make it because you can't wait, come Saturday, to sit down smugly with your dungeon and talk about how ready YOU are to run it.  That's not what a dungeon master does.  That's what a self-entitled preening bastard does.  We are not the person in charge of this game.  The players are.

There seems to be some difficulty in understanding the word "run."  Imagine, if you will, that your job is to run a generator in an apartment block.  That is, you're here to make the electricity work.  You're not in charge of what the tenets will do with it ... and if you fit the profile of the sort of people who do this kind or work, you don't give a fuck.  You're impartial about that.  You're committed to one thing: make the energy flow.

This is your job as DM.  Make the world work.  Let the players decide what they'll do in your working world.  Wait and see what happens.


Took me all day to write this.  This morning I accidently overwrote a new file with an old one, destroying a day and a half of work.  When I climbed out of bed this morning, everything associated with seafood, fish oil and whaling was done.  Now it's gone and I have to do it again.  Not my first time as a writer, but it's had me gently furious all day.  If some of that leaked into the post above, my apologies.  I had intended to be positive, but that's an uphill climb for me just now.

Monday, March 27, 2023

As Written

To the next step.

Speaking only of table-top RPGs now, the initial lack of control upon the player is imposed by the character's generation.  Whatever method we use to determine what a character's structure is, part of that structure is necessarily a limitation on what that character can and can't do, and in some degree the implementation of a series of odds against the character being successful in a given situation.  For example, if the character's intelligence is 14, and we want to impose the chance of him/her doing something "intelligent" by rolling that number against a d20, then the character has a 70% chance of success.  A character with a 13 intelligence has a 65% chance of success, a character with 12 intelligence a 60% chance and so on.  Which means that when deciding to take an action, the player participates in the same sort of odds evaluation that he or she might at a craps table, or a roulette wheel, or putting up a stake in a game of poker.  It doesn't say you can't do a thing, but it does change the odds against you doing it.

Likewise, the player's choice of character defines whether spells can be used, what spells and how many spells; or what weapons, armour, skills, hit points, attack tables and so on, though to differing degrees according to what games are being played.  And this in turn opens the player to limitations imposed against character agency by a host of rules that dictate how weapons can be carried or used, and in relation to other things the character wishes to do, or how often spells can be used, or the limitations on the effects of said spells and so on.  All these things are there to set forth boundary lines between three categories of character/player control: what the character can definitely do (i.e., swing a sword), what the character definitely cannot to (i.e., swing an elephant) ... and what odds are assigned to indefinite actions (i.e., can the character hit and cause damage with the thing being swung).

These character-generation boundaries will produce the initial pushback that every dungeon master experiences from a player, who — justifiably, from their position — wish to have a role in adjusting such lines in a manner the player sees as more suitable.  Here, at the beginning, we have the first crippling aspect of the role-playing game's inadequate design.  A great many players, nearly half I've encountered, approach the game's structure and rules with the clear perspective that such rules are arbitrary ... and being arbitrary, they are therefore liable to change.  IF we say that a wizard cannot use a sword, and IF that condition is arbitrary, THEN we can absolutely, arbitrarily, change that and allow wizards to use swords.

All rules of all games are arbitrary.  If your friends and my friends agree to play soccer on an existing field, with chalk lines on the grass indicating where the boundary lines are, neither your friends nor mine will begin the game by arguing that we ought to get a line field chalker and remake the lines to suit ourselves.  No, together, we acknowledge the lines must be somewhere and we accept that the established lines that are already here are good enough.  Point in fact, we won't even get a tape measure and test to see if the existing lines were correctly laid out.  They may not be.  Nonetheless, we'll just assume they are, because the soccer field exists at a school or in a city park, lending us to believe, without proof, that the lines are correct.  Because even though the soccer lines ARE arbitrary, they're arbitrary in a manner that collectively we respect.

Fundamentally, however, at it's core, role-playing games, and especially D&D, have utterly failed to impose this same collective acceptance of the rules that were originally imposed, or any rules that have been imposed since.  And as such, if I run a game with completely new players, even if they know me and this blog, at least three out of six players, and more likely four or five, will in some way seek to adjust one of the arbitrary rules that exist in their favour.  It may be because they've played in another campaign where that rule was bent, or because they've always hoped that rule would be bent, or because they believe that if they were DMing, that rule would be bent.

As a DM, when I take a stand on the given rule, saying no, I won't bend it, I've immediately made a negative judgment about that player ... specifically, that the player doesn't — and won't in the future — respect the rules, and that in running the game, I'll need to be vigilant against that.  This means my having the expectation that some of my time — and some of the game's time — will be wasted policing rules that should be absolutely respected, even when the rules are perfectly known, simply because the player feels that the arbitrariness of rules is license to resist them.

This game-time wasting is none of my doing.  No matter what the rules were, no matter how beneficial they were to the players, there are always those players who cannot see any rule in an RPG the same way we'd automatically view those lines on a soccer field.  The reason for this is not the kind of people these are; the reason is not because role-playing games are themselves at fault, though bad writing has to some degree created the problem of interpretion throughout the game's participation.  The larger reason is, rather, that the game culture that's sprouted in the last 40 years has based itself on publications that (a) take challenging the game's rules as the easiest form of content; and (b) have chosen to simply ignore the existing game rules of every RPG in order to install their own, to suit their particular need at a particular time with a particular publication.  Both of these publishing habits are based solely on individuals setting a paycheque or their self-aggrandisement over and above any perceived value of the game, and both have been strongly enabled by editors more anxious to ensure publication of material than any sense of responsibility for what's being published.

However, neither of these actions would have ANY influence over the substantiality of RPGs if not for the utter failure of those who made the game, or are making the game, to stand by anything that they themselves have published.  And especially to the degree necessary to right the ship once it's knocked over.  The original producers spent their time bickering and in-fighting over perceived slights and petty alterations in the rules from the get-go; they set the standard for every writer and every player to take sides and then to invent their own side, leaving the actual game as written to flounder stupidly with no real direction.  TSR happily gave a platform writers who directly contravened the substance of TSR's own game, systematically subverting its own credibility, not once, not twice, but repeatedly for two decades ... rather than defend it's own rules, discredit gainsayers and then BUILD upwards.  Instead, in favour of the fast buck, the company slashed and burned every part of its reputation, churning out dreck, until it's sullied reputation left it wallowing in desperation and debt at the point that the present company bought it's rights.  Whereupon the present company, whose agenda was not role-playing but a card game, continued to encourage the vivisection of D&D and every other game it laid its hands on to ensure the success of another game that required the cachet of D&D to give it's content substance.

