Friday, July 19, 2024

Guesses

So, where is D&D going?

I stumbled across some rumours about Tencent Holdings Inc. acquiring Wizards of the Coast, something that's arises primarily from financial analyses and reports highlighting Hasbro's financial difficulties. Hasbro's significant financial losses, including layoffs and reduced revenue from its toy business, have spurred speculation that it might sell off profitable divisions like WOTC to stabilize its finances. Tencent is a publicly traded company listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange; it's also a Chinese multinational conglomerate founded in 1998, with shareholders that include investment firms and funds. It's one of the world's largest technology companies, with a market cap of 400 to 500 billion, USD. Hasbro's market cap is around 10 to 15 billion.

Hasbro has absolutely denied that any such acquisition is going to take place, saying, "We don’t make a habit of commenting on internet rumours, but to be clear: we are not looking to sell our D&D IP." Still, a report by the Chinese news outlet Speed Daily, which suggested that Hasbro was considering selling, published on Jan 31, 2024 and was thence translated and disseminated by platforms like Pandaily.

Here's where the story gets interesting. Balder's Gate 3 officially released on Aug 3, 2023. Larian Studios, which developed and released the game, was not the original developer of the Baldur's Gate series. The original Baldur's Gate games, Baldur's Gate (1998) and Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn (2000), were developed by BioWare and published by Interplay Entertainment. As such, Larian had to approach the WOTC with the proposal to develop Baldur's Gate 3, and after discussions, WOTC granted Larian the necessary rights to use the Baldur's Gate name and the Dungeons & Dragons mechanics and lore.

BUT ... Larian had wanted to do on developing further works based on that property. In December 2023, Larian Studios' CEO Swen Vincke expressed frustration and sadness publicly when he learned that much of the company's D&D team were sacked ... these being the same persons who, essentially, had given Larian "carte blanche" to further develop Balder's Gate. This story, published by PCGamesN on December 15, 2023. According to the article, these layoffs were part of a broader reduction in workforce by Hasbro, which had announced substantial job cuts due to financial difficulties.

So, let's review the timeline. Balder's Gate comes out in August '23; four months later, in December, Hasbro fires all the people that Larian had worked with. In January, Tencent is "rumoured" to be in line to buy the WOTC.

Oh. Nearly forgot. Tencent holds a minority stake in Larian Studios, which has facilitated collaboration and support, particularly visible with the success of Baldur's Gate 3. Essentially, Tencent is Larian's monster big buddy, who this last year made a whack of money from Balder's Gate, unquestionably the game of the year.

So, as I was saying, this "rumour" suddenly appears. Hasbro absolutely denies it, which makes sense, since it's common for companies to withhold information about potential mergers or acquisitions until deals are finalized to prevent market instability. It's also common to throw rumours out there, knowing that they're false, in a bid to cause market instability. A huge Chinese company, seeing a successful product line threatened, which has control over a lot of Chinese media, invents a rumour, gets the rumour passed around various outlets and ... instability results.

In March, 2024, with the rumours in the water, Vincke announced that Larian wouldn't be continuing with any future Baldur's Gate projects after Baldur's Gate 3. And now, since March, Hasbro's stock has risen approximately 23%. Arguments have been made that Hasbro has been able to strengthen it's digital capabilities and supply chain productivity, and that it's riding the wave of a positive momentum in the market. But, Hasbro's recent layoffs at Wizards of the Coast (WOTC) appear paradoxical given the division's strong performance. Despite substantial layoffs, including key personnel involved in Dungeons & Dragons and Magic: The Gathering, WOTC has continued to thrive.
Any investigation into why dredges up the standard company boilerplate answers, that a broader strategy by Hasbro to cut costs and focus on "fewer, bigger brands" amid challenging market conditions has steadied the company's financial health. That new appointments like Tim Kilpin as President of Toy, Licensing & Entertainment, and Gina Goetter as Chief Financial Officer are part of ... get ready for this ... Hasbro's "Blueprint 2.0 strategy" aimed at enhancing the value of its brands and improving operational efficiency.

I have a theory. It could be evidence of a proxy fight. If Tencent is steadily acquiring Hasbro's stock, that could account for the irrational jump, after years of the stock performing badly. Tencent might see strategic value in influencing Hasbro, particularly due to the lucrative Wizards of the Coast division. Acquiring control, or at least significant influence, over Hasbro could provide Tencent with substantial leverage in the gaming and entertainment industry. By circulating rumours of a potential acquisition, Tencent might aim to create uncertainty or pressure on Hasbro’s current management. This tactic could be designed to lower the stock price initially, making a takeover more feasible, or to rally shareholder support for changes in leadership or strategy that align with Tencent’s interests.

Hasbro has been circling the drain for a while now. It could be ripe ... and it apparently has poked a bear large enough to smack it down once and for all. None of this, obviously, has anything to do with the WOTC's design problems, but I stumbled upon this and I thought the reader might be interested. It's a bit more like the writing I do for my day job, so it's going to look odd here.

Thursday, July 18, 2024

Factionalism

I went searching for a direct line GNS Theory and 4th edition.  I had little luck.

Ron Edwards introduced GNS theory in 1999, upon co-founding the Forge with Ed Healy. Healy's presence on The Forge was more behind-the-scenes compared to Ron Edwards, who was the more prominent public face of the site. Healy was instrumental in setting up the technical and organizational aspects of the website, enabling it to become a pivotal platform for independent RPG designers. While he did contribute to discussions, his role was focused on facilitating and maintaining the community infrastructure.

