Wednesday, May 31, 2023

The Non-episodic Dungeon

The last post addresses the narrative of a wholistic dungeon, in which the entire space is in play continuously ... and not just when the players open a particular door.  Rather than a series of set pieces, in which various monsters and scenes sit waiting to be discovered by the players, these same monsters move towards the players aggressively, as soon as the players enter their space. 

The more traditional form is passive, being laid out as a series of numbered rooms — we're all familiar with the format.  In structure, the dungeon is a series of "if/then" statements.  The players act and the dungeon reacts.  This may produce a spontaneous interplay, such as a kobald running off the warn other kobalds, who then arrive to turn out the interlopers — but these events are rarely spontaneous.  They're written into the dungeon's description ahead of time, so that "if" the players go here, "then" this happens.

For some years now, I've run my dungeons more loosely than this.  In effect, I've ceased to make a distinction between the interior of a dungeon and the outdoor wilderness.  In the wilderness, as the players travel, they either stumble into events or have events that stumble into them.  A group of wolves spontaneously surround the player's camp, regardless of what the players have done.  They crest a hill and see a large non-human encampment below, just a few hundred yards off.  There's no intention on the player's part ... they're thrown into the situation and forced to grapple with it.

Whereas a dungeon is usually in the form that when the players want to stop, they just can.  Each door and hall form a bubble that, if not popped, remains in perpetuity.  This lets the dungeon function episodically, with each room having its own character, disconnected from other rooms.  In the extreme, these rooms work like the Dungeon! game, created in 1975 by TSR and updated in later years.

I ran in this style for decades, even as I made my own games ... but over the last ten years I've moved progressively towards a battle-campaign style format, in which the characters move through waves of minions directed by a powerful being, who is fully aware of the players throughout.  This being might rush the players early, and then withdraw, or the players might succeed in an early kill.  I tend to avoid the motif of saving "the Big Bad" for the very end.  Rather, an attempt is made on my part to have the central being's perspective, then decide what it would do as the party's actions play out.

There might be pockets of innocent monsters, stuck off in corners of the dungeon — non-intelligent monsters that rush forward to feed, or intelligent monsters who can provide exposition about the Big Bad.  These latter may be too scared to help, or they might throw in with the party if they see that as an opportunity — and this too depends on what the party says, or what entreaties they make.

The flexibility of this format allows the introduction of new ideas from session to session, just as I might do with the wilderness if the players remained in a given valley over a long period of time.  Because the dungeon isn't a carefully fitted-together jigsaw, the removal of some obstacle might reveal an altogether different part of the subterranean milieu that wasn't there or even conceived of last week.  If the party finds cave-in, and takes time to dig through the rubble, they can expose a small hole that can be squeezed through ... and this unburies some other lair that's been divorced from the Big Bad and everything that's come before by perhaps 30 or more years.  It's a part of the tunnels the Big Bad didn't know about, because it's only been here for, say, a decade.

By having the flexibility to add such "side quests" from session to session, I'm freed from the process of building a whole dungeon, top-to-bottom, before I can start running.  I can start with a general idea — kobalds at the front door, a watery lair deep down, waves of amphibian and insect minions rushing the party as they descend — and then lay out the dungeon during the game itself, which I can do with a few minutes of graphic design on my computer.  As the players can see my desktop as I design the room (I used to do this on a whiteboard), they have something to think about and talk about while I'm designing.  Their attention is at a peak, wondering what the final image will be, and I'm not forced to draw rooms in the stale quiet of my room when players aren't there.  This works for both me and the party, as it builds tension and invests both me and the players in the design process.

I recognise this is, for many, simply "wrong."  For others, it seems impractical.  It works for me because I've had so much practice drawing wiggly lines on a computer program that I can do it very quickly ... but in truth I've always disliked the pre-planned dungeon layout, mostly because I'm never sure it's all going to get used, as my parties, freed from the expectation of necessarily finishing a dungeon, often don't.  Thus, I only need to make as many rooms as I'm actually going to use.

Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Dungeon Foolishness

When last we saw the players, they had been wrestling with their doubts about going back to the dungeon; and here we'll assume that yes, they go back.  As players almost always will.  This once again allows us to insert a little macro-narrative into the player's experience as they travel through the wilderness ... though I don't want to focus on that here, as we've discussed the matter already.  But as we'll come back round to the subject again, in the future, I'll keep this short.

Simply, as the party are heading back for the dungeon, we push the narrative of a future insurrection in the area just a little bit.  As the party travels, they see ahead of them a patrol of thirteen soldiers violently searching an enclosed wagon, or vardo, throwing things out on the road, where the litter of broken pots and furniture can be seen.  A family stands to the side, mother, father, two boys, with one of the boys holding an infant girl; three soldiers with spears pointed at their breasts stand ready.  The soldiers are laughing.  The soldiers are plainly wearing heraldry that give them official status, a point that has to be made clear to the players: get involved and risk crossing the law.  Whether the players intervene and are told to "push off" by the soldiers, or just continue, it should stick in their minds.  As DM, we want to stress the scene as uncommon.  If the players are so foolish as to actually fight the soldiers, be sure that the soldiers scatter if the players kill just three or four of them.  The concern of what might be waiting for the party if they get back should loom large in the players' heads.

Remember: the players have just established a good connection with the town.  They have the ear of a noble; someone they can turn to, someone they have a chance to impress by returning knowledge of the noble's father.  It would be damn stupid for the party to ruin all that for the sake of a few pots and bits of furniture, and the humiliation of one family.  Still, parties DO overreact in such situations.  It makes the game interesting.

With that on their minds, however the scene shapes up, the party gets back to the dungeon.  They return to the place where they suspended their investigations.  Because we need an example for this, let's suppose the players are standing before a large reinforced door that's been barred on this side, and furthermore spiked all around, to ensure the portal is effectively shut against whatever's below.

I've DMed for many years.  It's good to remember that players dwell in a modern technological environment, one in which most of them have never experienced any extensive time underground.  Moreover, they've not experienced a world where electric light is unavailable, or where silence might permeate so intensely as to thicken the air.  Living in a city, like me, there's always some kind of light; there's always some kind of noise.  A rural setting is both darker and quieter, but I've dwelt in such places from time to time and I can reassure the reader that even in a farmyard, there's nearly always some kind of light, as it's needed to locate the outdoor latrine.  It can be very, very quiet, but even in the woods it's possible to lay in one's tent and hear a stream babbling a quarter mile away.

Underground is absolutely devoid of both.  And this has repercussions beyond remembering to employ a torch.  Imagine the acoustic bell that a stone dungeon forms, when cavern walls are replaced with hand-made tunnels and shafts.  As the party deliberates how to get through the door before them, I promise, one thing they won't consider is how much noise it makes for whatever's on the other side.

In such a place, any abrupt noise sounds like a gunshot, even from a great distance.  It's possible that when deliberating on this side of the door, the party could be mistaken for the kobalds that formerly lived here, before the party slaughtered them.  But once that door is touched; once it's adjusted; anything with the slightest intelligence on the other side will know that something's changed; that someone up above is coming.

Yet, to this, the party is certain to be oblivious.  Without hesitation, they'll decide to bash through the door, pulling out sledges they've bought for the purpose ... and for two or three minutes they'll pound on the drum the door makes with abandon.  Imagine the effect.  A mile below, where the snaking tunnels from above meet, some evil entity feels the first blow as though it landed upon it's skin.  It lifts itself, listening, and there comes another blow, and another.  No, the pattern is clearly intelligent in origin.  It can't be mistaken.  Whatever creatures intrude above, they're clearly unafraid.  And foolish.  And so the entity beckons its army of minions — not to investigate, no, as the nature of the invader is made obvious by the sound it makes.  The minions are gathered in a goodly large number.  "Follow the sound," the order is given.  "Kill all you find."  And so tromp a mass of monsters up through the labyrinth, nearly mindless and bloodthirsty, more fearful of the evil entity than of death itself.

None of which the party knows a thing about, of course.  All they've done is knock in a door.  And once they can see past it into a wide, empty, silent cave, the party relaxes.  "Nothing here," they say to themselves, making a joke or two before trudging forward.  Not for a moment do they think anyone knows they're here.

Tuesday, May 23, 2023

Why is Alexis Leaving D&D?

As of now, although I'm not officially announcing that I'm leaving Dungeons & Dragons, I'm open to exploring new ways to tell stories and new systems.

There are a few reasons I'm interested in moving away from D&D.  Firstly, D&D can be a complex system, which poses challenges for new players.  Secondly, as D&D is owned by Wizards of the Coast, I've decided I may want to maintain my creative freedom without being tied to a specific publisher.  Thirdly, as I've already devised many parts of my own game system, I have a desire to focus on that moving forward.