No one was more surprised than the company, I'm sure, that D&D survived this attempted extirpation.

The game culture this left behind makes itself evident in the hearts and minds of nearly every player.  As someone who has, likewise, gutted the original game in order to make my own Frankenstein's vision of it, I understand very well that the only thing that gives my version credibility is my willingness to stand by it, steadfastly, to the point that I would rather throw you out of my game than make one concession to any given established rule in it.  There are places where my design has flaws; and there are moments when my players have caught me on those flaws and I've drastically set out to redesign my vision.  The existing sage abilities arose out of players taking a stand against me, and my backing down.  But where it comes to details like a wizard using a sword, the answer is no.  Can you use a two-handed weapon with a shield?  No.  Not now, not ever.  Can you buy another point of strength at the loss of two points of any other stat?  No.  Don't ask.  Every time you ask, you reveal your disrespect for the game, your disrespect for me and your disrespect for yourself.

And specifically this last, because such questions reveal your self-doubt about succeeding at the game according to its limitations upon you.  It says that as a person, you lack confidence.  You need cheats, because you can't "win" on your merits, your ability to innovate or your blind determination to survive.  You lack the capacity to game.  In terms of your resolve, you're weak.  And because of that, every time you ask if you can circumvent some rule, because you see it as arbitrary, you lose my respect.  You should not be in my game world.

But ... I can be generous.  I can fold those thoughts in my head under a mental blanket and encourage you to have a spine.  I can point to the other players who are ready to accept these rules and say, "See, if they can do it, you can do it."  I can't make you believe that, but I can try.  But if you won't try; if you keep chafing at the rules you're given. then I'll send you away.

Remember what I said with the last post about choosing your agenda.  A game is about achieving your agenda within the framework of the game's inherent limitations.  It's not about automatically getting your agenda because you chose it.  So many aspects of role-playing that have become normalised — more classes, more spells, more races, a background you invent but didn't earn — are about rewarding you for being willing to play.  This is stupidity, both on the game's part and on your part.  First, because the game's inception has degraded to where the makers think it needs to bribe you before you'll play, and second because you're so pathetic you'll let yourself be bribed with trinkets and bullshit you didn't earn.

Hard players of hard games don't want anything they haven't earned.  Most of my steady readers here understand explicitly that when I say "you," I don't mean them.  They know precisely who I mean.  To the hard player, this post is meant to empower them: to say, when they feel disgust and a lack of respect for a complaining, wheedling, demanding, vascillating player, they have every right to feel that disgust.  They're entitled, because they've taken it upon themselves to run a game, to JUDGE players who shouldn't be there.

And so ...

Having chosen your agenda, your second goal as a player is this:  how are you going to achieve your agenda within the game rules as they exist?

To answer that, I'll have to discuss the DM's responsibilities.


Let's take some time and clear everything off the game table ... books, dice, rules, the DM, what specific game we're playing, everything.  There's you, sitting at the table, and there's the game.  We can think of it as everything you have power over, and everything you don't.  For the present, take that duality, and nothing else, as the entire universe.

We might begin by proposing that something is involved in presenting the game to you; that there's an intelligent force behind the game ... but we don't necessarily say there is.  The presentation might be a program; it might be a person, like the DM; or it might be a self-perpetuating universe without an intelligent designer behind it.  I don't say that it's any of these things.  I only want you to take a moment and consider that whichever it might be, it doesn't matter.  The simple fact is that however those things outside of your control are presented, they're outside your control.  Any argument you make regarding the agenda of the game is irrelevant to your circumstance in it.

What do you control?  Your thoughts, to begin with ... at least, apparently, as we can go down the whole Cartesian cycle in argument against that but let's take it as a given for the time being that, philosophy considered, you certainly seem to be in possession of your own thoughts.

If you have your thoughts, you have your will — that is, what you'd like to do as an individual.  This then is the first decision you need to consider upon your embarking upon the game: once the game starts, what's your agenda?

Your agenda, of course, is curtailed considerably by what you can't control.  But here's a peculiar facet in the game: what exactly is it that you can't control?  This isn't as cut and dried as you might imagine.  At first glance, you might conceive of something you'd like to do, but which you think you can't, because your judgment of the circumstances is, in fact, inaccurate.  You can do it, but you think you can't.

This is universally the struggle that every person has with the real world.  Our lives are also established upon the duality of what we control and what we do not.  Most of the time, however, our perception over what we have control over is based on prejudice, doubt, fear, indecision, attempts to succeed that fail and inevitably, resistance against trying again.  Many of the things we succeed at turn out to be, upon that success, something that surprises, as we find it hard to believe that we actually DID succeed, as we spent so much time believing that we wouldn't.

This discontinuity affects the games we play.  The most popular games that exist are those that we have every reason to believe that we'll eventually win, so long as we put in the time.  For example, think of any video game with a storyline, an expected number of playable hours and a final destination.  However long it takes you, however many times it takes, you have a clear, reasonable expectation that you'll achieve the end.  Which will be satisfying ... though not surprising.  Because you always knew you would.

On the other hand, there are a number of competitive first-person shooters that you may have no expectation that you'll ever win, ever, no matter how long you play.  That doesn't apply to everyone.  Some obviously DO win, because they've trained themselves, and have the gift, or the will to spend that many hours ... but with those kind of competitive games, the number of winners stands atop a very, very wide pyramid of folks who'll never, ever win.  It relies on that.

With a luddite game, like chess or poker, depending on your partner, or your luck, you always have a reasonable expectation of winning.  You may lose a lot, but once in a while ... but there are always those who suck at checkers or hangman or what have you, that rate their chance of winning very low, or their pleasure at winning as very low, that they won't play these games.

The general point is that the player's perceived ability to win, or handle the principles of the game, says a great deal about what sort of game they'll play, and how willing they are to play a game they don't expect to win.  Most traditional role-playing games, as they were originally written decades ago, presupposed that, eventually, you would absolutely die.  You know, like real life.  They only way not to die was to retire the character and start another, thus cheating the hangman, presupposing that it was okay for the new character to die because it was new and thus not nearly as valuable as the character being retired.