After The Forge, Healy went on to pursue various projects. He became well-known for his work with the gaming company, Gamerati, which focused on marketing, news and support for the gaming community. I simply wasn't able to find any information of Healy stating if GNS Theory affected his thinking or not; certainly, Gamerati didn't focus on game design. I include this note because it was missed in the previous post.

GNS Theory was officially published in 2003 by Edwards himself ... but while it inspired quite a lot of discussion online, it did not seem to influence the thinking of James Slavicsek, Rob Heinsoo, James Wyatt or Mike Mearls, the standouts among the design team who began 4th edition's development in earnest, around 2005. Reading Heinsoo's articles at Pelgrane Press, he's quite the fanboy; seeing this video, it's hard to imagine anyone putting a multi-millon dollar property into his hands ... but of course, this could all be a posture he adopts for the fan boys. Slavicsek described Heinsoo as "our mad genius" in an interview in Kobald Quarterly #5; in the same article, he describes James Wyatt as "the storyteller" and himself as "the stat junkie."

The same article (I think; it's hard to tell) makes a case for the design team pretty much throwing a lot of shit at the walls, no doubt thinking they knew what they were doing, but of course we know now that 4th edition was such a disaster that the company had to abandon it in just six years (from 2008 to 2014); which is, from a company standpoint, a disaster. Such a rapid replacement of a major product, based on dissatisfaction from the fan base, reflects a serious misalignment between the product and the customer needs. The failure of 4th edition terrified the company, forcing them to go to the fans to avoid another like fuck-up ... though, as I'll argue, they were unable to do anything except replace 4th with another fuck-up. But let's not get ahead of ourselves. Without direct evidence, it's probable that 4th edition's designers were merely attempting to conform with broader trends and principles in game design, rather than any sort of direct embrace with GNS theory. By the mid-2000s, a great mass of information was floating around as table top gaming evolved.

Nonetheless, however the team got them, there are a few coincidences that are worth noting. 4th edition places a strong emphasis on creating balanced and tactical combat mechanics. This was added to ensure that players enjoying "strategic challenges" and competitive play (gamists) would yet find the game rewarding. The introduction of a standardised set of powers and abilities for all the classes was a move towards that.

And although it was criticised for being too mechanically focused, 4th edition does include tools and guidelines that support storytelling. DMs are given frameworks and advice for crafting engaging narratives (it's very, very clumsy advice, but the push is clearly there), officially promoting the argument for many players that the game ought to be about storytelling and character development (narrativists). And, 4th paid a fair bit of lip service towards the ideal of creating a cohesive and immersive game world, providing settings and materials that helped maintain the game's internal logic. "Points of Light" established a world where small pockets of civilization existed amidst vast, dangerous wilderness. ''Core World" provided a shared world-building framework that DMs could use as a foundation for their campaigns, including details on geography, cosmology, history, and cultures. 4th edition provided detailed descriptions of monster backgrounds, the logic of how magic worked and how different planes interacted with the material world. All this was catered to that specific player who wanted an immersive experience (simulationists).

Whether they meant to or not, the designers ended up with a shotgun approach to game design, addressing a wide array of player needs and preferences. By struggling to appeal to everyone, and in doing so, it heightened the divisiveness between different player factions.

The result was a mess, due to its overemphasis on combat mechanics, which made the game feel more like a tactical exercise than a role-playing experience. This focus alienated players who preferred the narrative and immersive aspects of earlier editions. The significant changes to core mechanics and the introduction of video game-like powers led to a loss of the traditional D&D feel, which frustrated long-time players. Additionally, the complexity and learning curve of the new rules added to the dissatisfaction, making it harder for some players to engage with the game. Despite its ambitious goals, the attempt to cater to diverse player preferences resulted in a divisive and often criticized edition.

The gamists were alienated by the attention given to narrative depth and immersive world-building; those who wanted storytelling and simulation despised the structured combat system, which in turn led to a serious push back against ANY kind of structure when these same people were requested to give their opinions on an upcoming 5th edition.

We must argue that none of this is Edwards fault. Most likely, Edards merely identified and articulated the different factions as they were forming right in front of him in the 1990s. He didn't create the divisions, he merely highlighted them, offering a positive perspective that understanding these differences could lead to better game design.

But to be clear, he wasn't all that forward thinking, either. He didn't see his categories AS divisions. He may have articulated the divisions as ideals, but he oversimplified the underlying dynamics and missed the antagonistic nature of these factions. Players did not merely wish to play the game differently, it became evident in the next ten years that they were actively opposed to how others played the game. Each would strive to reshape the game to fit their ideals, and very definitely at the expense of other play styles. This became brutally apparent with the negotiations surrounding 5th edition. The company's choice to embrace community involvement in the way it did was unprecedented. The D&D Next playtest invited players from all over the world to contribute their ideas, preferences and critiques. Thinking they could unify the disparate factions, the company instead encountered deeply entrenched groups that each had their vision of what D&D should be, with these visions generally being in direct opposition to one another. As feedback rolled in, it became clear that reconciling these diverse play styles would be fucking impossible ... at least, for the level of genius functioning at the WOTC then as now.

According to the company's rhetoric, it decided to implement a "modular approach," allowing Dungeon Masters to tailor the rules to fit their group's preferences. This meant including optional rules and guidelines that could be adopted or ignored based on the play style of each group. By doing so, they aimed to offer a core system that was broad and adaptable enough to accommodate different styles of play without forcing a one-size-fits-all solution.