While yes, as D&D remains the most popular tabletop roleplaying game globally, I might choose to continue using D&D to reach a broad audience and leverage the game's popularity.

This non-announcement is in no way intended to drum up meaningless controversy in the hopes of my getting more attention, or telling people more about my game world or my dependence on fan support, in the face of my growing irrelevancy as a commercial venture.

Saturday, May 20, 2023

Return to Form

I've written less posts this year, but I've written a lot.  Quite a few of the posts these last few months have been the length of two or three posts all at once.  In general, I've felt more restored as a person than in many years past; more creative; and more conscious of the good of that creativity.

I apologise for the last post.  Social conditions build up in me over time and need an outlet, and ViP's comment set the light.  That's going to happen from time to time.  It's better than a blog where the writer doesn't post often.

My D&D running was last night.  Previously, one of my players had sketched out an idea for his character's monastery, which I'd said didn't need to be especially details, so long as he provided the basic shape.  This is his sketch on the right.

This is good enough.  I encourage players to dream big, to give shape to something they'd really like to have in a property.  It's an opportunity to express oneself in the manner that the Sims made easily possible.  Your character has reached a certain level, they have a considerable pile of money and they're nearing name level.  In this case, the monk is close to getting his pile of lesser monk followers, so naturally he wants a place to put them.

The space doesn't need much detail.  I've been building up a visual library of objects, spaces and textures for years, so I can steal from other buildings — from the player, all I need is for them to commit to the idea itself.  It's awful to ask a DM to "just make me a castle;" there's nothing expressive in that.  A player needs to step out of his or her comfort zone, taking their first steps into something new.  If they contribute to the design of the space, they're more likely to grow attached to it; to perceive themselves adding to the basic model over a period of years.  I've had players arrive at my game announcing they've found the perfect curtains for the castle's throne room — and yes, I'm talking about a cis male character here.  As immersion goes, these things are important.

I spent an hour on the above, scanning the image and putting it on my desktop.  As I said, all I really need to do is pirate pre-existing features; and I don't want to get too details either, because my sketch is going to be reworked by the player in turn, as he realises he was thinking too small, and what else he might want to add to the general plan. 

He saw what I added, and we discussed some changes, moving buildings around ... and he's going to do more designing, as there ended up being no room for the main house.  The stable and smithy shown are the minimum size for these buildings, much bigger than the player's original sketch.  Here's the version we ended with last night; first, with his sketch in the background.

Then without his sketch:

Remember ... every time you draw one door on a computer, you're drawing an infinite number of doors.  Or beds.  Or walls.  Or full-sized rooms.  It's extraordinarily convenient.  And with very little work, it makes a strong impression on the player, while at some future time down the road a reworked version of the above becomes the site of a battle or a raid.

If the last post was anti-D&D, this is as D&D as it gets.

Wednesday, May 17, 2023

The Terrible, Awful, Bad Internet

Apologies as I hijack this blog for a post not about D&D.  The below does not fit into the series I'm writing.  It addresses a mutually good-spirited conversation between ViP and myself that begins on the last post and ends up here, so I can stretch out.  You'll need the previous post for context.  Feel free to 
comment below if you have something meaningful to add.

Here are the points I'm addressing:

  1. Humans need group dynamics.
  2. Once upon a time, people had to deal with disparate opinions; they were not able to live in a bubble. The "social reality" of time and place.
  3. The widespread validation of thought, obsession, what have you, is self-harming and — going out on a limb — harmful to others ... and the internet empowers this.
  4. The physical instrument of the internet, and the device that connects to it, encourages dark impulses.

Please understand ViP; none of this is directed at you, but at various points you make, that I hear all the time, especially from folks like Jonathan Haidt. I'm extremely not right wing; if anything, I'm left of Haidt; but every once in awhile, to support some point he's made — and this is common throughout the species — some notion is dredged up from the past that qualifies as make-believe.  Contrary to what some believe, it's possible to disagree with someone's premises while completely agreeing with someone's conclusions.  That is my position on Haidt, and generally on the points being addressed here.

Furthermore, I had to paraphrase your statement first, because it's SO easy to be called out on misunderstanding something. So let me make something else clear: I don't think any of your arguments are strawmen, or specious. I've heard every one of these in the last 15 years, so I understand where you're getting them from and why they appear to explain what's happening.

1. Do humans need other humans?  Yes, 100% agree.  Only it must be understood that biologically, psychologically, anthropologically, I need about 30 to 40 humans who think and act exactly like I do ... and that's all I'll ever "need" for the rest of my life.  This is the size of group in which human and pre-sapiens species lived in for millions of years; this is what my brain patterns are designed to recognise; and this is what I actually need to be happy.

I hear this saw dragged out all the time by psychologists who want to short cut through the actual reason we need other humans — to ensure our immediate safety, help find food, keep each other clean, do for each other in times of crisis, etcetera, as FAMILY — straight to an argument that says I should put down my phone and step away from my computer, so that I can step out into the local environment and buy a coffee from a fucking stranger who doesn't give a good gawddamn if I live or die.  I need my partner, my daughter, my friends, the people I have carefully vetted these last thirty years.  If these are not the people at the nearby park, then no, I have no reason to go to the park.  At no time in history or prehistory have human beings obtained a "recalibration" from strangers.  Right from the get-go, strangers are competitors for our food and territory, and are a THREAT.  My lizard brain is built to automatically identify them as such, and warily discount them as persons not of my tribe.

Any notion that strangers exist to "remind me of how other people think and feel" is something barely a century old, and for all of that century has absolutely been ignored as an ideology.

Again, please understand.  I only disparage the argument being made ... that we "need" other people.  No, no in fact we really don't.  And that is the bloody problem.  The tribalism we see is an outpouring of small groups of people acting according to their biological dictates in the highest extreme.  They're sheltering with "their own kind" comfortably because their own kind are the only people they can trust.  If we are going to make this argument, please, let's not argue "communality" for anything other that what it actually is: a dangerous social behaviour that encourages groups of the same mindset to act violently when their den is threatened.

As such, let's ditch this ridiculous notion that the internet invented this behaviour!  The behaviour of violently striking out at humans not of my family and immediate association has been around for literally (using the term accurated) millions of years.  What the internet does is enable these fuckers to speak to the whole world at the same time, and by chance hit upon some other similar group of fuckers to find them, so that something that could never have happened a million years ago can happen now.  We can actually pile up a random tribe of 20,000 like-minded people because we've invented a way for them to find each other and communicate.  Therefore we ought to be very, VERY careful about encouraging potentially psychotic loners to emerge from their bedrooms into the real world, as we don't know what sort they are.

2. Did we ever have to deal with disparate opinions?  No.  Not really.  Maybe it's because I came of age in an upper-middle class suburb in the late 1970s, and this gives me a different perspective on what a "bubble" is ... I don't know.  The reader is free to identify my take on this as a part of my background.

I hear pundits argue all the time, even on the mainstream news, that the internet has made it possible for everyone to choose the media they want to consume, so that today they all live in a bubble where they never have to hear anything they don't want to hear.

This is completely garbage.  If it were true, the present siege mentality wouldn't exist.  But it does exist — because we simply can't isolate ourselves from things we don't believe.  No matter how hard we try.

Examples are a weak argument, but I'm forced to try a few.  For each of these, I'll compare the world of 1955 with the present day, despite my having been born in 1964.  Therefore, I'll have to rely on my Father's personal life, coupled with everything I was told as a youngster was the "way the world worked."

In 1955, owning a gun wasn't seen as a dividing social matter.  People didn't like them, but they existed as a normal, common, everyday thing.  Shooting clubs — my father was part of one until I was 18 — were responsible, public organisations that operated according to what every member believed: guns were dangerous, using a gun had a place, common discussion of guns in social gatherings was unacceptable, if you owned a gun, it was a personal responsibility you undertook.  Those who behaved irresponsibly were ostracised.  Criminals had guns, but no one hesitated to shoot a criminal with a gun in 1955.  Cops were not held accountable for doing so.

Okay, okay, save your opinion a moment.  I'm not arguing this should be the case, or even that it was the universal case.  It's what I witnessed personally as I grew up; and later, when I used to hunt with my father, between the age of 16 and 25, when I gave it up, talking about guns was something that happened all day, especially as we met other hunters, Canadian mounted police, fish and wildlife inspectors on many occasions, in what may be fairly describes as an Mayberry R.F.D. sort of culture.

