Monday, July 31, 2023

Quebec to New Hampshire

Drove south out of Quebec before 9 a.m. this morning, into Vermont, down I-89.  Got off on hwy 104, looking for Green Mountains, maple syrup, the "real" Vermont and, apparently, trees.  Glad to say, we found all.  Had a great day, stayed ahead of the rain, or came to places that it had happened but not on us.  The land was beautiful, the mountains and rivers, the people both friendly and not, but altogether Vermont is lovely.  Morristown and St. Johnsbury in particular.  We happened across Fairfax early in the day and found something we didn't expect:

Crossed into New Hampshire at Lancaster and we're still here, having stopped the day early.

From Drain, earlier today:

"Canada seems like a beautiful country of natural wonders."

Absolutely.  It's why Tamara and I undertook this odyssey to begin with.  Canada is beautiful because it's incomprehensibly large.  Cities of more than a hundred thousand people are very few and far between, so that seeing a sign that the next such city is 735 km away is normal.  This allows parts to lack internet and phone service completely, even on the main highway between such cities.  We didn't encounter this in the prairies, where there are many small villages serving as farming residences or service centres, but in northern Ontario, "no service" on phone and internet still happens.  We were cut off by entering a non-service zone while making a reservation at one point.  We even found a dead zone like this within 150 km of Ottawa, the country's capital.

All this "nothing" means some spectacular scenery, some of which I've tried to photograph to no avail.  In reality, this enormous shelf of mountains looks fantastic, but in a flat picture it's nothing.  The scenery is unphotographical.  This dramatic cliff?  Here are ten like it.  This idyllic lake?  Here are 20 others.  Hundreds have no civilisation at all upon them; others have a small, quaint, homespun campground clinging to a tiny corner of it, making me remember campgrounds like it from my youth.  But while mine are gone, gobbled up by commercialism, these are still here, on the fringes of a real wilderness.  Each has yet the power to hold the memories of a whole generation to come.

We shall see what happens in the next few decades.  Canada's weather is more severe than America's.  It's summer now, but much of where we're travelling would be impassable in winter.  And even if the winter's are mitigated in the next few decades, it's made clear by this summer that the amount of wood there is to burn in Canada is enough to drive human beings back south for at least a generation.  Canada is not a refuge for people suffering the dangers of climate change.  People ought to know.

We've been checking maps for particulates, looking for fires as we've come east, and so far, we've been lucky.  Don't know about the way back, do we?

In the meanwhile, we're off into Maine tomorrow, then the Maritimes.  We were going to Newfoundland, but we've had to give up that dream.  With the distance between where the ferry lets us off on the island and St. John's, the cost of the ferry, the cost of hotel rooms, the cost of gas, we probably can't do that leg of the trip without an exhorbitant cost, so we've given in on it.  Newfoundland just isn't that pretty.  We've already seen wilderness.

There was a disaster in Nova Scotia that happened last week, that we missed.  Hopefully, that won't happen again in the next few days.

Just saying that alongside the beauty of Canada, there's enormous danger, too.  We've taken measures, we're able to get help if we need it, even in "dead" spots, as there are always other cars, and this is Canada.  Because of the weather, because of the danger, we don't care half as much about what we say to each other, as we care about being there for each other.

So we'll be fine.  If you come to Canada to visit, however, ask questions, take precautions, be equipped and most of all, be friendly.  We all need each other to get by.

Sunday, July 30, 2023

Rough Travels

When travelling, sooner or later there's going to be a day when most things go wrong.  Something breaks that's vital, or it's left behind, and it can't be found in any store.  The wrong highway is taken and a hour is wasted backtracking.  Something falls out when a door is opened and scatters in a grocery parking lot.  By the time you find a place to stay, the room is awful; but you still have to live there for one night, because there's nothing else. And finally, two people, living constantly together in unfamiliar circumstances, begin to cut into each other.  It's inevitable.  You talk about it ahead of time, try to ready yourself for it ... and it happens anyway.  And in those moments, when you know you still have to sit next to this person, and rely on them, not just today but for the next week, no matter what — then you learn how strong love can be.  Because even if you're physically shaking with anger for the other person, you're still worried about them, you're still trying to make it better for them, you're still ready to hug and kiss them in an effort to make it better.

All the things above have happened in the last two days and we're both tired and miserable.  But still in love.  Still definitely in love.

I'm not telling those stories.  Yesterday, we had to do our laundry:

This is Blind River, one of many quaint little towns we've seen.  It slowed down the start of the day, which was followed by interruption after interruption before we were able to get to Sudbury.  Basically, it took us five and a half hours to travel a distance usually needing three.  Sigh.  We ended up in a little town called Laurentian Mountain, at a very backward motel.

Today went better.  We made good time into Ottawa and took a walk around the Parliament buildings.  For those who haven't been, when you climb up Parliament hill from the west, you can't really see the Parliament building at all.  Instead, you see this in the way:

Sorry, I can't say what building it is.  One of many surrounding Parliament, but I'm not up on the architecture.  Perhaps someone can tell me.  In any case, it's not until you get around the above building that the Parliament building appears, like a kid playing hide-and-go-seek.  I believe this is intentional, to fool visitors into thinking the above is the parliament (I knew it wasn't, because I'm a Canadian), until seeing the real building.

After Ottawa, the day went precisely south, both geographically and metaphorically.  That's all behind us, but we're not happy with the present motel.  I'm writing this from inside the province of Quebec, at St.-Jean-sur-Richelieu.  Southern Quebec is beautiful, absolutely.  But navigating around it, and getting snubbed by the hotels surrounding Quebecois Lake Champlain, hasn't won us over.  Still, tomorrow we're diving into Vermont.  Maybe it'll be better, maybe not.

This whole trip we've been met with an unnatural amount of surliness and disregard by the low-brow tourism industry, and by shopkeepers in general.  To put this in perspective, we got better service from urban Montreal cab-drivers last October than we're getting from people at Tim Hortons.  Seriously.

Oh, a note about Tim Horton's, the donut place.  Many people don't know this, but Tim Horton's employs an ex-shot putter when establishing any new location.  Essentially, "Lars" stands at the very edge of an existing Tim Horton's, then hurls a half-pound stone as far as he can.  Wherever the stone lands, that's where the location is built.

Saturday, July 29, 2023

Tired Day in Eastern Ontario

Just too tired to write a full post; was a long day.  But I want to link the video I made yesterday while at Bruce Mines, north of Huron (where we stayed at the "Bavarian Inn" last night).  It's a plain nature video, but I rather like it:

Right now, I'm near the Ottawa River, west of Ottawa, as we heard it was going to be 40 C in Niagara today.  It wasn't, but it's no matter.  We'll try to catch the falls on the way home.

Friday, July 28, 2023

Out of Canada and Back Again

Yesterday, Thursday the 27th of July, Tamara and I crossed from Sault St. Marie into Michigan state, driving west along the Upper Peninsula, north of Lake Michigan.  We cut through country whose geography I'd researched in the creation of this map.  The forests I'd envisioned were there, though cut back for farming ... and unfortunately, we didn't drive along Lake Superior's south shore, so I didn't seek what that looked like.

We were bound for Wisconsin.  We crossed at Menominee and Marinette, drove down to Green Bay and then along the freeways that run from Green Bay through Appleton, Oshkosh and Fond du Lac towards Milwaukee.  This last we reached just as rush hour began.