In reality, the company made a pragmatic decision. It chose a core system that would appeal to the largest faction. Those not picked were sidelined and, as best as the company could without committing itself, thrown some bones to keep them quiet. The priority, as with any company, was to ensure the commercial success and broad appeal of the new edition, primarily tailored the core mechanics and gameplay elements to suit that faction of players that represented, as the company saw it, the greatest number. The company has, as such, put all its eggs in one basket, committed to a game design philosophy that prioritizes narrative flexibility, character development, and the "rule of cool." This has effectively sent a message that if some players don't like the new direction, they should find another game to play.

This has led to a kind of exodus, where mechanics-focused players seek out other RPG systems that better align with their play style, or they revert to earlier editions of D&D that better satisfy their preferences. The expectation for these players to "just go away" manifests in the lack of support and development for more mechanics-intensive content within the current edition. Consequently, the game has become less inclusive of diverse play styles, favoring a homogeneous approach that prioritizes the narrative-driven experience.

The approach has caused problems for the company. The exodus of mechanics-focused players has contributed to dissatisfaction within the community, and the company has struggled to balance the diverse needs of its player base. The dissatisfaction has led to discussions and even grumblings about the need for a new edition that might better address the varying preferences and bring back the players who felt alienated by the fifth edition's direction. This is evident in the choice of calling said new edition, "One D&D."

This is supposed to unify the game's rules and experience across different platforms and play styles. Sound familiar? And, predictably, the initiative has encountered several challenges and criticisms, reflecting the complexity of trying to unify such a diverse player base under a single system. The initiative has indeed faced difficulties, some of which stem from the inherent tensions between different player factions and the ambitious goals set by the company.

One disaster has been the push for digital integration and the expansion of online tools have been met with mixed reactions. While some players appreciate the convenience and modernization these tools offer, others are concerned about the potential loss of the traditional tabletop experience. Issues such as software bugs, accessibility, and the potential for increased costs associated with digital content have also raised concerns. Mostly, it's seen as a cash grab by the company, without actually offering any benefit to the game that's worth the money.

The iterative nature of the playtesting and feedback process has exposed further difficulties. While the open playtesting aims to be inclusive and responsive to player input, it has also led to same disagreements and frustration that existed 12 years ago, that the company has never practically addressed in any manner. "Just go away" basically has the ring of, "Surely, after 12 years, they'll have all left by now." Instead, the dissatisfied players are still here, still angry about what they think matters and still identifying the larger portion of the company's supporters as the enemy.

Meanwhile, everyone ever connected to that part of the company that could have supported the gamists and the simulationists (though it seems really stupid to keep using these terms) are long gone, having either quit or conformed to company policy. There is no future, in short. What we have are three different games, not one game. 

The company's insistence, more than 30 years old now, on using "D&D" as a recognisable name, has crippled it's ability to just making another game for people who want a different game. In 1992, after 2nd edition failed to make the dent desired, the company should have had faith in itself and invented the "Adventure Story" game, or some such, and driven a new product to eventually become more popular than old Dungeons and Dragons.  Instead, afraid to dig in and do the work, they've made such a fuck-up of the landscape that they'll never get out from under. 

So, not Edwards fault. In fact, it just shows that Edwards was another in a long line of poorly educated and highly overrated game designers, who were fed money and respect for being "stat junkies" and "mad scientists" rather than PROFESSIONALS, whom the company should have hired. 

A lot of money was involved.  Educated thinking was not.

Wednesday, July 17, 2024

When We Were Alone

Last Saturday, JB wrote,

"For the most part, I've approached my entire role-playing hobby in this way...and why not, when my introduction to the hobby was the D&D game?...even with game systems that are clearly not conducive to this style of play. Or rather, I did...up until the early 2000s when I started reading RPG theory over at the Forge and recognizing how different systems facilitate different types of play."

 

Okay, so ...

There's absolutely nothing I'd like less than to write a history about how this shit with the early 2000s and GNS theory came about, since I had no conscious part of it at the time and only had to deal with the aftermath.  At no time was I asked, "Do you want the critical elements of the game you love utterly reworked and massacred by an early internet-savvy self-publishing game designer ready to take advantage of an existing ennui perpetrated by a company that didn't actually give a shit about those playing it's RPG game?"

This, however, is hardly understood, and needs a history, one that isn't written by a salivating fan-boy like Maliszewski.  As such, let me piece together the nightmare as I understand it, from what I can find.

Before founding "The Forge," Ron Edwards was primarily known within the role-playing game (RPG) community as an independent game designer and a vocal critic of mainstream RPG design trends.  His early conclusions about the game was that a deep engagement existed between the player and the DM ... the interpretation of which provided him with the insights and experiences that fueled his critical perspectives on game design.  These perspectives had all the verification of a religious zealot ... and had he not possessed them until the present day, or at any time before the mid-1990s, they would have died away without ever being embraced.  But like so many things with which we contend with today, Edwards' particular brand of narcissism coincided with the newness of the internet, which enabled him to spread his ideas through The Forge, which we'll get to momentarily.

Edwards' most notable work was his game "Sorcerer," which he self-published in 1996. "Sorcerer" was distinctive for its focus on personal horror and moral dilemmas, as well as its innovative mechanics that emphasized narrative and thematic depth.  The game made no splash at all within the gaming community; it was just another piece of work, like hundreds and hundreds of others.