Second example ... in case the above doesn't sink it.  In 1955, no one way gay.  Of course they were; of course all the choices and motivations that exist today existed then, but as far as the culture went, no, no one was gay.  Homosexuality didn't exist on the media, it wasn't discussed, in the world I grew up it did not appear in books, it was not mentioned in school classrooms and so on.  The only place the matter of homosexuality obtained attention was that every boy constantly accused every other boy of being gay, as a joke, as a vindictive way to hurt, as a means to prove that one was not gay.  By accusing others, one vouchsafed one's own innocence.  The more violently one attacks a potentially gay other, the more assertively one can argue that "I am not gay."

Oh, and the word used wasn't "gay."  It was faggot.

I apologise if that term is offensive.  Once upon a time, I heard it aimed at me hourly ... and what was hard to accept later, as I emerged into my twenties, was that every boy did.  That's not how it seemed at the time; however, by sharing notes with the grown-up versions of childhood enemies, we learned things.

THESE are bubbles.  These are bubbles on a scale incomprehensible in the present day.  I find it strange that the same evils that we fight every day, those into which the mid-20th century invested themselves, all began as social cultures without disparate opinions, of any kind.  There are thousands of books written in the period specifically addressing the lack of society's disparate opinions, yet here and now I regularly encounter university professors and perfectly intelligent people talk about today's "bubbles" as something new and unique brought on by the internet.

Take my favourite: the argument is nearly always applied to those who choose to watch Fox News, as evidence of their unwillingness to consider alternate new sources.  In 1955, there were NO alternate news sources.  Even mentioning an alternative point of view was a jailable offense in many, many cases.  Mention it too hard and you might find yourself shot down in the street.  No matter what colour you were.

People once upon a time weren't forced to deal with a disparate bunch of random people.  Random people were forced NOT to be disparate.  And if you were, gawd help you.  That's what "normality" was.

ViP, you say that once upon a time, "we all had to define ourselves in relation with the actual social reality of our time and place."  This is nostalgic and, I'm sorry, also nonsense.  Thank the internet, and every other media advance that's been made in the last 40 years, that we DON'T have to define ourselves by what other people think.

3. Is the widespread validation of thought and obsession self-harming?  This relates to this video that began these thoughts.  I have to be careful here.  It's so easy to be misunderstood as a monster — which I am, but if the reader thinks so too certainly, you'll stop reading and miss the point.

Present society is founded on the belief that all persons are inherently valuable to the same degree.  The premise began to be incrementally advanced in western culture as early as the 12th century, and found traction progressively with books like Thomas More's Utopia and political units such as that of Switzerland, parts of Italy, certain religious groups and the Netherlands.  Americans like to claim the title, but the reason Jefferson uses the phrase, "by their Creator with certain unalienable rights," is because in his day, he wasn't inventing this idea, he was expressing an idea that already predated him by a few centuries.

It has to be understood, however, that equal inherent value is a philosophy, not an evidentiary fact.  We choose to view it as a fact, because to do otherwise would be, as I say, monstrous ... but nonetheless in discussing anything about human nature and character, we're forced to view ourselves intelligently and plainly, and not as a matter of religious faith.  If your particular take on equality makes it impossible for you to distinguish between something we WANT and something we HAVE, then I suggest you stop reading right now.  You won't like where this is going.

As a matter of society, we are faced with two salient realities.  The first, and most obvious, as it's here on the internet everyday as the mainstream media's raison d'etre, is that many, many people simply refuse to accept inherent value as a philosophy.  I shouldn't have to recount the details here.  Twitter is doing a fine job of proving the point.

The second, and without a doubt the less comfortable, as no one ever addresses it, is that for most of history any single human being, whose name or work we do not know, has been, unpleasantly and for the most part, irrelevant.  I won't say entirely irrelevant.  As an example, there must have been several persons in the 12th century, say, who raised persons whose descendents survived well enough to eventually beget my family and, of course, me.  I can make the same argument about a group of humans living 150,000 years ago.  And two million years ago.  I can even make the argument that some group of precursor primate 60 million years ago accomplished their survival well enough for me to be born.

In short, since this was done often enough to produce all of us today, on the scale of "relevant," it has a number, but that number is very, very, very low.

Beyond this, I know nothing about my ancestors in the 12th century.  I know even less about the others.  On the whole, whether they were bastards, or good people, or kept themselves clean, or burned witches, or acted as whatever counts for the worst behaviour by our standards, doesn't mean a good gawddamn, since none of those things has anything to do with my thinking today.

You, dear reader, may be ready to endure this line of thinking, but it requires one more step.

Nine centuries from now, most everything that's going on right now will have next to no relevance to the people living then.

I make this argument because as a culture, we tend to give monumental IMPORTANCE to every facet of every human being's life, and there's just no logic in that.  In the linked video above, the first six words are, "He'll do great things, that boy."  The implication being that "doing great things" matters on some level ... and as the story continues, we find the boy progressively choosing a path not to do great things.  And we're left with the moral at the end, paraphrased, "Well he could have done great things, if only he'd applied himself."

The premise, right from the outset, throws the human being's inherent value into the trash.  The message is, you're only inherently valuable if you do great things; and if you don't do great things, you're self-harming.  If you let yourself behave experientially, you'll never reach your potential — which, of course, is not defined by you, but by the other members of your village.  What ought to matter to you is that which matters to the people of the town, to the girls, to whomever, who have decided that anything that doesn't live up to their expectation, is self-harm.

Not to put too light a buff on this shine, but this is the toxic bullshit that powered the world of 1955, described above.

If I'm equal as a person to anyone else, then what I choose to do with my time is my fucking business.  If I want to spend that time writing a 4,000 word essay on internet culture, that's my choice.  If I don't, I'm the only judge of that behaviour that I need consider.  None of us here are self-harming by choosing to do something which some tiny segment of society thinks we ought to give a royal shit about.

But ...

We're hyper-aware of the whirlpool sucking a selection of human beings, especially young human beings, into a culture of cutting, suicide, excessive celebrations of violence and the encouragement of causing harm to others.  Psychologically, the path between harming oneself and harming others is very clear.  And so, the mandate for addressing self-harming behaviour is arguably critical as a means of circumventing the darker influences of internet culture.  Earlier I mentioned twitter.  All of us here should be very concerned about the substantially diseased corners of the internet ... and we should be concerned about people, especially young people, finding those corners.   As Dan Olson of Folding Ideas put it on a recent podcast, the internet has industrialised grift.  And young people are not mature enough to understand how a grift works.  Hell, many adults aren't either.

But if we're going to name a culprit here, it's "free speech," not the internet.  Most of those "dark corners" of the internet could have been legislated out of existence 20 years ago, and should have been.  Most of the grifters should have been identified and isolated years ago.  Facebook, Twitter and TikTok have no business being the unregulated grift merchants we've allowed them to be.  Any argument that says, "for the good of an individual, we must encourage them not to self-harm on the internet," has to include an element that says, "Emotional abuse on the internet cannot be allowed to exist."

The problem is not the internet itself.  Radio was regulated.  Television was regulated.  Both were regulated in a manner for decades that held fast to that vicious bubble of 1955 (or any like year that applies).

The internet blew that bubble all to shit.  It gave a voice to millions of people whose existence was ignored and persecuted, and that was a good thing.  Unfortunately, the force of that liberation was applied indescriminately to everything and every person, regardless of their agenda.  And so here we are.  You can have one without the other; but you can't raise freedom of expression if you're not willing to legislate against freedom of persecution, cruelty, grift and hate.

It doesn't work.  Either you crush the personal freedoms pre-internet, pre-cable television, pre-free radio, video recording and every other media advancement post-1955, or you crush the personal freedom of every person today who wants to use the internet to spread lies and social corruption.

Until that's sorted, however, my personal contact with the internet — and that of my anthropological clan — is a matter of my personal responsibility.  But I'll leave how that works for another post, on another day.

I contend that the linked video about the failed young man does nothing to discourage self-harm.  It's not nearly as sophisticated as arguments and techniques being used against it (which, point in fact, even a frank discussion of which must be placed behind a content warning).  We have no hope of educating, or changing the direction of vulnerable persons if we can't even steal ourselves to discuss the subject!  The dark side is much, much better at validating the thoughts of such persons because that's all it cares about.  It couldn't give a damn about making anyone feel valuable or ambitious.  Whereas the so-called positive forces are apparently more interested in making fairy tale stories where young boys grow up to be "great" ... which is exactly the sort of pressure that sends them into the open arms of the dark web, which assigns zero expectation.

I'd agree, yes, validation of thought and obsession is harmful ... but not because the internet as a force supplies these things.  The internet is a tool.  If you use a hammer to bash my brains in, that's not an inherent problem with the hammer.  The internet could just as easily be the tool that rescues such people ... but it won't so long as grift exists, on both the left and the right.  As I see it, every faction, regardless of their agenda, or their self-assessment, is more interested in bucks and support than they are in making any difference in the world.  This is what free speech gets us.