The consequence to role-playing games has been, to make them more popular, to continually adjust the balance between what the character controls versus what the game controls.  More character control equals more assuredness that the game could be succeeded at ... but it also takes away the surprise a player might have if success should occur.  Remember: with our real personal experience, in our real lives, the things we suspend temporarily to play the game, our most formative moments occur when we accomplish something we NEVER expected to accomplish.  Such moments drastically alters the universe with regards to our perception of it.  That alteration, that experience, makes us who we think we are, and what we think we can accomplish.

The more we think we CAN accomplish, the greater our expectation for what an experience offers.  Once an individual gets a taste for accomplishing the "impossible," having accomplished the "impossible" several times already, the less interest we have for the possible ... and in particular, our interest for the probable and the certain.  In fact, we develop a violent distaste for wasting any time on something we're already sure we can do.

Let's start at the beginning again.  What's your agenda?

Your choice in what you think you can do, or how high you want to climb, changes everything about the game you're about to play — and that's regardless of the game being played, or the game's source.  If I'm the source of that game, deciding what you, my player, controls, I can't give you an experience you won't fight for.  Or, for that matter, which you won't die for.  Before we can play, or decide what you can control, or roll your character ... we have to manage your expectation.

That defines the difficulty setting we're going to play at.

Wednesday, March 22, 2023

9½ Weeks

No, not the film.  It's been 9½ weeks since starting on the Streetvendor's Guide, more or less on a whim after considering the project for about 18 months.  Since that time, I've fallen 6 days behind my goal of one page a day.  I've completed 60 pages and a bit, and just under 55,000 words.  I'm happy to say that I did get some work done yesterday, and a considerable amount today.  I have a few items of fish-based food to add (fish oil, garum, caviar), plus a survey of vegetable oils, and then I am done with store-bought foodstuffs.  Then I have tobacco products to do, and then I'm free to start the Innkeeper section.

This involves detailed descriptions of rooms, services provided by an inn to its guests, then more food as I recreate much of the content from the menu, including additional menu items.  Once that's done, I can finally stop describing how things taste, as I'll be entering into textiles and talking about how things feel.

Around the last few days of March, I'll publish another five preview pages for those donating $10 or more to my Patreon, or anyone who wants to do a single $10 donation using the donate button on the sidebar.  Remember to send me your email address when you do so; I'm at  By then I hope to have written an additional 9 pages, so that in all I'll have previewed only 15 out of a total of nearly 70.  This isn't bad for me or for you; after all, you're just paying $2 a page full of good stuff.

Any who wish, obviously, feel free to give me whatever you can.  The time is getting closer to when I have to start assigning pictures to the content, though to keep the book as light as possible, I don't intend to fill it with images like a WOTC splatbook.  Those who have seen it understand that it's dense but quite readable ... I don't want to take away from it being a slab of material that takes the reader months, even a couple of years, to fully unpack.  Some, I know, have found themselves looking up things from the previews to read more on something.  If nothing else, the Guide is a jumping off point to hundreds of hours of looking things up on the internet.

I'll keep this short.  Today's snippet on Patreon relates to mustard.  Long-time readers know that I started this blog with a discussion of mustard and it's relationship to role-playing.  Fun to add one more aspect to that age-old bit.

Tuesday, March 21, 2023

Getting Started

I'm sorry about point 3 in my last post.  Waving words like "loser" around is simply cruelty, unquestionably.  I strove to overcome the lack of wherewithal in those readers who find themselves wanting to work at a game world, only to find themselves repeatedly failing to do so.  If it comes as any comfort, it's but an echo of the sentiments that used to swirl around in my head for decades, which I truly think was incremental in leading me to a place where I could work every day without excuse.  For any creator, no matter what's being created, this is the #1 problem.  I want to work.  I can't make myself work.

Getting Started is a Canadian National Filmboard animated short from 1979 ... so it's dated.  The struggle is not.  The struggle is very up to date.  Every person who's ever done anything has had to overcome a natural resistance against working — perhaps it has something to do with biological organisms surviving through the conservation of energy.  Perhaps it's the constant comparison between ourselves and someone else who's obviously better at this thing than we are.  For myself, I find the will to write emerges from a constant struggle to remain confident about myself, my message and my ability.  Days when I lose that struggle, I don't write, and I feel awful when it comes time to turn in.  Days when I win that struggle, when I've written something meaningful, or finished tasks that really needed doing, I snuggle into bed happily.  This is the only real measure that counts for me: how do I feel when it's time to sleep.

Most days in the big picture, it takes no more than writing a post, or putting together a few pages on the wiki; it's getting past a deadline with work, or managing a day of spring cleaning, or taking all that stuff to the dump that's been waiting for weeks.  It's day to day stuff.  But if I take on something, um, bigger, the measure is skewed.  Suddenly, it's not enough to write a blog post.  Suddenly, I don't give a damn if the laundry gets done.  The only measure is the book.  Did I write enough book today?  No?  Then I hate myself.

It's been a touch and go week.  There've been interruptions and a page of work that wasn't saved that had to be done again, and a day lost to my real job and so on.  Despite that, I had a real victory this week, something to be really proud of, something that's made Tamara inordinately happy.  I feel good about that, but tonight I'm going to bed without any book done and, well ... fuck.

Anyway.  My partner Tamara is on a salt-free diet on account of kidney problems she's having.  She isn't in dialysis but the diet thing does spoil her mood most times ... though as I worked as a chef for many years I've been able to solve a lot using trickery and spices.  There's a great deal that can be done with a salt free diet, if you can maintain and control the amount of sugar — which she also has to keep low, as she's a type-2 diabetic.

Anyway, for several years, she hasn't been able to have pizza, which she likes.  She began talking about it a few weeks ago and I did some research and talked to the Italian market down the road from us.  The problem isn't that the pizza dough is flat, it's that the flatness has to be overcome by the richness of the sauce, which I can't produce with salt or anything but a stock I've made myself.  The market rightly suggested San Marzano tomatoes, which I haven't cooked with in many years, but which I realised were right to be strengthened by baking the tomatoes first before making the sauce.  The oven draws out more of the sugar, while it has to be left right to the point where the tomatoes are just starting to burn.  I par-boiled the tomatoes first, drained them, reduced the drain to thicken it and baked the tomatoes.  Earlier I'd boiled the left overs from a cheap pork roast that had a big bone in it, which made great stock after about 12 hours of simmering.  The pork stock went in the sauce, the tomatoes went in the sauce and then with garlic, onion, basil, oregano and dill, the sauce was gently stewed for about an hour.  I could have gone longer, but with the other set up, it was enough.