Fond du Lac was our destination.  There, as Tamara repaired to our room, I met one of my readers and patreon supporters, an occasional commentor on this blog, Ozymandias.  The meeting was a pleasant one.  Our conversation was fluid, wide-ranging and demonstrative that if we only lived closer together, we'd probably be close friends.  Which is more the pity, as we don't live near to one another, and the chances are we'll never see one another in person again.  

Though one never knows.

It's hard to express the experience exactly.  It didn't feel to me like meeting a "fan," but rather with someone who's opinion I've heard for well over a decade on this blog.  I felt greatly beholden to this man, to his support for me in bad times, and for the kickstarter I ran the year before last, and for his contributions to numerous discussions about D&D that have taken place here.  He's been an influence on my thinking and on my desire to evolve as a designer.  And to be able to tell him these things, in person, with the full benefit of my presence to convey the truth of my words, meant a great deal to me.  It's much more than thanking someone online.

Over and over, I do think the readers of this blog underestimate their influence on me, while describing my influence on them.  Every time I've been challenged, or made to doubt myself, has led to better viewpoints and epiphanies that have far advanced my philosophies about D&D and role-playing.  Which is perhaps the worst thing about not getting comments.

People often say, "I felt I had nothing to offer" ... but that is a misunderstanding of the better dynamic that goes on between those who are willing to collaborate.  It isn't about having "something to add."  It's about having something to ask.  Questions force answers that are, in essence, a demonstration of evidence.

Any time I've ever had to ask a question, I've needed to review and re-evaluate my argument, to put the answer in contexts I'd never considered on my own.  Those moments are my best writings here ... because clarity is most important of all.

But when I'm not questioned, I'm not pushed to do better.  And when that happens, my thinking is apt to stagnate.  

Which is something I hate.

Ozymandias and I spoke on matters that couldn't be discussed here ... but at every point in our conversation, he always had something to add, because he's an intelligent, imaginative, intuitive human being.  Just as most are, once deciding to commit themselves passionately to something they love.


After last night, Tamara and I got up this morning and headed back to Canada.  At present, we're at rest on the north shore of Lake Huron, which is so close I can hear the geese on the water honking through my motel room door as I write this.  I'm in a little village I've never heard of, whose name I'll give tomorrow, after we travel south along the coast of Georgian Bay.  We may or may not get as far south of Niagara Falls tomorrow, but there's no hurry.

I'll withhold my opinions about the United States for the time being, except to say that going through the upper peninsula and in a circle around Lake Winnebago in Wisconsin, we did not see a single Trump flag or poster, not in any city, on any building or written on any sign.  And we were supposedly in those parts of both Michigan and Wisconsin that vote Republican.  I did see a single painted motto on a decrepit barn, that was plainly aged by the weather, that read, "Let's Go Brandon."

Thursday, July 27, 2023

Manitoba to Sault St. Marie

After our sojourn through backcountry Saskatchewan, some of it on gravel roads, we decided not to forgo our plans to visit Lake Winnipeg and the beach there, and instead push past the prairies.  We'd had enough of the prairies after two days and there were three hours left to drive in it to get out of Manitoba.  Crossing into Ontario, it was all trees ... and there followed three days of trees thereafter.

The little city of Kenora faces on the Lake of the Woods, which we picnicked beside, next to said wall:

Here's another view of the lake in a different direction:

The temperature was idyllic and the food was good.  We're making our own as we go along, but so far we haven't actually used the barbecue.  There never seems to be the right place to set it up, at the time we want to eat.  At the end of the day, we just want to crash and eat raw fruit and vegetables, bits of cheese, the hard-boiled eggs we're able to buy and such goods.  Most of our diet has been vegetarian, but not because we're vegans; it's just easier to get unsalted, unsugared food from the store with fresh produce.

Pictures get thin at this point.  We spent Monday night in Dryden, a depressing little burg with expensive lodging, taken up by fisherfolk.  From thence, it was down to Thunder Bay and more groceries.  The drive through the Canadian Shield hills north of Lake Superior was stunning.  Yet I didn't take a picture the whole day of Tuesday until late in the afternoon, when we encountered this fellow in front of us in a small village named Schreiber:

This fellow was making a left hand turn off the Trans-Canada Highway.  I didn't get the camera up in time to show the two big trailer trucks in the other lane, that ruffled his hair and his shirt.  We nearly missed seeing him, as we came up behind.  He's not sitting in a "turn-lane."  He's right there on the inside lane of the four lane highway.  He didn't seem concerned.

Soon after, we pulled into Terrace Bay, where I finally got my computer to work two days ago.  Here's the terrace outside our room, overlooking Lake Superior:

And here's the John Ford shot, from inside our motel room:

Somehow, after this, the camera got forgotten as we continued on yesterday, from Terrace Bay to Sault St. Marie.  That was a long rainy day along the Superior shore, though we did get out and walk along the beach for a while.  I had the phone in my pocket and it didn't occur to me to take a picture.  The signs all said the water was cold, but it felt warm to me, a fellow who's swam (swum?) in Alberta lakes in May.  I considered getting my suit on and taking a dip, but the rain caught up with us.  Tamara went swimming in Superior at 14, but she wasn't game to join me yesterday.

Today, we set out south from Sault St. Marie into the United States, where I am now writing this.  I have no pictures for today, only stories.  But they'll wait until tomorrow.

Wednesday, July 26, 2023

Alberta to Manitoba

Recording History.

Left Calgary early in the morning, drove down to Medicine Hat, then south to Cypress Hills.  Never been to the hills before, though it's a provincial park.  Elkwater, on the edge of the park, is a tiny summer village, no more than a hundred cabins or so.  We were stunned that it was so empty:

This is taken at 12:30 p.m., about four and a quarter hours from Calgary, on Saturday, July 22.  At this same time at Sylvan Lake, where I went to the beach a couple weeks before, it would be wall-to-wall people ... but Sylvan is just 80 minutes from both Calgary and Edmonton, both million-plus cities.  Elkwater is no where near such people.  Here's the beach, taken about the same time:

Just a tiny beach, yet mostly empty.  Might fill up through the day; seemed to be getting busy as we left at 1 p.m.  Elkwater is on a reservoir by the same name; here's a shot of the north end, then the west end:

Drove back to the Transcanada hwy and into Saskatchewan.  Temperature was hitting 38 C as we passed north of Maple Creek, a usual high for this time of the year.  As a kid in Regina, we had a lot of 100 F plus days, when Canada was still counting in Fahrenheit.

Tamara found it odd that they grew and cut hay in the space between the highway lanes, so I took a picture of it.

Reached Moose Jaw in the early evening, called it a day.  Rose the 23rd and completed the trip into Regina.  There I visited the house occupied by my grandparents, who both passed away in hospital, during the 1990s.  Their house was condemned, as it was built in the 50s and not well taken care of, and I was surprised to see that someone had refurbished it ... but it's definitely the same house I remember as a kid.  I hadn't seen it since 1987.