4.  Does the internet encourage dark impulses?  Of course it does.  It also encourages good impulses.  It encourages every kind of impulse.  But it really depends on what you consider a "dark" impulse as compared to another.  I've no doubt that I pursue many so-called dark impulses on the net.  There are things I can read today that I couldn't have 20 years ago; there are experiences I can have here that I couldn't have.

Right now, I work as one of 40 persons for an international corporation whose head office is not in my country.  I've met two of my bosses, once.  I sometimes talk with other people who do what I do; they're located in different countries, with different language skills.  None of us will ever meet in person, I expect.  I've made a very good living from this company.  Hell, they sent me on their dime, for free, to Montreal for a week.  I can't say anything definitive about the company, ever, for the rest of my life, but I don't care.

So I'm quite at odds about anyone describing the "internet," as opposed to a percentage of people on it, as a bad thing.  One might just as well say the PLANET is a bad thing.  And guess what — living on the planet Earth encourages dark impulses.  Much, much worse impulses than can be found on the darkest corner of the internet.  Don't go to Burma, Zaire or Equatorial Guinea, ever.  Just don't.  On a lesser scale, I can also point out alleyways in Calgary that you don't want to walk down.  Seriously.  Those are places you just don't go.

It's a big bad scary world.  Stop blaming the internet.  The only thing the internet has done is to make more people aware of it.  Which is also scary.

It's so much easier to pretend something doesn't exist if there aren't webpages for it.

Sunday, May 14, 2023

Playing Pretend

 The greatest weakness of Dungeons and Dragons, and of all role-playing games, is that they're seen as "playing pretend."  This disparages the game in the eyes of every individual whose heard of the game and never played it, and in the eyes of thousands who have played it and come away with a feeling that they'd rather do something more "grown up."

It is fun to play pretend, even for adults.  It's fun to dress up and act all heroic, waving a pretend sword around or even a plastic copy, while crying out in a pretend voice that we're storming a pretend fortress.  Yet given the simplicity of such pretensions — their lack of mature themes, the presense of fairy tale races and monsters, the wavering voices of those who speak glowingly of "returning to their childhood" or "holding onto their youth" — D&D and other like properties appear infantile and silly.

Some voices push by with arguments that redefine the activity with key phrases like "problem solving" and "resource management."  Some extremely foolish people have even connected D&D with "artistic expression" and other such tripe.  And while admittedly these aspects bear some importance to the game, they hardly raise the legitimacy of the activity.  It's still make-believe when the problems are pretend problems and the resources are pretend resources.  Artistic it may be, but so is children's theatre.  Child-based programs must embrace "education" to give themselves legitimacy.  We may think, for a moment, that D&D could have a piece of that pie, but there are very few out there who want to put D&D play into our schools.

Does it matter if this validity exists?  By far, most in the hobby — an appellation I disdain — do not care.  They wear their silliness and pretense on their sleeves, stiffening their lips sullenly should anyone suggest childish pursuits are something of which an adult should be ashamed ... which, on the grounds that adults are free to do as they like, is well enough.  Nonetheless, the puerile chip on the collective shoulders on the hobbyists cripples the game in two important ways.  First, it's come to mean that no outsider takes the game seriously, or should.  And second, the attitude arrests any forward movement in the activity's evolution.  Institutional infantilism denies the possibility of the game ever growing up.

What is it that makes the game, for some of us, really thrum?  I think we get past the races and the monsters, and past the heroism, and past the pretense that we're accomplishing something great when we foil an imaginative enemy.  These things remain relevant as trappings go, but are they really what digs down into the soul and revs our engines?  I don't think so.  The trappings of any activity, at their core, are pertinent only as conduits to a more satisfying return on our investment of time and thought.

As ever, I turn to baseball because it's universal and it remains something that people do respect as an activity.  What is this "core" I speak of?  Is it hitting a ball with the bat?  Is it catching a ball?  Is it throwing a strike?  No, of course not.  These are the trappings.  It's the arrangement of these trappings; the dramatic process of the ball being thrown, hit, recovered, thrown, with the challenge at the base or plate.  It's the uncertainly of multiple humans performing skilled activities according to their limitations that lifts the simple trappings into something higher.  It's not that I hit a ball, it's that I do it against another trying to stop me from hitting that ball.  Hitting the ball is incidental ... it's hitting a ball that you throw against me that matters.  Beating you.  And then having to beat the fielder who recovers the ball and throws it to first base, where another person waits to beat me.  It's a rapid series of contests, happening seconds apart, that excites the emotions ... not only of the players, but even of the spectators, who can identify with the raw passion taking place.

Where is that passion in D&D?

In the last post of this DMing series, I noted that in my game, when the players are truly uncertain about what to do next, the debate doesn't arise between factions, picking one side or the other, but within the players themselves.  Our fictional player Mick wants to go to the dungeon, but then again he's hesitant to go.  Thus he wrestles with his own conscience — not because he feels anxiety, but because he senses a need within himself to have courage ... which he is surprised to find he doesn't have automatically.

This is very different from the D&D player who pretentiously declares in a heroic voice, "We'll return your father to you, good sire!  For we are stalwart and true, and unafraid of death!"

That's not a brave player.  That's a player who has nothing to lose ... because the character, the game, the dungeon, the result and everything else they're playing is just make-believe.  Whatever happens doesn't mean a good gawd-damn because to that person, the game has no real consequence.  Like a child on a school yard, pretending to be Darth Vader dying at the thrust of Luke's sword, death doesn't mean anything.  He or she can just roll up another character.

From any self-conscious point of view, this is awful.  It's a mockery.  And any participant in D&D that embraces this style of play shouldn't be respected — not by people in or outside the game.  From their perspective, of course the rules are meaningless.  Of course they have no reason to concern themselves with feeling anything, except the sham of pretending they're brave when in fact they're so cowardly that the tiniest constraint on their make-believe spirals them into a temper-tantrum.  They don't take the game seriously because they can't; they haven't the wherewithal, the maturity, the emotional capacity, to take anything "seriously."  That's why they've drifted into the game as a fantasy in the first place.

They need the game to be a fantasy like they need air.

Mick, above, doesn't want to lose another character.  He's lost four already, vis-à-vis the last post, and he's concious of how it will look if he tanks again.  Already the other players around the table are ribbing him, like they would if he were a left fielder who'd dropped four fly-balls.  He knows the others are beginning to doubt his ability to play.  He's conscious that he has to do better, especially as he realises the DM is getting tired of his lack of skill and commitment.  The combination of these factors adds up.  It puts pressure on Mick to change his behaviour, if he wants to continue participating in this activity, with these people.

Mick's problem is self-respect.  He has some.  He wants to measure up to what he thinks he should be capable of doing: in this case, playing well enough that his character survives.

In the alternate example above, our hero-fanatic has retreated into nihilism.  Survival doesn't matter; and if the argument is made that it should matter, or that our hero's commitment might be judged at all — by, say, holding him or her accountable for actions taken — then we can expect pouting, huffiness, outbursts and an inevitable hissy-fit, complete with arguments like, "I'm allowed to do whatever I want!" ... the argument a child makes.

There's no point in trying to manage or educate, or appeal to persons of this sort.  They've already started down a path that they're not going to come back from any time soon, so it's best to quietly inform them that they need to do what they want somewhere else.

The intrinsic value of D&D and RPGs is that, as games, they allow us to explore emotions we wouldn't normally contend with: fear, loss, self-doubt, social responsibility, competence, self-sacrifice and so on.  These are respectable emotions.  These are ideals that children ought to experience and come to grips with.  Not only do they provide young people with the opportunity to deal with adult themes and ideals, they allow adults to immerse themselves into those things that are so easily lost in the day-to-day compromises that we must do if we want to pay the bills and keep our families together.  Nothing in this world is so "adult" as compromise ... the ability to place everything we deal with on a scale of importance, with games and childish behaviour at the bottom and competence and self-respect at the top.  Everything else has to be flexible, if we're to survive and do well.

So if a game comes to take up a lot of our time, it better have elements of those things we view as important in it — or else we're wasting our time.  Mick's conundrum of trying to find the courage to go back to the dungeon is a thinking process that serves him in real world situations ... because it's the same.  The courage to head back to the dungeon is the same sort he needs to step up to his manager and ask for a raise; or step up to the neighbour and ask to have that tree's branches pruned back.  It's facing the business at hand ... and it's ALSO facing the consequences.

D&D is not "playing pretend."  It's weakness is that it's seen that way, because so many people flock to the game as an escape, and not for what the game has the potential to offer.  As a DM, we have to decide which kind of game we're playing.  Yes, the players can have another character when theirs dies.  But we need to ask ourselves: does that automatically come without strings?  Are we, the other players around the table, expected to wipe our memories of the old character, and how it died, also?  And are you, the player, absolved from learning anything about what you've done wrong, or absolved from having to accept responsibility for your previous actions, just because you're getting a new character?