I made the pizza dough just as I've made it in half a dozen restaurants, where I used to make fifty pizzas every day.  I didn't have a hobart mixer or a hook, but I just made three pizza doughs.  I have a true pizza pan that I obtained from a place I worked at many years ago (the kitchen manager asked if there was anything she could do for me and I asked for the pan), which is a gawdsend.  I cooked the final result, a chicken-mushroom-feta pizza at 500 degrees and it came out perfect.  Exact restaurant quality, as I've made it for many years.  Tamara was thrilled.  Fully healthy, no salt, minimal sugar, tasted fantastic.  I ate one quarter and she ate the rest.  Then three days later, I took out one of the frozen doughs, let it defrost on top of the warm oven and made a pork loin-Hawaiian.  That came out perfect too.  Tamara is beside herself.  She gets to have pizza any time she wants, as much as she wants.

I should feel great about that, and I do ... but the fact is, I didn't get anything written yesterday or today.  A blog post is light, easy, fun, no pressure, no need to get anything accurate or right, or enduring.  Not like a book.  Writing a book is a bitch.

I better get something written tomorrow or I may fucking kill myself.

Saturday, March 18, 2023

4 Things You Should Work On

Time to apply this concept of working to role-playing games.  

1.  Pick a system.

Notice, I say a "system," not a genre.  If I so wanted, I could easily run a modern day spy adventure with guns and smart bombs using the basic D&D system.  I could run a campaign set in the future.  I could build an old west campaign, or a Roman campaign, simply by applying basic premises.  All characters have a set collection of ability stats, hit points and skills.  These are applicable regardless of the setting; the only thing that might need to be changed is the "skin" on the character.  Rather than a fighter, Rolf Brand of the Galactic Empire is a "marine" or a "space ranger."   Janie Jewel the mage is a "scientist."  All other principles are easily adaptable.

I can see how this might be unclear to many who allow themselves to be taken with the specific words used to describe specific characteristics.  It's the concepts that matter, however, not the words.  Rolf still has to decide what to do; he still needs to hit with his neucron-discharger.  He still dies.  There's still some expectation he gets better with the tools he has and how hard he is to kill, the longer he survives.  Interactivity with the setting is managed just fine by the base D&D game rules ... and there are quite a number of other game systems that are equally as flexible.

I wouldn't say that describes 5e or pathfinder, which are so dependent upon genre-based jargon words to describe what the characters are doing, what I called a codex in an earlier post.  But Masquerade would certainly work, as would Traveller, most gurps systems, and I think Call of Cthulhu, though I have limited contact with it.  I could definitely run a fantasy-like setting with the Traveller system, with a few years of work testing.  Remember that I spent at least ten years of game-testing D&D before making it interact between players and a fantasy setting how I wanted.  It would take me no more than a few weeks to put my present D&D characters into a space adventure, if I wanted to do so.

2.  Learn the rules.

Seriously.  Read every book cover to cover, then do it again.  Then start rewriting rules exactly as you think they should work, exactly as if you were the game's inventor.  Write the whole rule, both the parts you want to change and the parts you want to keep.  Then start doing that with every rule that you can't look at in the book without needing to correct it's meaning or its grammar for the player.

Yes, of course this is a lot of work.  Do it.  Enjoy how much work it is.  Enjoy discovering the various nuances of the game rules, and pay attention to what further rule or idea each suggests.  When you find yourself getting bored of the work, turn on some music and low volume and keep working.  When that doesn't work, put on a movie you've seen a hundred times, one you don't need to look up at, and keep working.  Print copies of your work; put them in attractive binders or physically make them into books, with needle and thread.  Keep listening to music or movies as you work, thinking about how cool this is going to be when you show your players and other people.

Most of all, not only will you know the rules cold, in the end they'll be your rules.  You'll have rewritten them ... and in rewriting them, it'll be a final decision on your part that maybe you'll defend.  "No, no, no," you'll say, "That only applies in this circumstance.  Here it is in the book I've spent twenty hours binding with thread and covering with leather.  Try something else."

3. Don't quit.

If you're like virtually everyone else who tried to run a game or make your own setting, long before you get ten pages of new rules, or finish your first map of your new game setting, you'll already be thinking about quitting.  This is because you're bored.  You may think this is a response to the thing you're doing being dull and repetitive, that in retrospect the cool new world you were going to make isn't that cool or even that new.  But you'd be wrong.

In actual fact, your boredom is a defense mechanism against you ever becoming valuable as a person.  In your youth, whenever you raised your hand in school, or got singled out by other peers or by a teacher, or got assigned to work by your parents when you'd really rather have just sat playing video games, the experience really sucked.  An equation rose in your lizard brain: (a) doing something that stands out gets you noticed; (b) getting noticed is a form of humiliation.  Solution: do as little as possible.  Don't get noticed.

Having reached an age older than ten, if you need this list (and for the record, I didn't), then it's evidence that you're not ready to do anything exclusive to your own creativity.  Creative things stand out.  They make people notice you.  And since most creative things, at the start, are just plain awful, most of the initial notice comes in the form of, "Jeebus fuck, who created this piece of shit?"  Which is definitely humiliating.  It's also something you'll have to go through to create anything of worth ... which, most likely, is something you've never learned to handle.  So boredom is the thing that protects you from all that.  As soon as anything becomes difficult, or seems to indicate your spending a lot of time on something — indicating you care about something — the boredom reflex kicks in and stops you.  Caring about something is bad.  Therefore, the amount of time your brain lets you care about anything you do is, oh, about two weeks.  Then it's safe to pretend to care about something else.  Just so long as nothing gets actually done, and therefore noticed.

If you don't believe any of that, congratulations, you've joined the ranks of all the rest.  If, on the other hand, you'd like to get past this boredom thing and actually do something, then seat this thought in your head: if you don't make this game world happen, you're a loser.  A great big piece of shit loooooser, and you might just as well stop pretending you'll ever be a DM and just accept that you're a mere player.