Went over to see the government buildings in Regina, the capital of Saskatchewan.  The building is rather imposing for a province with just under 1.2 million:

Finished August 31. 1908.  We enjoyed the geese on the lawn and parking lot:

Because it was Sunday, we didn't take a tour ... and anyway, we had places to be.  My grandparents, and later my uncle Tom, owned a cabin on Last Mountain Lake, sometimes called "Long Lake" in Saskatchewan.  When my father passed away, this picture from his basement came into my possession:

The picture was taken in the 1960s, from an airplane above the lake.  My grandparent's cabin is the one second from the left, a white two-story cabin with a peaked roof.  Later it came into my uncle Tom's possession.  The name of the summer village used to be "Strasbourg Beach" but nowadays it's called "Island View," because an island can be dimly seen across the lake and it sounds better.

The last time I'd been here was July, 1980.  I was 16.  I was staying with my uncle, his 1st cousin Ken (and my 2nd cousin) and their friend Rory.  They were in their 30s.  Now, what happened is difficult to relate; my uncle and I reconciled years later, in 1987 (the last time I was at the house above), and would speak regularly on the phone after.  See, he was an alcoholic.  He also died in the 1990s, of organ failure related to alcoholism.  And the others were his drinking buddies.  At some point, he forgot that I was just a kid, and started barking at me for some reason.  This ended up scaring the hell out of me, such that I ran off.  In fact, I walked a mile and a half up the road, shown at the top of the picture, to where there used to be a country gas station.  And a payphone.  I got there about 12:30 in the morning.  I phoned my parents in Regina, an hour and some away, and begged for them to come get me.  Then I waited.

When they did, they drove back to the cabin and my mother (Tom was her brother) gave him a royal screaming for a long time, as I sat in the car.  My father kept them apart.  The thing drove a wedge between my mother and my uncle for the rest of his life ... but as I said, I met my uncle in 1987 and we talked it all out.

Turns out, right after I left, they sobered up fast.  My uncle realised what he'd done, and they all realised that they'd gone over the line, and for the whole time my parents were driving up from Regina they were desperately searching the village and calling out my name.  They never thought I'd head off into the middle of nowhere, to a gas station that was closed, in the dark, after midnight.  And if I hadn't acted so strongly, things would have been sorted out in an hour and my mother wouldn't have known anything.

I don't fault what I did.  It seemed my best course of action, and of course I was just a kid.  And I don't entirely forgive what my uncle did ... but the error he made had been made when my uncle was a teenager, when he decided that alcohol was his relief from his struggles.  And his struggles were indeed many, as I learned later from other family members.  So in all, it was just a bad scene.

Anyway, Tamara and I went there so I could exorcise some of those feelings.  We drove up, I called out to the 50-something guys on the lawn of the far left cabin (call them Dave and Don), introduced myself and showed them the picture above.  They were surprised, but after some talking they told me they remembered my uncle Tom; that when Dave and Don were kids, Tom used to give them cold pops from the old cold drinks machine he had, one from the 50s where the glass bottles would come out with frost on them.  Dave and Don introduced me to the family that owns my grandparents property now (the house is gone) and after some chatting, Tamara and I left.

We drove through the middle of Saskatchewan to get down to the Qu'Appelle Valley east, seeing the back country.  I took this obvious picture of a derelict grain elevator in Dysart.  

Then we went east and spent Sunday night in Brandon, Manitoba.

I'll call it there, finally, though I know I've posted several half-versions of this.  The phone tethering keeps going out and this is now the second time I've written this post.  Until tomorrow.

Tuesday, July 25, 2023

An Answer about Youtube Videos

The benefit of blogging is that it reaches more people.  At any given moment, there are a greater number searching my subject on YouTube than I can find through a blog.  I also prefer writing, but realistically I like an audience that engages, rather than one I can't see or hear.

Please understand that I'm forced to look for that audience if I want to go on being a content creator.  The boat must go to those places where the fishing's good.  If that means leaving behind those fish who want to swim alone, I'm stuck.  I can keep the blog, but it can't take as much of my time as it has.  For months, as l write here in near silence, it's sucking my spirit dry.  I can't keep throwing my net out for maybe one fish to answer.

Video-based content demands lots of things I don't like: proper camera, lighting, wardrobe, adjustments to my physical appearance, etc.  I've been on stage and I can perform, but it doesn't interest me as a career.

Therefore, readers shouldn't expect me to produce some awful YouTube tripe, designed to capture dim young eyeballs.  I'm thinking a calm, sincere delivery ... because I watch videos by authentic creators.   "Authentic" is my brand. 

I like the let's play format, but I'm thinking a low key game where I can both play and talk, without being overly interrupted by the game.  This gives evidence that I'm not editing my speech, since at points it has to address the game, while I can slow the game down, or stop it, or let it run without my interaction, while speaking about what I like.

Four games I'm thinking of include Patrician III, Civilisation IV, Oxygen not Included and Two-point hospital.  I have plenty of experience with all of these.  I could add Euro-truck Simulator 2, but honestly I only have 200 hours and I'm not sure yet that I can talk and drive at the same time.  I can try and see how it turns out.  ETS2 would, in fact, be ideal, since sitting with someone in a vehicle and hearing them talk is an everyday experience.  An alternative would be to have another person play the game, who would also be picked up by the mic, so I could comment on their play, while they commented on their play, and I concentrated a little better on the subject material of the youtube video.

This will, I realise, take some practice.  But I've been thinking about it for four days, waiting to sort out the computer I'm typing on now.  There were cord issues and then mouse issues, but those were solved in Thunder Bay today.  I'm right now on the north shore of Lake Superior, in a motel room literally looking out on the lake.  This has been the end of our fourth day of travelling.

It's because of these youtube issues that I haven't been able to record my journey here.  I'll repair that as I can.  Meanwhile, I felt I should answer some of the concerns I've heard in comments on my last post.  Rest assured I'm not the least interested in doing a "let's play" video.  The screen is just a way of my not having to worry about the production value of my face and background for the sake of appearance, as becomes so necessary once pointing a camera at the presenter.  I'm not a filmmaker.  I don't want to be one.  I don't want to learn how.  I want to present content on my subject, D&D, in a way that others aren't.  No one needs another fat white man sitting at a table gabbling on a bad camera set-up, saying next to nothing about how to run encounters, creating better storylines and why magician classes are so fucking cool.  That isn't me.

Instead, I want a vaguely interesting visual background, a relaxing, informative, intuitive look at elements of the game, as presented by a passionate yet informed voice.

When I return home, some 17 days from now, I'll start experimenting, putting stuff on youtube and not concerning myself with perfection.  As for this blog ... the jury is still out.  I'll consider and write an answer about it soon.

Friday, July 21, 2023

Fork in the Road

Our plan has been to set out on Monday to drive across the country, as I've explained.  Our last commitment was to take place on Sunday, which has been cancelled; so we've moved our departure date up.  We leave tomorrow morning, about 14 hours from my writing this.

I have a laptop I'm taking along, and I hope to write every day ... but those who have travelled know that sometimes, a day just doesn't work out.  Still, I'm going to try.  I'm not going to pinpoint my location, but I'll give a description of my journey and possibly a map, if that doesn't prove impractical.   It's not so much that I think my readers have any interest in the journey, but for myself, so I can look back at some point when I'm 80, I'd like to keep a record.