In 1999, he founded The Forge, an independent website with its own domain.  This site featured a custom-built online discussion forum specifically designed to facilitate in-depth conversations about role-playing game design and theory. The website was not associated with any of the major social media platforms; instead, it operated as a standalone forum dedicated solely to the RPG community.  While there wasn't a complete vacuum of RPG content at the time, the online resources were somewhat limited and fragmented. The founding of the Forge in 1999 provided a more focused and structured platform.  The alternative at that time were Usenet newsgroups, mailing lists, personal websites and blogs (before those became popular) and a few other forums, notably EN World (originally known as Eric Noah's Unofficial D&D Third Edition News).

Wizards of the Coast, White Wolf and Chaosium had their own websites, which included forums, but these tended to be clumsy, with basic and sometimes clunky designs, and they generally lacked the interactive features that modern websites offer. Most were built using simple HTML and often had rudimentary layouts and navigation.  Features such as forums, chat rooms, and content management systems were in their infancy. While some sites did have forums or message boards, these were often very basic.  They suffered from slow load times, static content and an absence of community engagement, largely because they had a staff of one person who fought mostly to keep the website from crashing.  Compared to these, The Forge, with its focus on community-driven discussion and content, provided a more engaging and specialized platform for RPG enthusiasts and designers.

As The Forge had a clear mission, to explore and develop RPG theory and support independent game design, and because it encouraged conversation rather than dictating a particular belief about gaming, it became a hotbed for new ideas and theories in a community that had become sterile and dissatisfied with D&D.  Many felt that the game, particularly its second edition, had grown stale and overly complex, with a plethora of supplements and rules expansions. The core mechanics and settings were seen as limiting for players seeking fresh and innovative gameplay experiences.  There was a growing interest in RPGs that focused more on narrative and character development rather than the traditional dungeon-crawling and combat-heavy style of D&D. Players wanted games that allowed for deeper storytelling and more meaningful character arcs.  This feeling had led to the proliferation of other games, like White Wolf's "Vampire: The Masquerade," which accentuated storytelling, personal horror and complex social dynamics.

The industry itself, throughout the 1990s, was experiencing fatigue from a flood of supplements, splatbooks and expansions that often felt more like cash grabs than meaningful content additions.  This commercialism left many players and GMs feeling disillusioned with the direction of mainstream RPGs.  This encouraged independent RPGs, which of course was the reason why Edwards tried to do so himself with Sorcerer.  The backdrop of all that was happening prior to 1999 made fertile ground for anyone ready to embrace the internet, see it for the opportunities it provided, and who posssessed a reasonably believable theory that could be espoused upon a dulled, thirsting audience wandering around in a desert.

It should come through this history that I don't have a lot of respect for Edwards.  I can't fault the man himself.  Probably, given what he knew, and the absence of ready game theory books written by educated persons who were unwilling to admit that role-playing games existed, much less to take time deconstructing them, GNS theory sounded plausible.  Unfortunately, like many, many other ideas presented by humans intended to explain things, like "ether" or "phlogiston," it's just fucking wrong.  This is painfully obvious to anyone whose ever done actual research into human behaviour or philosophy, because it bears so many of the characteristics of BAD IDEAS that have occurred in those fields, but to the uninitiated, typical human willing to engage with the internet between 1999 and 2003 (when virtually everyone was either young, a computer nerd or very horny and trying to get laid), it looks completely sensible.  So does Mormonism.  The RPG community was thirty, and willing to drink anything plausible, and Edwards, unknowingly, gave them sand.  And the community drank it up.

GNS Theory, briefly, is a framework developed to categorise and understand different styles of play and design goals in role-playing games (RPGs).  "GNS" stands for Gamist, Narrativist and Simulationist, the three primary types of play styles that the theory identifies.

The Gamist approach prioritises competition, challenge and strategic play, stressing the game aspect of RPGs.  Players in this style seek to overcome obstacles, achieve goals and often compete against each other or the game system itself.  Gamist play typically involves clear rules for conflict resolution, rewards for success and a focus on tactical decision-making, embodying the idea of "winning" within the game context.  Classic dungeon-crawling adventures in Dungeons & Dragons, where players face monsters and puzzles to gain treasure and experience points, are quintessential examples of Gamist play.

The Narrativist approach, on the other hand, prioritises storytelling, thematic depth and the creation of a coherent narrative.  It emphasizes the story aspect of RPGs, where players collaborate to tell meaningful and engaging stories.  Narrativist play often involves mechanics that support storytelling, such as narrative control, character development and thematic conflicts, focusing on creating a compelling and emotionally resonant narrative.  Games like "Dogs in the Vineyard" by Vincent Baker, which center around moral dilemmas and character-driven stories, exemplify Narrativist play.

The Simulationist approach prioritises the realistic or immersive simulation of a particular setting or experience, accentuating the world aspect of RPGs.  Players in this style aim to explore and interact with a detailed and consistent fictional environment.  Simulationist play often involves complex and detailed rules that simulate the physics, politics and social dynamics of the game world, aiming to provide a believable and immersive experience. Games like "GURPS" (Generic Universal RolePlaying System) by Steve Jackson Games, which aim to offer detailed rules for simulating a wide variety of settings and scenarios, are Simulationist in nature.