Cruel?  Yes.  But then, we have to get past all that cruel shit that your parents and teachers did to you when you were just a little child only half their height.  You're an adult now, and you ought to be able to handle a few cruel things.  So push through that boredom and keep working.  It's what you do at work, after all, for pay.  If you can't work long boring hours at something you care about, when you're willing to do it for someone else's money, well, we know what that makes you ... don't we?

4. Choose a setting.

Let's pretend you're still working.  When the players sit at your table, they're going to ask, "What do we see?"  It's a good idea to have an answer.  Unfortunately for you, it only takes about 30 seconds to describe a tavern, and you've got 3 to 5 hours of game to run ... so you'll need quite a lot of setting.  A dungeon with three or four rooms might get you through one night (though it's a bit thin, I think), but if you really want to be a DM, you've got 20 or 30 years to plan for.  Conservatively.  So in thinking about what your setting is, and what it offers, and how long it takes to describe, think big.

The main difference between rewriting rules, which you'll find yourself occasionally doing, and making a setting is that the first is at least visibly finite.  You can see there's a last page to the book and that if you keep working, you'll eventually get there.  Unfortunately, the game setting doesn't work like that.  The players eat voraciously through game setting every time they play and you'll find yourself scrambling to stay ahead of them.  It won't be easy.

Think of it this way.  Imagine that starting next week, you've just been given a job as a high school math instructor.  It has an impossible salary of $65K a year and forgiven property taxes on your new house — the community is just that desperate for a math teacher.  Unfortunately, until now, you've been looking for a job as a physical education instructor.  You haven't done any math since you yourself were in grade 12 and now, in just seven days, you need a lesson plan and you need to know more than your students ... who, as it happens, were taking grade 10 math just two months ago.

Now, you can try and wing it.  Chances are, if you act with a lot of authority, even if you look like a fucking idiot to the students they won't say anything.  Students are like that.  But believe me, even though they keep coming to your class, because they want to graduate someday, they are never, ever, going to respect you.  And that disrespect is going to carry over to every other student throughout the school, who have never taken a class from you but definitely know who you are, and what a loser teacher you are.  Worse, it will carry over into next year, and all the ones after, since the new grade tens will get told by last years' grade tens and elevens that the math teacher in room 229 is a total dickwad.  They'll know this before they sit down in your class.  And it won't matter in a year or two that you've gotten better, that you know math pretty well now.  It's too late.  You've got a reputation.  Your only hope is to move to another school.  If you can find one that isn't willing to ask the other faculty of your school, who also know about you, what kind of teacher you are.

If that's not what you want, then you're going to have to buckle down and sweat the next seven days like nothing you've ever suffered through before.  And not just one week, either.  You have to stay ahead of these students every single day, which means hour after hour of you being smarter than they are.  And you have to do this without losing your composure, without showing that you're feeling any stress in front of the students — because if you fail in this, they may think you know what you're doing, but they'll still think you're a miserable wretch of a human being.

This metaphor is meant to get across two basic principles of being a good DM.  First, that even if you think you're such a great shit that you can "wing it," bet your ass what you think and what your players think are not the same thing.  Because they won't tell you.  Ever.  They'll tell each other.  They'll marvel over your ego, your cheap efforts, your apparent delusion that you're a great DM, but these things will never be said to your face.  For the time being, at least you're running.  That's a tick in your favour.  But it's probably the only one, and if they can find somewhere else to go, they will.

Second, knowing what you're doing and working hard isn't enough.  You're not entitled to be a fuck-tard.  If you are, rest assured that this too will be kept secret from you.  But your players will know, and any new players will be reassured that yes, their first impression is absolutely right.  You are a fuck-tard.  It's a pity, too, because if you weren't one, you'd be a half-decent DM.

So ...

In working on your setting, have enough of it for every session and do it with such panache that it feels to the players like you're falling off a log.  For a long time, that won't be easy.  For a long time, you'll feel very needy, wanting to be told that yes, you are a good DM and yes, they are liking the sessions.  But the only opinion that ever counts is that they keep showing up.

If they keep showing up, and you seem not to be wallowing every session, and tempers don't seem to be flaring, than you're likely doing very well.  Keep at it.  Keep expanding your setting.  Keep rewriting the rules.  Keep working.  This is no time to quit.  200, 300 more hours of play, it'll almost feel like you've got this in hand.  A few thousand hours later, you'll be so ready to work on your game, you won't want to do most other things.

That's when you become a recluse, like me.


I caught two videos today that express what I perceive as "modernism."

The first is from Mark Rober, who embraces that cheesy youtube-presenter shit-talk drenched with insincerity sauce, so fair warning ... you may have to swallow back your bile at points.  I don't know why this style remains popular.   Note the creator has far less views than he has subscribers.

The video digs into drone technology not used by the military, though of course it could be, and sells hard all the things it's doing for humanity.  Strikes me as terrifically pragmatic, solving enormous logistics problems coming into existence and having an enormous potential for improving millions of lives.

A post-modernist is sure to be filled with fear, then with concern for the jobs of delivery drivers, then panicked at whisper-silent military possibilities, while building an irrational sentiment for why the whole concept is invasive.  None of that matters.  The concept, which I'm deliberately not explaining, took a relatively small number of people to invent; it takes advantage of pre-existing circumstances not covered by the law in order to establish itself as necessary; and it requires knowledge and education to run.  In other words, like everything that's modernist, its existence doesn't rely upon creating some ridiculous grassroots movement or convincing any ignorant person of any thing.

This is key.  If you want to invent something, and at some point in the creation process what you're inventing has to be approved of by one or more ignorant people, you've either misunderstood your process or you're right now inventing something that will never exist.  Trust me.

That may not have been so pre-internet, when you only had to convince a group of people in one room, within a brief span of time, while controlling the dialogue for as long as necessary to gain approval.  But that ship has sailed.  It's not possible to do that now, because people own cellphones.

The other video is very different, from Bushradical.  Here, Dave is completely sincere and authentic.  He makes no effort to sell his accomplishments, which sell themselves.  He just says what he and his wife have done over the last twenty years, step by step, admiringly.  Note that he has far more views than subscribers.