While I'm gone, I'm setting down my book.  I'm working my way through cloth fabrics, which I've almost completed.  There's just three left to describe: jute, ramie and sisal.  I've worked my way through all the fibres, including those three, along with hemp, silk, angora, camelhair, karakul, mohair, wool, flax and cotton; the raw, cleaned fibres each have a price.   The fibres are then described as a yarn (each with a price) and then as cloths, including cotton cloth, calico, chambray, muslin, linen cloth, cambric, damask, lace, guipure, sailcloth, wool cloth, felt, karakul felt, saragoca, serge, worsted, mohair cloth, camelhair cloth, angora cloth, silk cloth, organza, satin, velvet and canvas.  Each with a price.

The book is 84 pages (8.5 x 11), and 75,000 words, a little less than 3/4 the size of How to Run and about 42% as long as I expect the book to be.  My next efforts will be to briefly discuss dyed cloth (leaving "dye" itself to later in the book where it will appear in the "alchemy" section), and then list the possible clothing types with descriptions.  This includes a small section on how to use the information given in the book to "design" your own clothes.  There's a bit on embroidery, and then it's into a section on hides, skins, leather and finally rope.  That'll be the end of the textiles I'm working on.  Naturally, there'll be more than one type of leather.

All in all, fun times.

Even at a good pace, the degree of research and the grittiness of the material make it impossible for me to move faster than I am.  It's been explained to me by friends that descriptions of the book like this are a form of cruelty, as you cannot have the book until I'm finished ... and until then, it's better for you not to think about the book at all.

This "cruelty" reminds me of hundreds of arguments I've had over the centuries of my life with non-writers or would-be-yet-not-productive-writers about perspective.  The argument on their side goes: "it isn't the writer's perspective that matters when interpreting a book, but the reader's."  I'm always on the other side of this one.

As cruel as it might be to wait for a book, it's nothing like the cruelty of having to write one, not knowing if it'll ever be finished, or if it'll be good, or if it'll turn out to be a terrible waste of time, and evidence of the author being a piece of shit.  The enormous weight of this book is upon me.  I'm the only one at present who can clearly see how BIG it has to be.  I'm the only one with comprehension enough to fully understand the enormity of the task.  I'm the one with the vision necessary, and the time taken, to patiently scrawl this thing out one paragraph at a time.  Some paragraphs are fun and easy and pour out like fine wine.  Others, however, really, really aren't, and don't.  Sometimes, my teeth are gritted as I write.  Sometimes, I have to efface half a page or more because it's not good enough, and go at it again.  And once in this damndable process now, I've lost 2500 words that were overwritten, so that the research had to be commenced as well.

I can accept that the book may not be as good as I'd hoped for, or has failed on the writing and editing, or is just a clumsy boondoggle that failed to make itself beloved.  I'm working not to have any of those things be true, but if they are, that's on me.  That's my fault.  It'll be my failure.  That's what I mean when I say, the weight of the book is on me.

But the idea that someone out there thinks that, despite their not having been part of its making, and despite having done nothing except read it, their opinion about what the book meant to do, or achieve, is more accurate than mine ... that's ... that's ...

I must turn to a quote from Teddy Roosevelt, quoted in Brene Brown's recent Netflix special,

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

I'm sorry I hadn't encountered that quote in High School, or University.  I'm sorry I never got to beat any of my literature professors over the head with it.  I'm sorry I didn't have a t-shirt made so I could wear it when I used to go to various writer associations and workshops, when I thought those were helping me be a better writer.

Sorry I had to get that off my chest.  Just now, getting ready to go, I'm feeling it's a good time to clean house.

For example, I'm considering there might be a necessity for shuttering this blog.  This isn't a threat, or even a plan, but something I feel I'm being forced into.  See, I'm not even sure there are more than a handful of people still reading me.  My analytics tell me there's between 2,000 and 2,500 page views a day, yet they also tell me that in the last three months, I've had 163 comments.  Half of which are mine.

I suspect a lot of my "views" are bots.  Most of my views.

Virtually every person I know — and nearly everyone I know is younger than me — tells me that blogs are dead.  My own observations seem to bear that out.  Nearly every other blog I see related to RPG are simply pathetic; their authors are churning on precisely the same content they were writing ten years ago, with many of them having chosen a single blog post that they churn out day after day, with the barest of nuance and the dullest of descriptions, word quantity and quality diminishing into dust.  Others churn on about role-playing games they used to play, that they don't now, but they think about playing, though they never go, while droning on about how good this or that version of the game they don't play was better than some other version of the same game.

Jeebus.  Just the notion that I'm vaguely associated with this dreck is disturbing.  One pleasantness of not being on RSS feeds is that my blog isn't found adjacent on multiple lists with these blogs.

I'm being encouraged to accept the inevitable, which would mean moving from script writing to script reading.  One of many possible streaming formats, that have a possibility of encouraging new people to hear what I have to say — who haven't, because the very idea of searching for a blog is anathema to them.  A new audience.  A younger audience, not emotionally locked to role-playing they did in 1992, but still in a frame of mind that they haven't made up yet.

I have my doubts.  Speech requires energy, dramatic authority, production value, greater preparation time and familiarity with technology.  Some of this I can conjure; most of it I understand; but it would mean the end of sitting down at random and shooting out a thousand words or so off the cuff.  But what good is that, if I'm sitting here in an empty room, with words falling off my cuffs onto the internet with all the noise a falling tree makes in an empty forest?

So, change seems in order.

I'd like to know, outside of analytics, who's really here.  I understand the resistance to this sort of request.  I've made them in the past and it's all crickets.  But with this one, I'm pretty serious.  I'm writing a book just now that's going to do far better at game cons than online.  I'm increasingly in a position to put much more effort to appearing at game cons in the next year.  I'm also beginning to feel that JUST writing books might be where I should put all my writing effort into ... as well as into venues, other than this one, where the views might mean something more concrete to me, and my future as a writer.

I've said in the past that I'd be writing this blog into my 90s, and maybe so.  But if the present reader wants to see me write more often than once in a fortnight, or once a month, because there's just less reason to give my effort here, when it would be better given somewhere else, this is the time to raise your hand and comment, "here."

When I go to youtube — and that seems inevitable — and spend my writing there, I promise to tell people.  So if you want me to quit writing this blog, then just leave your hand on your lap.  Don't write "here."  Don't do anything.

And if there's actually just six of you reading this, then I'll also know that from the number of "hears" I get.  Then I'll just write about my travels in the next three weeks as a diary, and pretend no one's reading it but me.

Most of all, I'll know where to put my effort, and what's a waste of my time.  I can stumble anywhere.  I can find dust and sweat and blood to cover my face anywhere.  I can strive with my deeds, spend myself in worthy cause, dare greatly ... anywhere.

This is your chance to convince me to go on doing that here.

Sunday, July 16, 2023

What You're Not Being Told about ChatGPT

This is to provide a clear-eyed perspective about ChatGPT for the reader who knows next to nothing, and is perhaps unfamiliar with the program's existant capability.

Starting with this image:

The image is from this youtube video, which includes a note that the above scene is from "6th Ave, 33rd St - 34th St, NYC 1948."

Now, dear reader, using this page from ChatGPT, type in the following:

"Tell me about the artists shops along 6th avenue, between 33rd and 34th streets, in New York City, in 1948"

Then go tap in the exact same query into Google.

ChatGPT, for whatever other uses it might be put to, is a search engine of unbelievable power and clarity.  Google wants to tell me about 34th St, but I didn't ask about 34th St.  I asked about 6th Ave.  But the more search parameters you add to google, the less clear an answer you get, while the more parameters you add to ChatGPT, the opposite occurs.