The theory includes the suggestion that  these three approaches are not mutually exclusive but represent different priorities and preferences that can influence game design and play. While a single game can incorporate elements of all three styles, often one will be more prominent. The theory helps designers and players understand their preferences and make informed choices about the games they create and play.  However, one major criticism is that GNS theory fails to account for the fluid and dynamic nature of player preferences. Players often shift their focus depending on the context of the game session, the story arc or their mood, which the rigid GNS categories do not adequately capture.  Additionally, the theory does not consider the social and psychological aspects of gaming, such as group dynamics, personal player goals and the impact of the game master’s style, which can significantly influence the play experience.

Another issue is the theory's limited applicability to a broader range of games. While it was developed with traditional tabletop RPGs in mind, the rise of diverse gaming formats, including live-action role-playing (LARP), digital RPGs and hybrid games, has shown that GNS theory does not comprehensively address the varied mechanics and experiences these formats offer.

Furthermore, the language and framework of GNS theory cannot be considered academic, but "pseudo-academic."  As Edwards was an amateur game designer, the terms "Gamist," "Narrativist," and "Simulationist" are not clearly defined and can be interpreted in various ways.  This imprecision leads to confusion and misapplication, as different people may have different understandings of what each term means.  Oversimplification, or reductionism, fails to capture the nuanced and overlapping aspects of actual gameplay experiences, making it less useful for practical analysis. Furthermore, much of GNS theory is based on anecdotal evidence and personal observations rather than systematic studies, which undermines its reliability and generalizability across different gaming groups and contexts. While GNS theory uses a formal and structured approach, it lacks the depth and rigor of genuine academic discourse.  This lack of interdisciplinary integration limits its explanatory power. Many professional game designers and scholars have criticized GNS theory for its simplistic approach and failure to account for the complexities of player motivations and game dynamics. These critiques highlight the theory's shortcomings and challenge its validity.

Over the years, more nuanced and flexible frameworks have emerged, such as the "Big Model" or the "Threefold Model," which offer more detailed and adaptable approaches to understanding RPG play styles. These newer models incorporate a broader range of factors, including player psychology and social interactions, providing a more holistic view of gaming experiences.

But the damage has already been done.  The negative imprint of GNS theory on the rhetoric and community think within the RPG community has been considerable. Despite its initial intention to provide a structured approach to understanding different play styles, the theory's flaws and limitations have led to several detrimental effects.  The ideas have contributed to a pervasive sense of dissatisfaction and division within the RPG community over the past two decades. Rather than unifying the community or providing a clear path forward, GNS theory has inadvertently led to a fracturing of concepts, beliefs, and ongoing arguments that have permeated the internet and RPG forums.

One significant issue is that GNS theory has exacerbated divisions within the community by creating rigid categories that encourage a "one size fits all" approach to play styles. This rigid categorization has often led to gatekeeping, where certain styles of play are deemed superior or more legitimate than others. Players and game designers who do not fit neatly into the Gamist, Narrativist, or Simulationist categories can feel marginalized or invalidated, resulting in a fragmented community where mutual respect and appreciation for diverse play styles are lacking.

The theory's imprecise terminology and lack of academic rigor have further fueled endless debates and misunderstandings. Discussions about game design and play preferences often devolve into semantic arguments about what each category truly means. This has led to a culture of pedantry and argumentation, where the focus is on defining and defending theoretical constructs rather than fostering a collaborative and inclusive environment. These debates can be alienating, driving people away from meaningful engagement and innovation in RPG design.

Moreover, the pseudo-academic nature of GNS theory has contributed to a sense of disillusionment. Many in the community initially embraced the theory as a way to bring clarity and improvement to RPG design, only to find that its simplistic and flawed framework did not hold up to scrutiny. This disillusionment has led to a broader skepticism about RPG theories in general, with some feeling that theoretical discussions are more about intellectual posturing than practical improvement.

The fracturing effect of GNS theory has also manifested in the proliferation of niche communities and subcultures within the broader RPG landscape. While diversity in gaming is generally positive, the sharp divisions and lack of common ground have led to isolated echo chambers rather than a cohesive and supportive community. This isolation can stifle cross-pollination of ideas and reduce opportunities for collaborative growth and innovation.

In essence, rather than leading the dissatisfied out of the desert, GNS theory has left a lingering impact on a culture where arguments about play styles often overshadow the joy and creativity that RPGs are meant to inspire. This persistent division underscores the need for more flexible, inclusive, and practical approaches to understanding and enhancing the role-playing game experience.

The state of RPG design over the past two decades has, in many ways, exacerbated the issues that were already problematic in the 1990s. Despite attempts at innovation, many contemporary games still reflect and even amplify the dissatisfactions that existed back then.  5th Edition, while popular, embodies many of the same issues that plagued earlier editions. The game often prioritises superficial storytelling that lacks thematic depth, relying heavily on the Dungeon Master to enforce narrative coherence. This results in a gaming experience that can feel unstructured and unsatisfying, with player whims often driving the story in directions that lack substantive engagement.  Moreover, many modern RPGs continue to stress combat and tactical elements, aspects that were criticized in the 1990s for overshadowing other forms of play. Even games that claim to focus on narrative often fall back on these familiar mechanics, leading to a lack of true innovation in how stories are told within RPGs. This reliance on old, combat-centric mechanics highlights a failure to appease those people who do not care for combat, who still insist on forcing the game away from it.

Indie games, which emerged from the Forge community, aimed to counteract these trends but often ended up creating niche experiences that did not appeal broadly. These games frequently focused on specific themes or narrative mechanics but failed to integrate a balanced approach that could satisfy a wider audience. This has left a gap between mainstream and indie games, with neither fully addressing the underlying dissatisfaction.