No.  No you're not.

Saturday, May 13, 2023

Deadly but Fair

Forgive me if I cover old ground with this post, but I wish the point to be included in contest with this series' last post.  If you're a new reader, I suggest picking up this post.

Assuming we've done everything right — as I define it — the characters have every reason not to head back to the dungeon, as it's full of very bad demons and whatever's there has already taken down a full-on noble lord.  Personally, I'd make sure the party knew it meant, yes, a 9th level.

... except that the party, probably, wants to go back.  It's not sensible, but nevertheless it's predictable.  They've already collected a nice surface treasure.  They'll be sure that there must be a sub-surface treasure, and that means more.  And if they go back, let me add, we won't disappoint them.

In the best cases, these conflicting agendas puts the party on a knife edge, with some players being cautious and some not.  If none of your players are cautious, then clearly as a DM, generally, you're not:  a) hurting them enough; and b) humiliating them enough.

Sorry, but I've never had that strange phenomenon of players who have so little regard for their characters that they'll cast one after another into the cauldron of death without restraint.  Perhaps it's because I insist on the character being rolled in great detail, while the table watches.  On that score, I've been reassured by my players many times that they adore the character rolling process, because it involves random generation on a scale large enough that they're fascinated to see what results turn up.  This is how they explain it.  My generation system used to take much less time; but even at the very start of my career, I insisted that rolling a character meant a total stoppage of the game.  When I was but 15, playing with adults over 30, that's how they did it.  No one EVER drew back from the table and rolled their character in private, while the game went on.  Personally, perhaps because I'd been sheltered, or because I read the Dragon Magazine casually, I'd never heard of such a thing until seeing it in The Gamers.  And later, when I discovered that was normal ... let's just say it's rant fuel for me.

Putting the character-generation process centre stage, or in the centre ring if you prefer a circus analogy, makes rolling a memorable, group experience — one that's going to draw ribbing and a reputation if it's something our player does a lot.  Especially in my game.  Once Mick has rolled his fourth character in five runnings, sacrificing each stupidly one after another, he'll suffer a little, shall we say, social medicine in the bargain.  First off, his mistakes and failures are going to get picked apart by others — and for quite a while, at least as three times as many runnings as he's lost characters.  This is something I'm not going to discourage, because in social activities, shame works.  Usually.  If it doesn't then I'll wait until the next time Mick chooses to do something stupid and I'll stop the game myself, and ask a difficult question:  "Mick, why do you want to play D&D?"

See, I'm not of the opinion — as many are, who seem to boast about the slaughterfest going on in their campaigns — that people die in D&D because the rule set is harsh.  Not to disparage, but because it's a good example of someone clearly wrestling with the problem, JB brings up this element a lot.  As an adult in 1984, mass character murder was clearly being pushed, and pushed HARD, by the publishing wing of TSR.  This may have been a lack of creative juice or because for them the game consisted mostly of one-off events (given their schedules and the need for public appearances).  It may be that the many of the group were frustrated sadists — I have no better explanation for Tomb of Horrors — who were using D&D as a way to get their metaphorical buzz.

In any case, I played under multiple DMs between 1979 and 1986, and total party kills were NOT emblematic of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons in any degree.  JB, and others, seem to feel it's an inherent quality of the game system:

"... mainly it's just that 1E isn't a cakewalk game to play. Characters die...and with SMALL parties (less than six or seven characters), any single loss can lead to cascade failure and disaster."

I honestly don't see it.  I don't know what JB is doing, or how he interprets the rules, but in four decades of running my own game, I've had maybe three TPKs, period.  90% of the time, it doesn't come remotely close, as I won't even have a single character die.  And this includes the 15 year period before I used negative hit points, and the 25 year period before I added a few more hit points to my characters due to body mass.

Now, as I pointed out with the kobald lair, the plethora of enemy hit points and attacks given in most game modules is simply moronic.  And that no doubt accounts for the party death ratio that many experience.  I ran KotB back in 1981, when I still hadn't cracked the code for how to make a game setting.  It took the party a long time to kill everything, but at no time did the whole party ever die at one time.  There were casualties; the end party that finished off the last room brings to mind the Ship of Theseus.  But the whole party didn't die because, again and again, they approached, fought the enemy, didn't let themselves get stupidly trapped behind the lines so that they could withdraw before it was too late.  They played CAREFULLY.  They measured their steps.  They went at the mobs with boiling oil and traps of their own and didn't mind that the whole adventure took six months to play.  We had six months.  We were still in high school.

Sorry to go all this way around a barn, but this is the only way I can make a point about players not assuming that just because there's a dungeon in my game world, it's easy to take on.  And that's been my experience with most players.  In both the Senex and the Juvenis campaigns I ran online, the players approached the world with the mindset that yes, it was dangerous.  They'd read me, they took me at my word ... and they did not have a TPK.  I don't know what other evidence I can give.  Both off and online, that's the result from the campaigns I run.  Getting a high level party is inevitable, though admittedly it that takes seven or eight years of gaming.

Getting back to it then.  Hopefully, the party IS on a knife edge.  And that sets them to deliberating the matter of going back, with this new information in hand.  In my experience, most of the time, the party doesn't split up and take sides.  Wisely, everyone wants to hold off.  Bravely, everyone wants to go forward.  The battle is inside themselves, not between one another.  Each player has their concern; and each player is there to discuss how their take on the matter might alleviate another player's concern.  And as the concerns are put forward, one by one, they're discussed.  Plans are made.  Ideas are trotted out for things that need to be purchased, to implement strategies.  Not magic potions or scrolls, but oil, holy water, more twine to make traps and snares, caltrops, iron spikes, poles, enough beets ...

[Beets?  I pointed out to a party, and maybe on this blog, some years ago that when encountering a long, dark hallway, the best thing to throw forward into the darkness is a round, firm, goodly-ripened beet.  It bounces, goes around corners, draws attention of whatever might be down there — so we can fight it here as it comes on and not down there — and what's more, leaves a series of bright red spots as it skips left and right, on dirt as well as stone.  If nothing else, its a trail we can use to find our way out, once we've gone in]

These are conversations I enjoy a lot as a dungeon master.  I can sit back, let the party chew the fat between them for as long as it takes — now and then, the entire rest of the running, if I've really got them going — and enjoy the fact that I'm a spectator.  My view of DMing is that it takes a lot of time and energy; that I'm responsible for making the game interesting for five or six hours at a time.  If 90 minutes of that is spent with the party in a state of moderate consternation about making the right decision, that's a load off my responsibility.

In no way is the party "bored."  On the contrary, agitation has a marvelous way of denying boredom.  Nor do I urge them to "make a decision" so we can "get going."  That's pretty stupid.  Not to mention selfish.  After, it's not my character deciding if it wants to put it's head on the block.

On the other hand, if a TPK so rarely happens in my game, why are the players worried at all?

Well, they've all watched a new player, sometimes an "experienced" one and some time a noob, who simply ignored this whole "Let's be careful and not die" agenda.  Result?  They die.  Pretty quickly, too.  Case in point, the Juvenis campaign when they first entered the dungeon with the fire beetles, and three out of five characters died in 10 rounds.  Not ALL of them, though ... because they had a way out and two survived.  After that object lesson, the players all got a lot more careful, all at once.

If the game rules are applied consistently and fairly, and the numbers of enemy are not too great, and a way is possible to get in and out again without the DM arbitrarily trapping the players in a dungeon, in a way that the players have little or no control over, such as a random die roll ... then a group of intelligent, cautious, innovative players can survive any situation, even ones where they're punching way above their weight.  It means not touching anything just to see what happens.  It means staying close and tight and ready to protect one another if a combat occurs.  It means doing your due diligence with reconnaissance.  It means admitting that yeah, it's time to go.  It means accepting that a dangerous situation CAN'T be overcome by clever role-playing, any more than the Viet Minh might have been.  Because the non-intelligent creatures down there are hungry and voracious; and the intelligent creatures down there really, really, really, really HATE surface people.  They've met too many surface people.

If a DM and party can get these things straight, and a few others besides, they can survive.  And it does not matter a fuck what the AD&D rules say, or how few hit points they have.  Don't squander hit points and you'll have plenty.

Tuesday, May 9, 2023

Strange Work

Pardon while I take a break from the series of posts — I have another in mind, not to worry.  Life's been a trial of late.  I had that two-week vocational crisis, and just as I started to come down from that, my partner Tamara broke her humerus; she's been laid up this week.  We intended to leave on vacation this Saturday, four days hence, but now that's put off until late July as she recovers.  This is not the summer we had planned.