As soon as someone figures out how to make ChatGPT into a shopping program, it is the DEATH of Google.

Get ready for it.

The Ice Cave

Ran this last Friday.  Following the destruction of the goblin lair the party had encountered, and having known all along that these were merely a front for a drow elf lair further into the mountain, the party decided on a change of crew.

See, except for the two new players in my campaign, neither of whom have reached 5th level yet, all the characters involved in the goblin fight were henchfolk of the players' higher level characters.  The players had selected a "C"-crew ... as the players call them, made of 1st to 5th level characters.  It's an opportunity for a player to invest in a different class, characteristics, short-term goals and so on.  But the drow promised to be a tougher go, so the party opted to bring in the "B"-crew ... 5th to 8th level characters, excepting one 10th level thief that hasn't been run in a long time, and the two lower-level new players.  Time had to be spent bringing the character up to date before it could be used, but that didn't matter because the players had a great session.

The choice to head back to town and change parties was inspired by the players revealing a secret door through the use of the stone shape spell, on a guess, at a dead end.  This revealed a stairwell to a room filled with offal and the crucified corpses of six goblins, presumably by the drow elves to send a message.  Believing they'd found the start of the drow (they'd met a few when first entering the caves), they opted to bring in the B-crew.

Here's what the dungeon they revealed Friday:

The stairs being in the upper right, they moved down to room A ... a 15 ft. wide room (each hex is 5 ft.) that went 280 ft. straight up (A.).  This wasn't self-evident at first; infravision won't reach that high, nor with torch or lamplight.  The 10th level thief, Ivan, whose primary study is setting traps, saw right away the the first ten rungs of the ladder were designed to set off a dweomer of some kind, though what specifically couldn't be determined because it was out of sight.  Think of it as seeing an aura of residual magic, as you've learned how to do this.

The ladder's rungs would be set off by pulling down, so from within the goblin lair he made shims and deactivated the trap.  He started up, followed by the 8th level monk (Shalar), but was called back down by the 8th level illusionist (Penn), who cast ultravision on most of the party.  This made it possible to see the top, so a segment of the party climbed the ladder to the top.

B. is a room filled with blue ice, intensely cold, very slippery, with white ice coating the walls, ceiling and the top 15 rungs of the ladder.  The sharp turnaround at C. worked like a curling slide, with a 20 ft. drop over 30 ft., from the top of the ladder down to the turn.  There was a low wall, about three feet, at the top of the ladder, but as the ice coated everything, moving at all forward from the ladder's top meant probably losing footing and sweeping down into D., which at this time was unknown to the players.  It might have been a 200 foot plunge straight down, for all they knew.

Once at the top, Ivan identified the alarm spell that was set to go off when the ladder was touched below.

After much deliberation, they obtained the 20 ft. ladder from location E. on the map depicting the goblin lair.  They lashed the end of the shorter ladder, so that it laid down towards point C.  This had only the effect of allowing more players to join the group at the top, to discuss what to do next.  They lowered a rope through C., easing Ivan down around the corner, who got a look at D.

This room was filled with more blue ice, formed like a smooth frozen pool about the center; and atop this center was a 25 ft. young white dragon, sleeping.  The party had made this suggestion already, and so weren't entirely surprised; but they weren't pleased either.  Unfortunately, the dragon expert in the party, the 7th level cleric (Widda), was still back on the bottom (A.), and was one of those who hadn't benefitted from the ultravision spell.

Nonetheless, if Widda could see the dragon, she could identify how strong it was, and how dangerous; they got Widda up and helped her down the ladder to the rope.  So Widda could see (she had infravision, but by my rules this was useless in a deeply cold cave), the 4th level druid (Tavrobel) cast faerie fire on the cleric.  This emits a light glow, so in the ice cave this was enough. 

My dragons are different from AD&D, but the upshot was, 6 hit dice, 2d6 h.p. per die, near grown (so only 7/8ths of the rolled hit points) and not likely to wake up so long as loud noises and aggressive spells weren't employed.  The breath weapon, equal to the beast's hit point tally, would average about 37.  Most of the party could take that, but it's not a great way to start the destruction of a drow elf lair.

The player behind Widda (and Shalar, too) hit on setting a glyph of warding at point C.  My version of this spell allows the character to invest any spell from their lexicon into the glyph being created.  Widda's collection wasn't that great for offense spells, but it was pointed out that her cure serious wounds was reversible.  My version of that spell cures 20-48 h.p.

This was a plan.  Widda set the glyph (technically non-aggressive, as it's just a glyph), and everybody headed back down to A., taking the positions shown, backing off into the cave below the stairs (and Torvik, the 1st level ranger, on the stairs).  Ivan removed the shims from the trap, moved back and let Shalar set the trap off.  Penn, shown at the bottom of the great shaft, cast wraithform and held the spell without discharging it on herself, concentrating.

The alarm went off.  They heard a very distant roar ... then a very distant but terrific scream of pain as the dragon triggered the cause serious wounds.  It had 43 hit points, well above average; it took 32 damage from the glyph.  This was more than half, thoroughly stunning it by my rules ... unable to stop after launching itself through C., it hit the far wall at the top of the shaft for 2d6 collision damage; this took another 9 out of its hit points, leaving it with 2 remaining.  It also left the dragon at the top of a 280 ft. drop; we calculated it's relative time to react before hitting the bottom by calculating a falling velocity halved by wing resistence.  Total, 8 seconds.  Not enough time.  The illusionist went wraithform and the dragon hit the bottom, dead.  Shalar took two damage from the scales and boneshards flying round the cave.

So, technically, Widda one-offed a dragon.  There was much rejoicing.

What with exploration, deliberation, doubt, problem-solving and ultimately bringing it off, three hours passed.  We called the session.  I'm going on vacation 8 days from now, so we won't be playing again for six weeks.

A quick point about Torvik.  Though only 1st level, he was as relevant and important to the overall game as any other player.  And, despite Widda and Shalar being the only two to get any actual hands on experience (and there wasn't much, as I award only 10 pts. per h.p. done), it is a dragon and there is treasure, which everyone gets a share of; and experience from, as the risk was taken by every member of the party.  If the dragon had had more hit points; if the cure serious had done less; then there would have been at least one breathweapon for most everyone to face.

This is how, in my game, a 1st level character can join a 6-8th level party, participate and go up levels faster than other characters.  Tavrobel started with the "A"-crew six months ago, switched to the C-crew after, and is now part of the B-crew.  She's the player's only character, but soon she'll be 5th and will have a second character to become part of the C-crew.  Torvik started with the C-crew and is now with the B-crew.

Secondly, note the various ways in which rules above were used.  Ivan didn't "check" to see if he saw the trap.  He did, because that's his knowledge level.  Nor did he need to roll to deactivate it; it's a very simple trap.  Ivan has set off loads of traps in his past.  He's paid his dues.

In each case, spells and sage abilities meshed to give the players information and solve problems, often by using the spells in new and different ways.  At no time did anyone need to make anything like a "perception" check.  The party walks into a room every time and sees everything.  In no way does this diminish the experience, nor the danger, and it wastes far less time making rolls that don't really contribute to game play.  Perception is just a way for the DM to do "gotcha" moments when players fail the check.  I don't like the overuse of gotcha moments.  I prefer an upfront crisis that needs immediate, effective and sustained action.  I'll do a surprise, but usually only if the players have blundered into something without checking first.  That is, "checking" in the sense of "I look at the ladder before I climb it."