Dave works.  A lot.  I won't say how here, except to say that I should've worked as hard at writing as he has at what he does.  And this is me saying this.  There's a bit of road not taken for me, as a good part of my childhood was actually being the little boy that shows up in some of the pictures.  From the age of 5, I took part in my father building a cabin, and at various points the way that cabin looked and the way Dave's efforts look are exactly the same.  Gets me right ... here.

At 20, had I any interest, I could have used the money my father had put aside for my university and started building my own place in some outback place along the Rocky Mountain foothills in Alberta.  How much expertise I had wouldn't have mattered, as my father would have been 48 and more than happy, ecstatic even, to walk be through everything I'd ever need to know.  But silly me, I wanted to be a writer, not a housebuilder, so here I am.

Oh, wait ... I'm actually doing all right, aren't I?  I forgot for a moment there.

The lesson is the same that I've been pitching for years now.  Work.  Which is precisely the message in the first video, both for the company that's highlighted for its mechanical acumen and for the annoying content creator posting it today.  Modernism comes down to work.  People who work a job do so because they need food and rent, and are either trapped in the present or the past ... but people who work for themselves know there's a future.  At the beginning, because it's for themselves, it's always work done without a wage; without the certainty there will ever be a wage.  Yet often enough to make it worthwhile, there often is compensation for years of toil and struggle and, it must be said, derision from those who think it's foolish to work at a dream for nothing.

Shows just how little imagination most people have.

Friday, March 17, 2023


This is why I'm not concerned about the fate of D&D.

If the game cannot sustain itself for another generation, then it clearly hasn't got the value I ascribe to it.  I'm therefore a member of a certain culture and time, whose interest in the game was cultivated by events around me ... and if the next generation isn't so cultivated, then c'est la vie.  Our opinion of D&D is next to nothing when stacked against an insurmountable cultural indifference.

But, if D&D is as good as I think it is, then it'll survive no matter how incompetent its masters are, including those of the company and those of each little table to be found.  The game will thrive nonetheless.  Moreover, I expect the game to improve, to take steps forward from where it is, and not in the name of merchandising ... and the reason that I think so is because the game has so far advanced for me, personally, in my small part of it.

One way or the other, the plight of D&D has no effect upon me.  I am self-sufficient in my game.  If I were the only person in the world playing, because everyone else had ceased, I'd still have my players because they, like me, love this game ... specifically, the way I run it.  The best way to sustain a love for anything is to become self-sufficient.  I depend on nothing produced by any other person, or any comment made by others, or any blog post that's written, or any public presentation of the game, or the game's existence as a movie, or any cultural phenomenon whatsoever.  Worries about what the company might do, or say, or legally demand, or rules they make, or content they might release, simply do not exist for me.  The world cannot stop me in doing what I have been doing for forty years.

Those who have to worry, who feel compelled to concern themselves with every change, perhaps deserve my pity, but not my sympathy.  No one needs anything except what already exists in order to play D&D.  What's more, there are so many copies of what exists, that it's impossible not to find everything that one needs.  So those who will not be self-sufficient, for whatever reasons they give for themselves, deserve what happens to them.  That's how dependency works.  If you will be dependent, then the thing you are dependent upon will always be your master.

Am I not, however, dependent upon the reader?  I am, arguably, dependent on some readers, but not upon them all, and not upon any one.  Moreover, any readers I have must be readers I've earned ... for if I haven't given them cause to read me, then what are they doing here?  Giving cause is a responsibility that falls upon me.  If I want readers, I must earn them; which must be done through effort, empathy and the distinction of providing relevant material.  If I cannot do that, I don't deserve readers.  It's really that simple.

In any case, my desire to earn readers is additionally rooted in self-sufficiency.  I have read and reconsidered the material, I have researched the material, I've expanded the material, and in doing so I believe I understand the material better than most.  Taking the time to propound upon the material, then, suits me ... and if I have readers, it's because it suits them also.

So I put it to the reader.  IF you would have D&D survive for you, then become self-sufficient.  Make your own world, your own adventures, your own rules, and never rely upon the opinions and actions of others in how you run, except those of your players, whose loyalty to your world you must earn.

So long as it survives in this capacity, for you, then you never need worry about the "death" of D&D, or what other players of other games want, or do.  Make your game valuable ... and worry about absolutely nothing else.  Because objectively, nothing else matters.

Thursday, March 16, 2023


I expect within a few months some literary critic will coin the insult, "... he/she writes like chatGPT."  It may have already happen.  If so, I've missed it.

I have three skills as a writer that a computer can't reproduce.

(a)  I am able to write from personal memory.  A computer can write from someone else's personal memory, but it can't extract from that what that memory says about ourselves.  Example, the recent post about Annie Lennox.

(b)  I can make an emotional connection between totally disparate situations, and explain why they're not disparate at all.  For example, that running D&D is similar to the experience of firefighters ... and no, not because we put out "fires."  There are completely different relationships.  A computer can copy the words describing the equivalency, but it can't perceive an equivalency that hasn't yet been seen.

(c)  I can invent something that doesn't exist.  At all.  As someone who's done this dozens of times, I dare a computer to do it once.

During my university years, in 1992, I took a full-year writing course from an award-winning writer, Aritha van Herk.  I'm surprised to find that I've never written about her before.  I found the experience less than satisfying.  She and I did not see eye-to-eye.  I'm certain she didn't enjoy having me in her class any more than my being there.

Aritha — and yes, as I've been in her house, and tapped glasses together at many a bar, and shared hugs, I feel perfectly justified in calling her by her first name — was, and is, a dyed-in-the-wool post-modernist.  To explain the position she took in her class, writing expresses creativity in the way that language is used to give an emotional impression of the subject material.  Because nothing is "new" in the world, the best we can do as writers is to thematically explain the personal contexts arising from historical moments in our lives, or the lives of other people.  Inspiration is found in what we feel, while events only matter in how they affect one's self, or one's own attributes, or characteristics, or actions.

If you can imagine a bottle with her and I in it ...

ChatGPT is a perfect post-modernist writing program.  Like the ouroboros, modern writing endlessly consumes itself, regurtitating words like alchemical efforts to transform letters into gold.  Having all the words at it's beck and call, the computer can endlessly reorder them to find the perfect, unequivocable arrangement that meets the sentiments of artistry for all such writers who've followed in the path of Guy de Maupassant and Gabriel Garcia Marquez ... in which disillusioned lives and destinies crash woefully on the rocks of cold, cruel reality.