It's just as well, as we were going to drive north of Edmonton and swing through Slave Lake Alberta before heading west.  I've never been that far north and we were ready to explore ... but just now, Slave Lake has been preparing for wide scale evacuations due to fires that are raging through the same forests we intended to drive through.  If we were going, it wouldn't be that way.  Seems the trip was doomed from the start.

To relax, I've undertaken a strange, Alexis-like project.  Starting with the first book of my 1952 Colliers encyclopedia, which I've had since 1986 and upon which much of my trade system is based, I've begun copying out entries ... starting with Aa on page 1, Aachen, Aarau, Abaco and so on.  I finished Adige today, on page 93.  12,000 pages to go.

So ... why, exactly?  At first, I wasn't sure.  I've been keeping an encyclopedia in the bathroom for those times that most people keep other reading material for, and on April 17th — while reading through the history of Pennsylvania, it occurred to me that some of that would fit well into my wiki format.  In the sense that, with the timeline of my Earth-like world existing in the world 1650, I could throw out any reference in the encyclopedia's details that took place after that.  In essence, create a 1650 edition of an encyclopedia.

At first, this seemed like something of a lark.  But once I started to get into the process, I couldn't help noticing the value of knowing what parts of the world did look like in that year.  For example, Abaco in the Caribbean, linked above.  By 1520, just 28 years after the arrival of Columbus in the west, Spaniards did slaughter or enslave every native on these islands.  I didn't know that.  More importantly, I wouldn't have known that if I hadn't started this funny little project.

Just prior, I'd put together the page of Aarau, link above, where my 1952 encyclopedia had the following description: "Nearby are the ruins of the Hapsburg, the original castle of the counts of Hapsburg ..."  But the encyclopedia didn't say when the castle was destroyed.  So I checked it out on the internet and learned the answer (it appears on the linked page).  The question being, was the castle destroyed before, or after, my world takes place?

This particular theme has been fascinating throughout this project.  The best revelation so far on these lines has come out of the Acropolis.  Some here may be familiar with story of the Parthenon — that was built with a roof, and that it housed a 40-foot statue of Athena, fashioned out of wood, ivory and gold ... and that the Parthenon fell to ruin at some point, being more than 2,000 years old.  For myself, I couldn't say definitely when the statue and the Parthenon's roof fell in.  As it happens, the year was 1656.  It was blown up.  6 years after my game world takes place.  Which means that in my game's time, the statue is still there.  No, I know the game is all imagination, but damn.  There's something about that which I find pretty awesome.

Sometimes I look up a building and it is gone by 1650, and sometimes not.  And sometimes I find an odd detail about a writer who wrote epic poetry in the 13th century that wasn't printed until the 19th.  Meaning that the works exist, just not in published form.  I'd never stumbled across that particular oddness.  Perhaps I'd read it, but it never sank in.  Not until now, as I tailor each encyclopedia entry for the year 1650.

Another aspect is that I can change history in neat little ways because it's my account on my wiki, and not the account on Wikipedia.  Of course much more information can be found on wikipedia; I'm not copying everything.  But like the encyclopedia, Wikipedia is designed for the modern reader.  I'm trying to produce a version that gives what the player character in the world would know ... and that includes details that work for a D&D game world and not for in actual scholarship.

For decades I've taken the position that all the magic spells that exist had to be invented at some point.  It stands to reason.  The original DMG gave rules for inventing spells; presumably, at some point in the past, some mage invented the spell fireball; someone else invented cloudkill; and someone else invented spider climb.  Ah, but who?

We know some are invented by mages called Tenser, Mordenkainen and Bigby.  I've read online versions of their biographies and I have to say, they're shit.  Clearly, the writers have no idea how biographies work.  In any case, this accounts for a tiny number of spells ... and for none of the clerical or druidical spells in the canon.  There's no distinction made about "inventing" these spells that come from the gods.  The book seems to suggest that we can.  I see it as a specific cleric grasps through the interpretation of a specific text how to encourage the gods to release a specific spell as a benefice.  And once that spell is put into the world, like Prometheus stealing fire, it becomes possible to teach other clerics or druids the same trick to get said spell.

Following this argument, there must have been a time when only one spell existed in all the world.  That must have been post 4000 BC, given the rise of human culture; and by 3000, there must have been a couple dozen spells at least.  But which spells?  And having defined those, who invented them?

Well, from the encyclopedia I'm copying out biographies of real people in the real world who could have been clerics and mages in a D&D version of Earth.  Take, for example, Adam Scotus, whose life reads much like an adventurer cleric ... a distinction I'm free to write directly into the wiki page, which obviously doesn't belong on wikipedia.

I can also ascribe the invention of a spell by this person, and include that detail.  And any other details I care to add for any additional content originating with the encyclopedia.  I love it.  After all, I'm not trying to render an accurate version of history or the world; I'm creating a D&D setting.

As a final note, for anyone who might puzzle why I'm doing this, and not writing my book (though I am, though more slowly than I did this Spring) ... or why I'm doing this, and not updating spells on the wiki, which need doing ... or why I'm doing this, and not writing sage abilities.  Please understand.  I'm not inventing with these entries.  I'm copying.  It's like writing with a crutch.  It takes very little effort, and if I get a little inspiration I plug it in.  Meanwhile, it's a pleasure to be at a task that urges me to learn things, or follow up on little details that the encyclopedia doesn't really explain, so that I can add a note or two from Wikipedia.  It's not work.  It's not something I need to feel confident about, or has to measure up to anyone's expectation.  Not like the book is.

Nor is it remaking something from scratch, like writing sage abilities.  Or fixing spells in a way that have to work accurately and precisely in a rule set.  Some things that I write are taxing.  They drain me.  And some things I work on are a pleasure.  They sustain me, they inspire me, they excite me.

Athena Parthenos is still there?  Woah.  I wish I was living in 1650.


I have read theories that she isn't, that she was taken by the Byzantines before the 10th century and so on.  But none of these theories are confirmed.  So I discount them.  Moreover, gunpowder isn't used extensively in my game world.  It's possible the statue might stand for much longer ... if some evil mage doesn't blow it up.

Sunday, May 7, 2023


Here I'm caught between letting the reader see the narrative unfold as a player and seeing it as a dungeon master.  These are very different, and it must be understood that because nothing has happened, our perspective as the players are in town is nothing more than a possibility of how events might unfold.  Still, most of what we've based the adventure on thus far are things that have already happened: the princess has been lost in the dungeon; the noble's father has gone to find her and been lost; the players are reassured to have found the right dungeon, and the ring.  Yet all hinges upon the willingness of the players to go back — and we've just asked them not to.

A "gambit" is a move that sacrifices something of value in order to gain advantage.  In chess, a piece is sacrificed in order to force the opponent into a weaker overall position.  DMing players with free will and the right to set their own agenda requires a certain degree of manipulation — with the understanding that, like in chess, the manipulation is done entirely in the open.  We're not manipulating the players by cheating on die rolls or changing the number of monsters behind a screen; we're blatantly creating a situation in which there are good reasons for the players to continue the adventure, and there are good reasons NOT to.

Why is this an advantage?  Each time a human being foregoes good sense in the pursuit of something he or she wants, it increases that person's willingness to withdraw in the future.  This is called the sunk cost fallacy.  The player weighs the mention of "there be demons" against "we already got treasure and experience" from the location and decides, "the demons are probably not that bad and anyway, more treasure."  This depends greatly on how much inflection our voice carries when we physically speak the word "demon" during that discussion with the noble.

It may be hard to believe for some that DMing might come down to how a single word is spoken, but it does.  If the word is sold too hard, if it puts too much doubt into the mind of the player, the whole set-up might come tumbling down as the players say, "Demons?  No way."  One cannot let one's voice betray our desire to have the players, of their own free will, continue to invest in the adventure they've already started.  This word, and any word that pushes the players not to go, must be said in a manner that causes the player to dismiss words and self-imagine themselves overcoming all obstacles.  Thankfully, much of the time D&D players tend to be bloody-minded about doing things they want to do, especially when an NPC urges otherwise.  Nevertheless, we must be careful.  We must introduce dangers without embellishing.  This lets us push our pawn right into open danger, while keeping our face rigid when the player snatches up the pawn, sure they've made the right move.

Remember that the players, before they left the dungeon, found evidence that there was another dungeon further down.  The players have been thinking about that all this time; all through getting back to town, all through buying their stuff, all through the conversation with the noble about his father.  This is one good reason for stretching out some of the details about following the road that gets back to town, and not jumping from place to place using rapid cuts.  We want the players to muse about that deeper dungeon:  What is it?  How deep does it go?  How much treasure is down there?  All this urges the players to take that pawn, even as we have the noble put it out there, telling them not to take it.