And by that, I don't mean five minutes of the character listing off everything about the ladder looked at, like many old-school game DMs insisted upon when I began playing.  "Look at the ladder" means all of that in short hand.

Finally, after forgetting to get this picture taken for a couple of months now, here's a shot of my DM table arrangement:

Caught the player next to me with her eyes closed.  The person taking the picture would be in the chair on my right.  The screen up and behind me duplicates what's on my screen ... so nothing I'm looking at is hidden.

Enjoy your own D&D games, please.

Wednesday, July 12, 2023

Cooking & DMing

Talking about control ...

One daily activity from which we can get a sense of power is cooking.  The transformation of raw food into a pleasant or remarkable meal is a creative process, though not nearly as "artistic" as a great many made for streaming channels would have us believe.  It's actually simple enough that anyone can learn to do it tolerably well; and in the long run, as we get into our late forties, it's a reliable fact that being able to cook our own food will add 10 to 15 active and healthy years to our lifespan.  Those aren't years added on the end, either.  If you don't want to spend your fifties feeling like you're sixties, you had better learn how to cook.

Cooking offers much satisfaction and room for invention, which is perhaps why I drifted into it.  Invention, however, is not how you learn to cook.  I didn't learn through a school program, but through working in a restaurant and learning to prepare the meals as that restaurant did it.  Without experience, it was hard to get hired in the 90s, when I started; it's nearly impossible now.  My first job was a Burger King, where I worked in the late 1980s to help pay for my university.  I used that experience to get a "prep cook" job in 1992, from which I was promoted onto the line, where I learned to make meals exactly as the company did it, until I could make those meals in my sleep.

I had this silly notion at the time, however, that I'd like to own a restaurant someday ... so when I learned the menu of one restaurant, I found a job at another restaurant and learned their menu.  I asked questions.  I stood shoulder-to-shoulder with better cooks who freely gave advice, to which I listened.  Steadily I moved up into better restaurants, until I worked in a 5-star Italian restaurant for a year, owned by a fury-driven Salerno-born food-mechanic named Armando, who'd learned what he knew from his uncle since the age of 5, in Italy.  After that I swung a job in a hotel, having been told that's where "real food" was cooked (and hated it), and then the catering division of the University of Calgary, where we made meals for 500 people every Stampeders football home game, along with weddings, political events and the students themselves, everyday.  This was the end of my "education."

The only experience I received from all this was that of a slave.  Cooking, whether for a small restaurant or a giant facility, is an industrial process.  There's no feeling of power at all, even if you're the head chef ... because one little mistake, one clever little change to a menu, and the whole thing can sink awfully fast.  Restaurants are slaves to the customers.  All those clever news stories that journalists like to do about the new "hot location" are merely advantaging a fresh restaurant's flash in the pan.  Three years later, that same place is closing its doors forever.  This happens for a lot of reasons that I won't go into, but most of them stem from keeping the clientele happy, when you can't be sure if they are.  A restaurant-goer will lie to a chef's face and say the food was excellent, while at the same time thinking in their heads, "I'm never, ever, coming back here."  People don't like confrontation.  Except for a few cranks, most won't tell you they didn't enjoy the meal.  They'll even tip 15% if they think it gets them out the door without a scene.

What does all this have to do with D&D?

Ordinary DMing, the kind furthered by Mentzer and Holmes, along with others, is also on the low order of creative inventiveness.  Running plain D&D is definitely in the realm of a competent 9 year old.  It's meant to be.  No game manufacturer wants to put on the box, "For ages 35 and up, provided you're a university graduate ... And we mean a real university degree, not humanities or a social science."


To learn how to play D&D, it's recommended you do it by rote.  Here's a module, here's a one-page adventure, here's something that can lead you by the nose so that you know what to say and when.  Here's some additional guidelines to get your players interested in the game by suggesting they write backgrounds, choose from our tremendous host of personalised races and classes, and here's some suggestions about how each of them should interact with the game world we've provided.  Stay within these narrow precepts — a bar, a market place, a road to the dungeon or the next village and the next dungeon —  and you'll see, soon enough you'll be perfectly comfortable running D&D for your friends.

Judging from my anecdotal conversations with hundreds of people these last many years, most of them ex-players, this doesn't work out all that often.  Still, it does work out with enough people that there's hundreds of thousands of regular D&D players in the world.  Perhaps millions, but I sincerely doubt that stat every time I'm in a room with 20 other people who have heard of D&D, have never played D&D, and have never known anyone (they say) who has played it.  But maybe I'm wrong.

Yes, there's room to move outside those precepts, but we need players to be honest in their criticism.  Willing contestation between DM and player is the key to success.  A player has to feel motivated to say, "I hate this rule and I want to be rid of it," and a DM must be able to answer, "Tell me why," rather than, "Fuck you, it's a rule."  Every aspect of the game deserves to be argued over — and not just once, but every time some pretext arises that requires the rule be re-examined.  Neither side should have the perspective that the rule should be killed or supported absolutely; both sides must search for compromise.  This means lessening the rule, if need be; or making it apply to only some situations; or replacing the rule with something that tries to achieve the same effect in a different way.

I had dozens of arguments about experience distribution back in the day, when it was based on the AD&D DM's Guide.  I reshuffled the numbers and reshuffled the importance of monster powers endlessly, until finally an argument ended with my deciding that I could track hits against monsters and against players during combat (which seemed impossible) ... and poof, no more arguments.  The dissatisfaction the players felt, and my repeated agreement that the standing method was invalid, eventually forced an epiphany that solved that aspect of the game.

DMs hate this, however.  They want a rule to stand forever, no matter how crappy it is, because it's "the" rule and fuck you.  Or they want to abide by a precept that says they'll make up whatever the reality as I need it to be, right now, by arguing DM fiat.  But actually argue and ponder and redesign and fail repeatedly in that for years?  No, not doing that.

My experience in cooking taught me that Some restaurants that succeed fall into a habit of doing by rote something that eventually tires the customers until they quit coming.  In other words, the restaurant didn't change and now we hate it.  Other restaurants that succeed rush forward to change their menu on a regular basis to keep things fresh, only to piss off customers who can no longer get the dish they like.  In other words, the restaurant changed and now we hate it.  Can't win?  Nonsense.

Change, when it occurs, must happen slowly.  Instead of changing the whole menu (adopting an entirely different RPG), watch for those dishes that drop progressively week to week.  Make small (!) changes in those dishes.  If that doesn't work, surreptitiously take those dishes off the menu.  Put a new dish in its place.

Restaurants hate to do this because any change to the menu means a reprint of the menu!  How can we give out a menu that hasn't got this dish, so the server has to disappoint the customer?  Some restaurants just white out that dish.  They literally write in the new dish in ink.  Front managers HATE this.  It looks so ... "unprofessional"!  Fooey.  It looks like the restaurant is run by real people, who fixed a problem.  It looks personal.  It looks like a dish we'd like to try.

D&D is too complicated a game to be consistent.  A full change will never work; and spot changes without discussion from the players is a certain failure.  The game has to move fluidly forward at a pace that both the DM and the players can handle, while the concern's of both feel addressed and respected.  This means that a DM absolutely cannot adhere to any fixed position, whether that's "rules as written" or "DM's fiat."  Both are terrible ends of a spectrum that won't be sustained in the long run.