Wikipedia describes post-modernism thusly:

"The postmodern outlook is characterized by self-referentiality, epistemological relativism, moral relativism, pluralism, irony, irreverence, and eclecticism; it rejects the "universal validity" of binary oppositions, stable identity, hierarchy, and categorization."

One recognises the reprecussions of said philosophy in a great many parts of our modern culture:  disbelief and distrust of science, non-binary sexuality, ignorance of political events, categorical disrespect for anything that's established, a general distaste for ambition, panic-stricken screeds about the environment and virtually anything else ... and the cold, clear, systematic deconstruction by all sides of the so-called political spectrum of every thing.  Welcome to dissatisfaction.  Welcome to demoralisation.

Welcome to fear.

None of this is new.  Post-modernism has been shambling along for nearly six decades, four in the driver's seat.  There's no one left to run it, not any more; most of the voices that praised it's inception were eaten alive in its maw.  At this point, the philosophy is self-perpetuating, like a black pill waiting at the desk of a first-grader on day-one of school.

Allow me to confess a dirty secret:  I am a modernist.  I believe that culture is progressing, despite the masses convinced otherwise.  I believe in objectivity, and do not consider it "naive" to maintain that belief.  I believe that knowledge accumulates, and that with accumulated knowledge all things are possible.  I believe that stable philosophical identities, hierarchies and categories have not ceased to be, simply because a vast number of unenlightened dead-enders are convinced they don't, or shouldn't.

I appreciate the characterisation of these beliefs as "ideology," but I believe that's a mis-characterisation.  Calling a thing a thing doesn't make it that thing, no matter how many people buy into it.  But I appreciate the mis-characterisation because, for most of those making it, this is all they have.  They're certainly not educated, not in any way that counts.  They certainly haven't any faith, not in 14,000 years of human adaptation or anything else.  Steeped to the eyeballs in self-reflexive shit, they can't see their noses to see past them.  So, objectively, I expect them to react as they do, think as they do, proscribe action as they do ... and to be completely irrelevant to whatever happens.  They're not contributing; and, where the rubber meets the road, they haven't collectively enough power to obstruct it.  And so, like all of the 14,000 years of the past to date, the future will simply run right over them and not look back.

"You" might consider yourself one of "them."  If so, as I say, I appreciate your viewpoint.  As in, I understand that you don't really have one.

Now, because I've used the word "objective" as a philosophical position, Ayn Rand is going to come up.  Let me be clear on this subject.  "Objectivism" is a terrible choice of words for the wish-fulfillment fantasy heroism she espouses.  I've read The Fountainhead several times; I've read Atlas Shrugged thrice.  I've read As I Lay Dying, a book that many don't know even exists.  If anyone would like to go toe-to-toe with me on Rand's philosophy, I'm ready.  As a diagnosis, her books have merit.  As a prescriptive, it kills the patient.  It's not "objective" in any way, manner or sense of the word.  Calling a thing a thing doesn't make it a thing.  But because a lot of very poorly educated political hacks embraced the term because it sounds professional, we're stuck with it.  Let me be clear that what I espouse is "objectivity," as in its relationship to "subjectivity," and NOT Randian philosophy.

Personally, I have one argument in making my case that the world is going to get better than this.  That argument is that it is better than it was five years ago.  And ten years ago, and fifteen, and twenty, and every time period that I can count since arriving on this foolish blue marble.  Seeing the betterment is awfully hard for most people, but it's absolutely evident every day, everywhere.  I am writing my thoughts in a place where others will read them, for free.  I am under no obligation to respect anyone else's thoughts, and yet I'm still free to write mine.  All the positions and arguments in the world have no actual influence on my thinking or my life.  I know this, because I remember a time when everything I'm doing right this moment, with this sentence, was impossible.  I clearly remember it.  At a time when I was a full-grown adult with a child.  I remember a time up until a few years ago when the work I'm doing for a living didn't exist, not in a manner where I could live and work in my own space, interact with others around the globe and be paid for it.

As a continually ambitious adult, still producing new work at a time when my aged peers are trying to make due with football and house repairs, to stave off the boredom, I find myself investigating and writing about material that would have been impossible to find and correlate as little as three or four years ago.  All in a place, where I don't have to leave the same chair.

Not progress?  Not change the old to the new?  Not obliterate dead-end philosophies?  One has to be blind not to see what's going on.  Most of what's being written about, talked about, reported about, argued about, defended, attacked, is simply not germane to anything that's actually happening.  Millions upon millions of humans existing in the world are forever now in the Land of the Forgotten ... as will most of this inanity, thoughtlessness and pearl-clutching that comprises the universal public discourse.

Ignore it.

Tuesday, March 14, 2023


In the late 1980s, my partner Michelle was mastering a choir in the Anglican church in which we'd been married.  To spend more time with her, and because I have a fair baritone voice, I joined the choir though I'd long since ceased believing in god.  We practiced twice a week and of course we sang during services.  I was 25 or 26 and Michelle was 28.

We got along very well with one choir member, Kathleen, who came from Aberdeen Scotland; she was 64.  We'd have her around for dinner every other month, talk about music and plans, and listen to her talk about things she'd done.  The music discussions were wide-ranging.  Kathleen had performed in numerous choirs in Great Britain and Canada, while Michelle had a degree in music composition and theory.  There were many stories and music ran through many of them.

I don't remember the context, it was so long ago, but somehow the name Annie Lennox got mentioned in relation to music, probably a reference to her singing voice or style.  Kathleen perked right up; she'd known a little girl in Scotland by that name.  She'd never heard of the Eurythmics, so I found my tape of music videos that I'd built up during the 1980s and we found a video we could show her.  I think it was Would I Lie to You.

Kathleen was gobsmacked.  It was the very same 8-9 year old girl she'd known; the one who played the violin so well; the one who was such a sweet child.  I'll never forget how Kathleen's voice cracked just a little bit as she remembered "Little Annie."

We so easily forget that every famous person in the world, every artist and politician, every journalist, every commander, leaves a train of people who still remember what that person was like as a little girl or boy, running around, getting their face dirty, slopping food on their shirt, falling down, being trouble.  It doesn't matter who it is ... once upon a time, that person is remembered for whom they used to be.  As children.  As teenagers who believed in themselves.  As young married couples with plans.  In exactly the way we no longer remember ourselves.