Additionally, the rise of corporate influence in game design has led to a proliferation of products that values marketability over genuine innovation. Games are often designed to appeal to the broadest possible audience, resulting in diluted mechanics and superficial storytelling. This commercial approach has further entrenched the issues that were present in the 1990s, making it harder for truly innovative designs to gain traction.  As a result, the promotional rhetoric from gaming companies drastically overstates the innovative aspects of their products. This creates a cycle of hype and disappointment, where games are marketed as revolutionary but fail to deliver meaningful advancements in play experience. Players are left feeling disillusioned, as the promised innovations rarely materialize in a way that addresses their core frustrations.

And the result of all this, the end lesson that cannot or will not be learned, is that the industry, the game designers, the publishers, those in power, and most of those who publish works for a buck and sit on panels discussing their nuanced inadequacy to change anything that's been going on for 30 years now, DO NOT CARE ABOUT YOU.  They don't give a fuck what kind of game you want to play, or what your needs are, or where the game is going in the future or anything having to do with your problems as a DM or what your gaming group wants.  They care about your money, about putting flashy, glitzy things in front of you that convince you to dump another pile of money in their pocket.  And so long as they can massage the language in order to make YOU think that they're going somewhere important with YOUR game, you'll keep bending over and letting them fuck your wallet for as long as you continue being part of this community.

Nobody out here is going to help you.  The internet won't, the voices won't, a general theory of gaming won't, a great community full of deep conversational analysis won't, a new module won't, a new game won't.  You're on your own.  You've always been on your own.  And pre-internet, when everyone fucking knew this, is when ALL the valuable stuff created for these games was written.

When We Were Alone.

So get the internet out of your head.  You want your game to be a good game, do it yourself.

What is never understood about the culture we're all a part of — that disconsolation and ennui associated with the game in the 1990s, that people thought needed to be solved ... that people today still think needs to be solved ... represents the voice of those who aren't involved with the game's creation.  In short, the voice of those who don't matter.  We should not care about people who "don't like the game as it is."  They don't count.  The game wasn't made for them.  Okay.  Let them go and find another game.  We need to stop thinking that our game needs to change so it can be their game.  Fuck them.  They're not part of us.  They never have been.  Like Edwards, who did not like the game that existed, who thought it needed to be some other game, they aren't interested in what we do, or what we like.  They just want to be catered to.

And we need to stop doing that.

Saturday, July 13, 2024

Age and Ability Stats

There is no Saturday Q&A this week. Twas a heavy time for me with regards to work responsibilities, so I hardly touched the ongoing book, I've not touched the tutorial campaign, and on the whole I've been anxious to set responsibilities aside.

But, to bring us up to date on that campaign, Arliss and Bertrand have just stumbled out of the Rustling Wood, encountering a single peasant hut; I haven't updated the wiki yet, but I expect that they'll seek the good will of the farm to learn more about "Timberveil," as I'm calling this type-7 hex.  And for the record, I can well imagine how overwhelming even this simple start is for those who have never seen my blog before.

Bertrand, who grew up on a farm, will offer his services in exchange for food — there is always work to be done on a farm, particularly in the outback, so this offer will be accepted.  

On the 6th of May, while the paladin works, again not officially, Arliss can explore Timberveil (see here) to see what goes on, and learn something about the next hex down stream (blue dot).  He might also try to find a strapping young soul to perhaps join them; there are 14 chances of 4% of this.

A hardened commoner, should they find one, would add +2 h.p. to a d8 roll for hit points and would be proficient with a club as a weapon.  According to the page linked, he or she would also have a +1 to constitution and strength ... which I'm considering just now.  In fact, all this above has just been to get me to what this post is about.

I've long made the argument that class training would be something that youngster would begin around the age of 10 or 11.  In that post, I proposed that a newborn's ability stats would be equal to zero, and that the child would gain 4-10 (2d4+2) points to their random ability stats the first year, and 1-7 (2d4-1) for each year thereafter ... and that this would end up producing an average of 63 at age 15 — which, as I said then, was the actual average of rolling 3d6 six times for a character's ability stats.

Personally, I think this is a brilliant statistical sleight of hand, but at the time it made little impression.  It deserves it's own page on the wiki, but that's for another day.   In any case, I suggested obliquely with that post that those who did not receive training after age 9, the total added for those last six years would be 2d4-2, producing an average of 57 rather than 63.

This neatly gets us around an untrained commoner having the same number of stats as a trained NPC fighter.  Player characters do better than average, as the average of throwing 4d6 and discarding one die of the lowest amount gives an average of 11.91, or 71.46 for all six stats.  The chance of a PC rolling an 18 for a stat is 3.4992 times better than an NPC.

The problem with that "hardening" given to commoners is if I roll an 18 on 3d6 for the NPC, it gets pushed to an 18/10 strength and a 19 constitution, which doesn't really work for me.  Thus I had to include a note that commoners were prohibited from having their ability stats boosted above 18.

But suppose we use the system I proposed in 2010, and generate the commoner in a manner that an initial 18 of any stat isn't possible ... and so that we may know what the youngster's stats were when that individual was at 8 or 10 years of age.

With a little help from chat, I devised an excel page that will do that generation.  Here's a sample screenshot:



Thus our individual developed a significant dexterity very early in life, so that at the age of 4 he or she had the pre-requisite to be a thief.  Quite believable, as such characters have been a part of fiction since forever.  He or she was quite a beautiful baby (3 pts.), but that faded to just above average.  The other stats are fair.