Now, as long as we have the players in town, let's not let them go quite yet.  Let's play another gambit first.

Going back to this post ... at the time, my only thought was to throw out possible hooks as examples of what we might invent that would lead the players somewhere.  When I wrote the following, I had no plans of how precisely it would be employed, only that something might be done with it:

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.

Let's put this into our story — only, remember, only the first sentence has been established.  At the time the players were on their way to the dungeon, we described the father and his girls; that's all, except we might have described what the father was wearing.  At the time, we might have intended to put him on a scaffold, and to ask the crowd for a bond ... but those things haven't happened yet.  It's a good idea, though; how can we insert this into the player's narrative thus far?

Before answering that question, I need to dig into patterns of creativity.  One technique of fiction writing is to imagine a situation that's extraordinarily mundane — boring.  And then to perceive some manner in which that commonality can be spun on its head into something dark.  We've seen it hundreds of times in films and television, but perhaps we don't see it as a pattern.  The writer describes a puppy playing in a yard while the owner brings out a lawn chair and stretches out in the sun.  The puppy gets interested in the flowers, while the owner chats on the phone.  The puppy begins to dig in the flowers and the owner shouts for the puppy to come over, and it does ... and in the puppy's mouth is a human finger.

There we are, mundane to dark in an instant.

This techique asks the creator to drift into less than savoury aspects of life, and it has consequences; having done this for years and years myself, whenever I go anywhere, I often find my imagination spinning out scenes of spontaneous murder, people suiciding themselves in front of commuter trains, car accidents and so on.  No matter how prosaic a scene might be, my thoughts routinely drift into some unspeakable horror I can't share without ruining someone else's day.  It can be a bit maddening — but it serves me very, very well as a DM and as a writer.

Some reading this went to the same place I did when I mixed "puppy" with "flowers."  Others didn't get it until the last two words.  It speaks to how willing we are to consider elements of the world that we don't normally see, except on the news.  Dramatic conflict, however, is bred very well by this kind of explicit darkness.  The game's dungeon, for example, thrives on it.  The story of the noble's father questing off to setting his demons does as well.  D&D lets us gird on weapons and fill backpacks with tools so we can face our metaphorical demons without actually getting hurt.  That's it's appeal.  It's the same appeal that drives shows like Breaking Bad or The Wire.  We get to indulge in horrific situations while sitting safe and sound in our living rooms.

All right, so what do we know about this father and his daughters?  Because until now, we've invented nothing about them, but we're already hemmed in somewhat by things we've said.  They were met on the road in broad daylight, so the father isn't a day-worker.  He isn't a labourer or a farmer, else he'd be working.  It might have been a Sunday, but this relies upon the existence of Christian ethic in our game world; there's one in mine, but maybe not in yours, so let's discount that.  Rationally, he might reasonably be self-employed; this could mean he's an apothecary or some kind of artisan like a goldsmith or a maker of precision tools.  He's probably not a brewer, a stabler, an innkeeper or any other role that requires the investment of large amounts of time.

I'm going to make him a schoolmaster.  There were schools in the game's time period but they weren't as rigorously scheduled as now; plus, if it's summer, many of the potential students are learning their father's trade.  A schoolmaster is fairly common, not that wealthy, and someone good with children.  But naturally the players know nothing about this yet.

Let's keep the potential hanging.  It's a good twist from light to darkness, and it's bound to get the players attention.  And even if the players can't have their heartstrings twitched by the thought of two orphaned little girls — which would describe about 90% of the male players I've run in the last 40 years — it's still something we can play on.

We can freely assume that if the schoolmaster's being hung, it must be for some reason.  My original proposal was for debts: which the party could pony up as a way to save the man's life.  It's a bit of a harsh penalty for debts, however, and a hard sell narratively, so let's toss that.  We might attribute the hanging to some capital crime, but if the schoolmaster has committed murder or theft, it's a harder sell to make the players care.  They'd be in their right to say, "Well, those crimes carry a death penalty for a reason, and the world — and the girls too — are probably better off without him."

Let's shelve the reason for a moment.  Consider secondly how we get the players to witness this situation.  Just now, they're sitting with the noble.  We could have them leave, and as they head back to their inn, talking about whether to return to the dungeon, we could have them stumble across the hanging scene.  Yet, I think we can do better.

Though I'm describing this as a DM piecing together a scene for the game, I should come clean and explain that I'm actually doing this in a way that gives you the player's perspective.  You're learning each element of the narrative as the players would — that is, chronologically.  But I must tell you that I've put a bunch of different parts of the overall setting together that I'm holding back, which connects the man on the scaffold, the noble's father, the princess and what's in the dungeon all as one grand adventure.  I promise, before this post is done, you'll be told what those connections are.

Getting confused?  I'm sorry.  Dungeon mastering at this level is a complex arrangement of thoughts all vying for importance at the same time.  We have the unanswered question of why the man is on the scaffold; we have the unanswered question of how the players learn about it; and before I can answer those questions, I still have one detail to discuss.

IF the man is to be hung, it's in the noble's town; this means that, though it's the noble's retainers performing the execution, it's still being done according to the noble's wishes.  This is the same noble that just showed concern for the players, suggesting the noble might be a friend the players might be able to count on in the future.  How would it look if the players suddenly took the side of the schoolmaster against the noble's intentions?  That's a damn hard sell, and as a DM I wouldn't expect the players to do it.  Like it or not, the players would just stand their and watch the schoolmaster die, because any other course of action is untenable.  And THAT makes the whole scene a waste of time.  At best, it might give some additional information about the noble — that he's the sort to kill a common schoolmaster with two little girls at a glance — but this is pretty much a garbage characterisation that adds no dimension to our narrative or the players' thinking process.

So, let's throw out the capital crime idea, and let's throw out the players stumbling across the execution at random.  They're both garbage ideas and we can definitely do better.

These words, "I can do better," are the heart's blood of creativity.  We have to say them, we have to believe it, and then we have to sit and think and think and think on how to do it.  Burton Rascoe is famous for the very dated quote that goes,

"What no wife of a writer can ever understand, no matter if she lives with him for twenty years, is that a writer is working when he's staring out the window ..."

It's not true.  My wife and partner Tamara is completely aware that when I'm sitting on a bench, taking a shower, laying in a bath, watering the lawn with a hose or playing a video game, I'm working ... which is something I do all the time.  Last Thursday I laid in the dentist chair for the second crown I've received this year — my teeth are much better, thank you — and I spent the whole time as he fitted the crown puzzling out a section of my working hardcover book.  I "write" constantly ... and part of the underlying principle of that statement is the argument that if I think the words, "I can do better," it means I'm going to stand in front of a window for as long as it takes until I do better.  No ifs, ands or buts.

The worst words a writer can ever say is "That'll do."  No, it won't.

So let's do better.  Last night, not quite asleep yet but working on this post, I stumbled across the connections I hinted at above.  Instead of having the dialogue with the noble and the hanging be separate events, let's have them be part of the same scene.  Be my player for a bit and I'll explain.

A herald rushes into the room at the right moment (when all the real information has been given to the players) and says, "Your Grace, they're hanging the schoolmaster!"

His Grace leaps to his feet angrily and shouts, "My sword!"

Now, remember — at this point, the players have no idea who the schoolmaster is.  The scene has been dramatically pre-emted by new details and naturally the players will be interested.  Even better, however, is that the noble hasn't given them leave to go; and there are retainers all about to ensure the players stay and hear out the whole scene.  This is well within our rights as DM, so long as we don't abuse the players when they obey the setting's rules (those being, that nobles have powers that must be respected).

As the players follow, and the retainers follow them, the noble runs down the stairs of the keep into the bailey below (that is, the courtyard), where sure enough the man the players saw on the road is on the scaffold, "inches from death."

The noble — let's give him a name, Rudrick — shouts "STOP!"  Silence follows, except for a small weasel-faced fellow dressed like a scribe who steps forward and says, "This man, Marcus Twilling, is to be put to death in the name of the King."  At this point, we want to pause and explain to the party that they're seeing the courtyard is filled with soldiers wearing two kinds of livery.  Half the soldiers are retainers of Rudrick, and the other half are retainers of the Royal family.  Aha!  Conflict.  And a man's life hangs in the balance.  Played well, the players are rivited.

"I have given this man sanctuary," says Rudrick.

"Sanctuary has been denied," says the weasel.

"I rule here, not the king," says Rudrick.  And at those words, a hundred weapons are drawn, first by Rudrick's men, then by those of the King.  Stand-off.  And though the players have no part in this, they're here.  Trapped inside a castle.  Where it looks like there's going to be a free-for-all.  And if there is one, the players will have to defend themselves, since when a war breaks out, there are no safe places to hide.