I didn't fully appreciate my education as a cook until I ceased to work as one professionally.  These days, I do all my cooking from home and I'm free to explore and try new things, or to find new ways to do an old thing.  As I've said before, my partner can only have the barest amounts of salt or sugar.  She constantly tests herself daily to ensure her sugar levels are maintained, which involves a tiny needle being stabbed into her finger, then applied to a test strip.  On account of her dietary needs, any restaurant is just a pain in the ass, as it means having to explain that "NO" sugar and "NO" salt are real requests, not guidelines.  I experienced the same thing with my mother, who could not eat salt after 1977 because of her blood disease.  I was a teenage boy, listening to her and my father wrestle with servers who would not listen as they explained that salt could kill her.  Then the meal would come to the table, my mother would taste the tiniest bit of it and helplessly declare, "No, it has salt in it."  Many's a time I watched as a chef came out to the table, and a second argument occurred, ending with the chef saying something like, "I'm sorry, the steak is marinated in salt."  Which would could have been told, had the server known anything about the kitchen.

I'm in my dad's position now, only I'm an experienced cook whereas he wasn't.  There's nothing a restaurant can make that I can't, with a little practice.  Tamara loves fries, pizza, chicken wings and such, but we can't go anywhere and get these ... but I can make them, sans sugar and salt ... well, almost.  In small amounts, Tamara my partner can handle a product up to 7% salt, like mozzarella cheese, whereas my mother couldn't.  But if I could cook for my mother today, after the recent practice I've had, I could rock her world.

Because, as we go forward, even with things we know how to do, the rules change.  They have to change.  And we have to change with them.  We have to encourage the players to see why we've made the rules a certain way (which means we must have a good reason), or we must let the players convince us.  There's no definite, absolute, this will work in every situation solution, ever ... because all things creative are made for human beings, not round pegs and holes.  We change ourselves, in our tastes, our beliefs, our priorities ... and if the game is going to be the best it can be, it has to change with us.

The power to make that change is what makes it satisfying.  The control we have to fit the game to what we need it to be ... and then fit ourselves to the game ... this is what makes it so exciting in the long term.  This is what keeps the game alive, moving it far past bars and market places and dungeons.

First Principles

Of late, I've been thinking about the first principles underlying my affection for D&D.  To start, why did I take to the game so strongly at the beginning, so that it became a central part of my creative drive?

To start, I grew fascinated with the sheer power it offered.  As a player, within the limitations of space, time and having a mortal body, I could do anything I might imagine.  Organise an army and raid a castle?  check.  Use that army to appropriate money and establish myself as the monarch?  check.  Employ diplomacy to make allies of other monarchs in order to form a coalition stronger than any other in the world?  check.  Use that coalition to conquer the world?


In essence, my view of what D&D should be used for was from the perspective of a bond villain.

Unfortunately, as the DM had more power than the player, and as DMs in my youth tended towards smaller perspectives and goals, we the players had to be tomb robbers.  Read that with the thought that after getting hired by Disneyland, you learn your job's going to be cleaning toilets.

So it was tomb after tomb for a long time, until I worked out how to manipulate the DM during those brief moments we'd visit a town to exchange our loot for gear.  I began to ask how to invest my loot into other things ... like, how much does the bar next door actually cost?  Or, can I get a house built?  And a tower.  And I'd get back answers like, "the book says you're not allowed to build a castle until you're 9th level."

Whereupon I'd say, "If I put a bunch of stones on top of other stones, how many stones does it take for the book police in the game world to show up and check my pulse to find out what level I am?"

To which the answer would be, "Um ..."

Then I'd say, without waiting for an answer, "If it's a so-called world, with so-called 'people,' and we can't tell what level any of the NPCs are, then how does anyone in this world know whether or not I'm high enough level to build a castle, hire men or anything else?"

And in response, "Um ..."

By the time I'd played the game a year, and had read all the books twice, and gotten used to all the aspects of play, I could fuck up a DM pretty hard with questions like this, one after another, until I got what I wanted.  I wasn't willing to wait to be told that, "in a game of imagination," I had to wait until I'd passed some arbitrary guide post that made no sense at all in the game's setting that I was allowed to do something.  Fuck that.  I have money for stone, in my pocket, plus money for contractors ... so tell me how much my tower costs.

This galvanised the other players, who found the scales falling from their eyes, and right off they wanted things too.  Turns out, constant day-in and day-out tomb robbing is unfulfilling.

[as Jack and Jim wend their way down a narrow, dripping tunnel, acrid torches pouring fire over the cold roof stones]

Jack: Hey, Jim, you ever wonder why we do this?

Jim: Do what?

Jack: Constantly return to dank places like this.  I mean, it's not that I'm uncertain we're going to find whatever's down here, kill it, and take all its gold, but in the bigger picture ... why are we doing this again?

Jim: Well ... it passes the time.  And bits of it are exciting.

Jack: Okay, I'll grant you that.  But still.  Jus ... just here me out.  I have a ton of coin right now.  You have a ton of coin.  Fran, back there, she has a ton of money.  None of us are lacking for money.  So we're not in this for the money, right?

Jim: No, we're in it for the adventure.

Jack: Ah, yes.  But let's just look at that a moment, huh?  We keep plumbing down into the depths of these caverns looking for deadlier and deadlier monsters — because what we used to kill before is so easy to kill now that its boring — and half the time we come within a hair's breadth of the whole party getting killed.  Then we carry all the gold out ... gold we don't need, I'm just saying ... and head back to town, where we heal up and drink ale until we go out and do it all again.  The same old way, time after time.  I'm just asking why?  With all this money we have, we could build a castle or something.

Jim: We're not 9th level yet.

Jack:  What does that mean?  What's a level?  Now come on, man.  Remember that village we raided on the coast.  We waded in, slaughtered half the people, took all their gold and then we left.  We left.  Why didn't we just stay?  We were obviously tougher than the whole town!

Jim:  Whatta we gonna do in a village?  There ain't no monsters in a village.

Jack:  Then why were we there?

Jim:  Duh.  Gold.

Jack:  All right.  Follow me here.  Where did the gold come from?  How did the village get all the gold.

Jim: The DM?

As soon as my fellow players began to follow my lead, it began to sort out DMs from the chaff.  For a time I played in some really terrific campaigns, as DMs tried hard to keep up with our wants and needs ... but in the end, each felt the pressure overwhelming them.  And each, in turn, shut their campaigns down.

As they did, and I was left as the last DM standing among my associates, I forgot that my friends had tried.  In fact, I forgot until just a few days ago, as I reviewed my memories.  It's something I should have remembered before I went gangbusters on this blog 15 years ago.  Back then, I began to ask for things as a player that others could not do as a DM.  And here, for all these years, I've been asking DMs to do something that most of them can't do ... and for the most part, not because they won't (though I've framed it that way hundreds of times).

They can't do it because they can't.  Partly because they don't know how, which I've tried to manage, but I'm increasingly coming to believe that's not a solution.  And partly because they've been bred, like Jim, to a particular sort of viewpoint that they cannot see past, because there's no reason for them to see past it.

Most of all, however, I think it's because my perception of the game is utterly alien to the human experience.