Point in fact, this is not a levelled character.  It proposes that this person might have been one, if they'd had the necessary training, but that never materialised.  Training would have, according to the 2010 post, improved these numbers by 6 points across the board.  The harden commoner page, which indicates a necessity for being "hardened" in order to enter combat without making a moral check first (and we can therefore assume every levelled person, even a mage or a bard, is "hardened" in this fashion), thus gives an additional +1 strength and a +1 constitution.  That's at least 8 point ability points, on average, that this character could have achieved.

But that's not all.  The original random number per year, up until age 9, the reader will recall, is 2d4-1. And with age 10 to 15, 2d4-2.  The latter is an average of 3, but not a limitation of 3.  Suppose that training does better than restoring that "-2" to a "-1."  Suppose that it, in fact, gives a benefit of 2d4 without subtractions at all, or possibly just 1d4+4, applied to all stats, across the board.

We might even posit that different schools of training offer higher stat bonuses for the individuals who take their training there.  Just in case any player characters want to be sure their children go to the best schools.

Those looking at the excel file I've linked will notice, possibly to their distaste, that I've placed a ceiling of 17 on the ability stats, so that this number cannot be exceeded in the generation.  It's my feeling that the 18 has to result from training; it can't be acquired naturally.  This may go against the grain of many, but the fix is easy enough if the reader understands excel.  It's just how I intend my game to go.

Of course, the whole premise may be disputed by some.  The most likely argument is that ability stats cannot be adjusted and are what they are, and that a character with an 18 strength at the age of 4 simply has a ratio-based 18, which makes him or her stronger than other children of that same age.  Comme si, comme ├ža.  The original game clearly did not consider ability stats sacrosanct, and there are rules that state they improve or decline with age, so I feel that what's shown here merely fits into those rules.  And anyway, we don't need to know if a 6 year old can beat up other 6 year olds; we want to know, if the 6 year old with an 6 strength tries to help lift up the cart, how much actual help does that provide?

Because, as an aside, my rules for bend bars and lift gates depends on how much combined strength is brought to bear, without a die roll.  If these bars can be lifted with a 17 strength, and you have that or better, then you can lift these bars.  And if you have a 16 strength, and your one y.o. child has a 1 strength and helps, damn it, you can lift those bars.

'Course, you'll think you did it all by yourself.

All this goes to determine what sort of person Arliss and Bertrand might find, and what interesting stats they might have, allowing for the possibility that they could obtain a useful 10 y.o.  Which I think would be most phenomenal.  I'll have to devise some sort of random table that gives an age for any commoner wanting to join the party.

Tuesday, July 9, 2024

Ship Pricing

Let's talk about pricing ships, as that's the part of the Streetvendor's Guide I'm working on presently.

The idea is to produce a consistent pricing method, so as bigger ships emerge, there's a definable explanation for why they're so expensive.  This involves a demonstration for the player, who can see what's being bought, while at the same time giving a frame of reference for a ship's size and complexity.

Let's start with something very simple:  an oar.  Here's the guide's description for it:

Oar g.p. per item.
Flat-bladed oaken pole used to propel and steer boats through water, with a 12 in. handle shaped for a comfortable grip. Used with the rower facing the stern. Price given is for the 12 ft. long tool used with launches and longboats.  45¾ lb.

Here we have the price of the oar and it's weight.  The initial price of the oar is the cost to have a piece of oak sawn out from the tree as a piece (which itself has a price, but let's not go back that far), which for clarity's sake I define as the wood's "crafted" price ... essentially, wood that's ready to be crafted, rather than after the fact.  "Sawnwood" is easily misunderstood, as wood is sawed for a number of other reasons which, again, we don't have to go into.

The crafted price for oak is 9.21 c.p./lb. ... and this is adjusted for the shipbuilder, as opposed to the furniture maker, the wagonwright, the tool maker and a number of other artisans that also use "crafted" wood.  Ship crafted oak costs 15.91 c.p./lb.  As shown, the oar above weighs 45¾ lb.  Multiply those numbers and we get 726 c.p. and change, which divided into g.p. equals 3¾.

That's the initial pricing structure, but let's take this up a notch and discuss the "cogboat."  Here's how that appears in the Guide:

Cogboat167¼ g.p. per vessel.
A lighter cargo boat than the launch, developed in the 12th century, propelled by two oars with a third crewmember at the tiller. 18 ft. long with a 5 ft. beam, the boat requires a draft of just 2½ ft., very suitable for Baltic coastal regions. Provides space for 10 passengers and up to 1¾ tons of cargo. The keel cuts smoothly through the water at a speed of 2 to 3 knots, though it suffers somewhat in harsh weather. 1,350 lb.

Unlike an oar, a cogboat is made of three different materials, each of which has it's own price.  These are the same oak the oar was made of, plus ironmongery pieces (very definitely not steel, but smithed iron), and pitch.  This last is to seal and waterproof the boat, preventing water from seeping into the vessel.  Pitch has a price of 14.24 c.p./lb., which is based upon the cost of cut pine timber; search where you will on how pitch is made, it's very interesting.  Ironmongery has a price of 12.15 c.p./ounce ... meaning that it's much more expensive than wood or pitch.  Once again, the same crafted shipbuilding oak is still 15.91 c.p./lb.

I put these together in an excel table, with a lot of other similar things, that looks like this:


Yes, I know, all our attention is on the "bastarda" above the cogboat, and I promise we'll get there, but one step at a time.