What we want here is a tempo.  Here's one of  favourites on film, directed by Norman Jewison of Fiddler on the Roof and Jesus Christ Superstar.   This is 1966's The Russians are Coming, the Russians are Coming.  The scene runs about seven minutes altogether and I'm not going to explain it, nor spoil how it ends.

After the tempo in the courtyard, some sane third party — the commander of the King's forces, most likely — shouts that the man should be let free and not hanged.  The King's men stand down.  Rudrick's men stand down.  The party stands down.  The soldiers file out and we describe the schoolmaster being let off the scaffold and the noble takes the players aside.  The noble has reason to explain to them what's just happened, because this scene directly connects to what Rudrick's been talking about.

He explains that years ago, the present Royal family declared that the princess lost in the dungeon, that Rudrick's father tried to return, was investigated by clerics through divination and was determined to be a witch.  The interpretation varies, but she was either a witch all along, or she became a witch after she was lost.  Either way, this was seen as evidence that the princess's whole family line needed to be eradicated, and for years there have been burnings and hangings of her ancestors, her siblings and her cousins.  And it's believed now that the schoolmaster is a bastard child of the princess also.  So the edict says he must die.

The noble does not believe the interpretation of the clerics, but can do nothing about it, except to protect people on his land.  He promises to send the schoolmaster to a far away place, and again begs the party not to return to the dungeon.

Now I'll come clean about the DM's point-of-view, with an understanding that this will spoil the dungeon somewhat for those who have been reading this series because it feels like they're playing in the game.

The Princess, Elissa, didn't go to the dungeon alone.  She was charmed by an evil tree spirit, a dryad, who took her to the dungeon to pay off a debt owed to a wicked nymph that dwelt in a small lake located hundreds of feet below the dungeon's entrance.  Once upon a time, the nymph did the dryad a favour and the debt was paid.  The princess was then transformed into a freshwater "lake witch," living in the same lake.  There she remains, her heart poisoned, full of evil, surrounded by scores of watery beasts as her perpetual servants.

Rudrick's father, Ergrund, went to retreive the princess, but by the time he and his party reached the lake, and did battle with the nymph, whom they killed — leaving only Ergrund alive at the end.  He was too late to save the princess.  Elissa had been transformed; and as Ergrund was in love with her, he could not bring himself to kill her.  Instead, he allowed himself to be seduced by her, where upon she drowned him and drew the life force out of his soul.  Dying, unburied, deep in a place of great evil, he became a member of the undead, a skeletal warrior ... so that now he protects the lake witch in perpetuity, as neither can die so long as they go on living within their evil lair.

That's what the party faces, ultimately, though they know nothing of it.  And it's on the difficulty of a low-level party overcoming these monsters that I'll discuss with our next post.

Saturday, May 6, 2023


Remember this post.

The players have done their original purchasing.  As a rule of thumb, setting the stopwatch going on our phone at the start of buying, we can count every 20 minutes that's passed as one day.  This includes the time the players spend skylarking while looking over the equipment lists, as this is what people do when they shop.  They stop, they rest, they enjoy themselves.   The time takes into account the players searching through several stores, crossing and recrossing the town or city, making inquiries, haggling — another subject for another day — and so on.  Each "day" is food that's eaten, lodgings that must be paid for, and the time of warm weather drifting away towards autumn, or the rainy season.

Eventually, one character draws out the ring found in the kobald lair and asks, can I sell this?  It's a dark red carnelian stone in a white gold setting, with a vaguely familiar cross-hatched pattern on it.  Two lines perpendicular to two lines, surrounded by a circle.  When described, the player remarked, "Where did we see that before?"

"Yes, of course," we say, directing him to a jeweler's shop.  In a few moments, we know as dungeon masters that the jeweler is going to see the ring, recognise it for what it is — a ring owned by the present-day noble's lost father.  And then ... what?

These are difficult moments to run.  The easiest answer is that the jeweler informs the noble, who seizes the players, demands to know how they got the ring, then offers them a huge reward if they return to the dungeon and find the bones of the noble's father.  It works as an explanation, but we might be confused into thinking that because something works, it's a good proposal.  That's often a mis-step in resolving connections like this in the game.

First, because this particular explanation reduces the drama to a trite exchange of one kind of good for another: money for bones.  As a motivator, it isn't meaningful.  As discussed with the last post, the player characters are going to accumulate money anyway, no matter where they go or what they do.  Just as cost isn't much of an obstacle, it isn't much of a stimulus, either.

Second, the presence of the noble, who has so much more power than the players, produces an imbalanced relationship, one that leverages the players against their will.  If they don't fetch the bones, then obviously the noble won't be happy.  Even if we know in our DM hearts that the noble won't hold it against the party, we can't legitimately say that to the party without breaking the fourth wall — and the party would have no reason to believe us anyway.  When providing a reason for the party to do something, be careful of situations where they're acting in a powerful NPC's stead: try not to hinge the connection on something the noble would view as highly personal — such as a lost father.

Third, going back to the dungeon is something the players were going to do anyway.  The ring's back story needs to add dimension to the narrative thus far; that is, something greater than just the loss of a father by a son, which is rather one-dimensional in scope.  We need to know more.  The ring is incidental.  Anyone of importance and power might happen to be wearing a ring when they die in a dungeon.  The larger questions that need answering are about the father himself: who was he, what was he searching for, what were the facets and consequences of his life, and his decision to plunge into this dungeon?  We might produce details to suggest that the father's death was inevitable; that it came about because the father courted death foolishly; it may even be that the father was so awful, that the region was grateful for his death.

But empathy is only a second dimension in our story; the element we want to add to make the players feel something more about this ring than that it happened to be on a dead man's finger.  The third dimension revolves around an as-yet unseen conflict that potentially arises from this minor discovery.  Normally, when we imagine the death of a person, we see the end of something; but this is Dungeons and Dragons.  There be magic in this realm.  What forces have been put into play by the disappearance of the princess into this dungeon; and what forces are stirred by the death of the noble's father?  And now, with the players entering the dungeon, what consequences are yet to reveal themselves?

Much of this depends on what's in the dungeon.  And in the answers to these questions being asked.  But let's say, as an opening gambit, that when the living noble confronts the party about his father, he begins by urging the players NOT to return to the dungeon — for their sake.  What if that's followed by a story of things that awaken the players' doubts?  "My father was not a good man," says the noble to the party.  "He ... did things he shouldn't have done.  When he set out that day, I was but 17 ... and I was told that his choice to venture forth was to make restitution against demons that my father awakened."

The noble pauses before going on.  "I don't know what that means," he says.  "And I've not met a soul who can explain it to me.  But though my father did not return, it's also a fact that nothing has been heard of any of this in 25 years.  Perhaps it's best if we presume my father achieved his quest — and paid with his life in the bargain.  Leave it alone, dear friends.  Leave it be as a favour to me."

This opens all kinds of doors.  The players can hear the word "demon" and rightly decide, "Um, we're out."  Or they might assume that as DM, we're not going to get them into something deeper than they can handle ... and in any case, players HATE being told not to do things, even when the advice is there to save their lives.  So they say to the noble, "Good sir, your heart is in crisis.  Let us go to the dungeon and put your heart to rest."

And so on.  We haven't returned to the dungeon and yet, here, there's conflict.  Should we go, or not?  Is going a good idea, or a bad one?  If we fail, what will the noble do?  If we succeed, surely he'll be grateful.  But he hasn't promised anything.  Should we go on our own volition, without this noble's urging?

This is a thousand times more intense than exchanging bones for money.  When the players aren't playing the game, when they're at work, when they're showering, when they're digging in the garden, they're thinking about the choices they've made.  It's D&D in the players' heads, all the time.  Not just during the session.

I can't give a blueprint on how to produce a 2nd and a 3rd dimension to your game narrative, but I can reiterate some of the points made above.

Avoid "simple" explanations.  Avoid exchange-based motivations.  Don't reward players for doing something they're already going to do.  Give details about each NPC's motivations and memories, from their point of view, as though the noble or the noble's father were player characters that you, as DM, ran once, or are running.  Consider reasons why players ought NOT to do something, as well as why they should do it, and then lay out both sides in your exposition/backstory.  Put the players in a position where the right answer isn't plain.  Make them decide what's the right thing to do.

If we spend too much time thinking that it's our role to push the characters to act, we forget that there's conflict in pushing the characters NOT to act.  If they feel the game world is fluid, and that they have agency, then we can be quite sure they're going to do something.  It's not our job to get behind them and push.

It's our job to put a fork in every road they travel.