I fell in love with writing in and around grade 3, at the age of 8 or 9.  Four years later I knew that what I wanted to do for a living was to write.  The thing about writing is that it's about inventing your own world.  Even more so than D&D, because it's about convincing the reader that whatever happens, it's reasonable and possible for that thing to happen.  If we're speaking non-fiction, it's about convincing the reader that the thing being said is true.  That these events in history actually happened.  That this part of the body is responsible for the way you're feeling right now.  That the star you're looking at gets dimmer and brighter at predictable intervals.

Everything about writing is about convincing someone of something, even if it's that Dick and Jane really are running.  But people in general, I've found, suck at convincing anyone of anything, even when they try really, really hard.  And this includes me.  Just look how hard and how long I've worked to raise D&D to a higher standard ... with the only people I've been able to convince being people who already agreed with me.

My accomplishment here hasn't been that I'm writing to someone other than the choir.  It's that I've been able to keep the choir amused for this long.

Most can't even do that.  The largest problem with D&D is that it asks people to master the game; people who are barely able to master themselves.  Their momentary success, for the most part, lies in finding a group of people who want to play D&D ... which is easy enough.  We're all here because we like the same thing.  The deeper problem, however, is maintaining that interest once it's given.  For a period that's at least as long as an entire season of Stranger Things.  Most DMs attempt to do this without ever having witnessed another DM doing this.  Imagine that.

If anyone wants to succeed at DMing, it requires a skill set that comes from something other than D&D.  Writing.  Performance.  Design.  Film-making.  It's a way of thinking on your own that the game's not gonna give you, that you're not going to find in the rules, that you won't "pick up" as you go along.  If you've never felt a moment of honest, real power, one that allows you to choose your own absolute destiny in real time, where you choose where you're going to go despite all the forces of nature and culture that says "no" to you ... then you're never, ever, going to master D&D, or any role-playing game, in any real sustainable sense.  Your best hope is to pick up a bunch of losers who keep turning up at your game because they've got nowhere else to go.

And you don't want to run that crowd.

So, if you're not figuring out what it is to DM, then I suggest you put the game down for a few years and learn how to do something you can control, so that you know what real control feels like.  Become an actor.  Learn how to sail.  Go outside right now and try to convince someone of something they don't believe.  Try hard.  Learn how.

It's your only hope.

Saturday, July 8, 2023

The Tight Play

I recall that when I played D&D, rather than run it, my favourite tactic was to "play my cards close to my chest" ... that is, say nothing of what I intended to do, before doing it.

I didn't, as my own players do, and virtually every player I've ever run, spend a long amount of time discussing first what they think they might do, then a little longer discussing when to do it, and some more time discussing if they should do it, before tentatively doing it while continuing to speak in the future tense.  That is, "We're going to go to the town," or, "I'm going to hit it with my sword."  Getting players to speak in the present tense about what their characters "do," as opposed to what they're "going to do," can be like pulling teeth.  In fact, I've had players argue steadfastly that it's proper to give actions in the future tense, in case the DM wants to disallow the action.

As if I couldn't disallow an action stated in the present tense.

The ongoing confab is understandable.  All too often a loose cannon — someone who goes ahead and does something without discussion — decides that the thing that needs to be done is something enormously stupid, like killing the old man explaining what's going on or setting the bar on fire.  Acts like this increase the general party's need to control the actions of other players, particularly the very dumb ones, and the confab is a rational, reasonable approach to that problem.

Unfortunately — and rarely does a party understand this — it gives tremendous opportunity for the DM to prepare for anything and everything that party does next.  For example, as the party chats among themselves, asking things like: "What if there's a guard waiting behind the door?" ... the DM can think, "Mm, that's a good idea."

Oh yes, of course the DM's not supposed to do that, it would be ethically wrong ... but if we had put a guard behind the door, there's plenty of time to replay, in our head, all the ways the guard might react once the players go ahead with their plan, eventually.

This makes much of dungeon mastering an effort to avoid knowing something that we already know, that we do know, and that our thoughts are going to be affected by, even if we don't want that.  Because we're human, and we're as libel to being primed as anyone.

The matter is particularly relevant when the players tells the other players (and me too) what's going to said to me when the time come to say it to me.  Of course, the player means when it's said to the guard, but I'm also the guard, so I have to tell myself, "Right, the guard doesn't know this," even though I do.

And it is, in fact, more advanced warning than I necessarily want.

Let's think about this cinematically for a moment.  Our lead character says, "We've got to get into that building," and the plucky supporting player says, "Leave it to me."  The supporting player heads off left and we see the lead turn to the scared supporting player and says, "Make sure your safety is off," or something to that effect.

It that situation, playing as the plucky supporting character, I tell the DM I'm getting such-and-such out, but I don't say why or what I'm going to do with it.  In fact, to make this better, I don't get out my flask of oil (effect predictable) or a whistle (effect predictable).  No, instead, I get out some obscure object, say a ripe beet.  Then, hiding behind the corner, I drop my weapons, squeeze the juice of the beet all over my hands, smear it on my face and stagger out, screaming as though I'm pain, crying out, "They've killed me, they've killed me!"

It's odd, the DM isn't ready for it, and for as long as I can keep the DM's attention on me, I can argue that's how long the guards watch me before they take action.  I just need 30 seconds or so.  No problem.

This kind of thing really fucks up a DM.  They're so used to everything being predictable and normal, if something really flakey turns up, they usually stumble all over themselves trying to figure out how they "ought" to respond to it.  This makes a "tight play" really effective, especially if it's lame or nonsensical.  Because something that's nonsense is much harder to react upon than something rational.

If we play the same scene out as most D&D players would, however, one player says, "We've got to get into that building," which is followed by someone saying, "Well, we could do this," and another asking, "How about this?" ... and this goes on for five or ten minutes, unless the DM attacks the party because they think they've got all day to sit behind this wall thinking up something to do without anyone being able to agree.  And in the meantime, the DM knows exactly how to act, because enough time is being given by the players to work that out.

The disappearance of tight play is a great loss for D&D.  It might, in fact, be appropriate to tell the DM, "We want to talk in private."  After all, why should it be the DM's right, all the time, to know what the players are going to do next?  Why isn't it fair to send the DM out for five, ten or twenty minutes, to let the players work out something that their characters have the time to talk about.  I don't think that's reasonable during a battle, or where the time constraint is all too short, but if the players are sitting at a tavern, discussing their next move against the cabal that's threatening their lives, does the DM have to be there?  Is "gawd" always listening?

Since I run a combat system where a player can do a lot more than just swing again (it's inherent in all the equipment, the movement system and other opportunities that arise, and not just for spellcasters), I'm never exactly sure what a given player will do when it's their turn.  I have run players that kept their own counsel, right up to the last moment.  It's fun.  It takes wit, readiness, and the ability to "give it to the player" for coming up with something that's honestly great.

I don't play any more, in part because I often didn't get a good response to my style of play.  It felt, to those DMs I played with, as "manipulative."  I can see their point of view.  Yes.  Exactly.  It's a thinking game.  Being a step ahead of the DM, in a way the game allows, is a way to succeed.  And when I hold back the cards in my hand, it's harder to control me with all the power of the universe at the DM's back and call.

It always seemed that what DMs wanted to do was control me.

So I stopped playing with them.  I do try not to control the players in my own campaign.  Which is very hard when the tell me everything they're about to do.