I'm sorry to walk the reader down this path.  I haven't written anything in quite a few days and I felt I should take up something.  I crashed and burned over the weekend, after all those committed statements about work.  It happens.  First it's work and then a sick day, then it's a crisis happening to a family member and the next thing, it's excuses and self-betrayals and six days go by.

Just now, having been thrown from the horse, I'm essaying to get back in the saddle again.  Pun.  Many years ago, I'd be furious at myself ... but really, it's just normal life.  Gotta dust myself off and get started again.  Much more to write.

Monday, March 6, 2023

Work, Work, Work

"Don't make the mistake of thinking you're gonna find the time to write.  When I have to write, I have to have something sacrificed from my schedule.  Is that an hour or two of sleep at night, is it a concert, is it a ballgame, is it a movie, is it a favourite TV show ... how bad do you want this?"

 Jerry B. Jenkins


The people around me are starting to feel the growing commitment I've embarked upon.  I've had two brutal hurdles I've had to overcome, when it was impossible to write very much in a day because of the content that had to be found.  These are the worst days in writing non-fiction, since forward movement can't be made because of not knowing what to write, while the pressure of feeling the schedule drifting out of reach.  I set myself a pace of 1 page a day, about 900 words.  As it stands now, I'm at 48.25 pages on my 50th day, and struggling to catch up.

This is not a crushing pace.  I've done the November novel writing contest ... 50,000 words in 30 days.  The first draft of Pete's Garage came out of that.  But the research on a fiction novel is comparatively light ... and all I need to do right now is hit a research wall that I can't climb easily.

Why does that matter.  I'll use Jenkin's words, but they could be mine, as I've learned this the hard way:

"This is the thing that hangs up too many beginning writers.  They don't have a publisher's deadline, so they have to set their own.  And sometimes we tend to ... fudge on our own deadlines."

Again, Amen.

I had deadlines for papers in college, and of course for the silly homework in grade school, but the only thing that mattered about those things was the grade I got from one person.  I usually got whatever grade I worked for ... for me, it was a matter of deciding how hard I wanted to work, how many books I wanted to read, how much effort was I willing to put into 2,500 words for a Classical History paper.  On the whole, it was one of those per class per semester, which meant 10 to 12 weeks of time, which is a lot of time for that many words.  About 25 words a day.

The first time that deadlines mattered started with working for the university paper.  Then it wasn't just one judge that I wrote for, but hundreds ... and very often people who were furious with my writing.  Long before I began to anger people on the internet, I did it in real life, in print, in a paper that some of my professor also read.  By the time I'd been writing for the U of C Guantlet for three years, I'd be sitting in a new class, political science or geology, and the prof would go down the list to see who was present.  I'm an 'S,' so it took a little time.  Then the prof would start to read my name, and stop.  And his or her face would ... twist a bit.  I'd say "here" and they'd look at me, thoughts churning, with an expression that said, "Oh, that's what he looks like."  Then they'd call the next name.

Three weeks later I'd be in their office, getting approval for the paper I'd write, and when that business was done, the prof would mutter something like, "I disagreed with your position on women," or class warfare, or the national debt, or whatever ... and I'd say "Okay."  Because these people had power over me, and didn't like what I wrote.  It puts things in perspective, when 20 years later I'm writing for the internet and hearing that people who have zero power over me don't care for my opinions.

But ...

I was saying, the people around me are feeling the effects of my project.  Suddenly, I'm refusing offers to have coffee.  I'm answering the phone and saying, "No, I don't have time to talk."  I'm not interested in seeing a movie.  I'm telling my partner that she's going to have to cook dinner for herself tonight.  I'm shrouding myself in silence and closing my door.  I'm grouching.  I'm taciturn.  I'm talking too much about the book when someone else is asking me a question.

I'm 50 days into this.  Measured by the source material, the book looks to be about 240 to 280 pages.  I'm discussing with Tamara whether or not this should be two books.  She's helpful, patient.  She's been through this before, many times.  We've been together nearly 21 years ... and I've been a writer all that time.

How bad do I want this?

Despite efforts and frustrations, I haven't been able to produce a major work of my own writing since 2014.  Since then, I feel like I've taken part in an extended dress rehearsal, with one thing after another.  I wrote three drafts of Fallow and came to the point where the work simply failed to meet my expectations.  I worked on one wiki, transferred it to a blog, then started another wiki from scratch, one that's working out at last.  Work is writing and editing, editing and writing, with steady deadlines but small work loads day-to-day, usually not more than 3 to 5 paragraphs ... about the equivalent of this blog.  All of it is practice, practice, practice.  I think it's getting me closer to Carnegie Hall.

At the end of the day, I take 40-50 minutes to work out, to get physical, to keep up my health.  Mostly, I go to bed awfully tired.  It's so easy to quit.  It's so easy to fudge a day, then the next, then a week, then more.  I haven't actually taken a day off all this time, and I admit resistance against any possibility of putting this on a shelf in case I'm unable to pick it up again.  I wrote crazy amounts of the Character Background Generator last summer and then punked out at 47,000 words.  I'm just about there now, just shy a few thousand ... and very conscious that I don't want to put this down right now, when I'm only about a fifth of the way through.

But ... a break has to be had at some time.  I do have plans to travel around Alberta and BC in May; Tamara and I have talked about getting out to Haida Gwaii and then south to Vancouver Island, plus roaming around parts of both provinces I've never been.  This is assuming our health holds; Tamara is undergoing some observation and it may be necessary for us to begin procedures where I'd have to give her a kidney.  We've had our first meeting on that front and I'm good with that solution; thankfully, I don't have to be compatible with her.  Canada Health has a program where my kidney could be exchanged with a stranger's kidney, where that stranger isn't compatible with his or her spouse; thus, my kidney goes there, and his or her kidney goes into Tamara.  It's very reassuring.

Barring that, however, which could suspend our plans, I am hoping to take a week to ten days rolling around a bit, when the snow stops falling and before the mosquitos way up north get big enough to carry off the car.  That's about, um, 60-70 days away.

If I could keep up this pace until then, I'd feel real good about taking a vacation.