Under "wt.," we see how much crafted oak shipbuilding, pitch and ironmongery we need to build the vessel.  The price for each of these is shown under "material cost" in c.p.  This number is then added together and appears under "combined materials."  The total weight of the cogboat is then again expressed under "wt." on the far right.

Now, most of you will have noticed that the "combined materials" is higher than the actual three items in the "material cost" column.  That is because, as things become complex, several different materials must be worked together to create a general whole.  To reflect the general complexity of the item, the total is accordingly multiplied.  An oar is a very simple item, made of one material, the total is multiplied by "1".  Two materials together would be multiplied by "1.1" and something like the cogboat, shown here, is multiplied by "1.2."  The actual total of material costs is multiplied by 1.2, which gives us the 32,112.11 c.p. shown ... which translates to 167¼ g.p.

There, that gives some idea of what's going on with the bastarda.  Let me put up the Guide's description of that, though some of you have already seen this on my patreon today.

Bastarda34,612½ g.p. per vessel.
Formidable galley developed in the late 15th century, measuring 120 ft. in length with a 20 ft. beam, with a shallow draft at approximately 5½ ft. Built primarily for ramming and boarding, the galley is equipped with 60 oars, each requiring multiple rowers; this allows for a combined 200 active and relief rowers. An additional crew for navigation, combat and managing the sails rounds the ship’s full complement to 300.

An upper deck above the “ormes,” or rowing deck, provides space for combat operations, allowing for 10 to 12 catapults and other engines for ranged attacks. Two masts support sails to enhance speed when wind conditions are favourable. At the stern, six private quarters for officers each provide a small bunk, a writing desk, storage compartments and space for one person. The remaining crew sleep in three large communal areas. Cargo capacity beyond ballast, crew and equipment is 152¼ tons. Structural weight, 83 tons; difficult.


That's a bit more than the "galley, large" that's priced at 25,000 g.p. in the original Players Handbook back in 1979.  Nor is the bastarda the largest of galleys, either.  But the reader can see how I got to the price.  It's one heck of a lot of crafted oak ... and for the record, the "crafted cedar" is considered separate because this is the cost of building the decks and internal structures, while the "crafted pinewood" is, as it states, for "fixtures" such as the private staterooms and various pieces all around.  It isn't that the inclusion of two additional woods is the reason for adding "0.2" to the multiplier that also affects the price of the oak, but that the overall complexity of the vessel is reflected in the presence of so many different kinds of aspects that must be accounted for.  The presence of the sails on the table does not itself justify an increase in price, but objects that need rigging and sails are unquestionable more expensive and difficult to build.  So the total of all the various parts of the ship are, in the end, multiplied by 1.6 after being added together (7 materials = ratio 1.6).

And that is how the same costs for each requisite part of anything determines the price of every object in a comprehensible manner.  If there is a drawback, it's that if the price of oak wood changes, that change affects the prices of many, many other objects also.

Now, what is the meaning of that last word, after the structural weight:  "difficult"?  Well, it has a meaning that has nothing to do with the cost of the ship, but I'm not explaining that today.

Incidentally, I went around in a wide circle on the subject of ship's weight ... because "displacement" includes the ship's ballast, crew and many other things that are not actually part of the ship's construction ... and therefore are not part of the ship's price calculation, or how much the ship weighs before adding things into it.  Probably, when a character buys a ship, it already has ballast in it; but it seems to me that the cost of that ballast ought to be separate from the price of the ship, per se.  Clearly, somewhere else in the guide, I'll have to explain what ballast is and how much it costs.

Good enough for now.  Enjoy your week.

Saturday, July 6, 2024

Saturday Q&A (jul 6)

Shelby writes,

I do have a question about how the generator interacts with elements that you as the DM know to be there already. If the characters are entering a hex where I know there is a road or city, would certain results become less likely, or would we stop using the generator entirely?

Answer: Let's suppose you'd never seen a map of the place where you live, and you'd never actually been to any of the cities or places that surround you. You'd have heard of them, sure, and you'd know they were generally "out there" in a given direction, but without the map, you couldn't know exactly how far away they were.

Now suppose that you did travel, and found out from personal experience how long it took; you wouldn't be surprised to find the city, because you "knew" it was there. This can be sort of the same. The peasants can say, "oh, of course there's a village," and they can tell the party exactly how long it takes to get there ... but this isn't information that's absolutely necessary to the campaign until the players actually go, and doesn't need to be established until the players actually get there. So long as I build the random generation of village-level hexes, it shouldn't be too long. As such, the players know they'll encounter the village eventually. This is enough. We don't have to generate the map at this time for them.

 

Bob in Ohio writes,

I think I KNOW the answer but want re-assurance. Party is about to take a long (28 day?) journey along a trade road they've traversed before. They CAN revisit some of the interesting site's they "discovered" on previous trips. They can interact with residents and bandit gangs they've encountered before. But how to run it at the table to keep it interesting, not a railroad (even though it kinda IS) and playable? I'm thinking one "random" encounter per day pre-gen'd, but that can turn into a slog. And I HATE just waiving it away.  Advice?

Answer: The answer is how it is presented:

Wrong: a wagon full of people approach the party along the road and one jumps off, pulls a sword and threatens the party.

Not as wrong: a wagon full of people approach the party with the intention of giving the party a lot of exposition about the road and where they are, telling the party a long and dull story, and then try to hire or otherwise make the party feel they ought to invest themselves.

Good: a wagon full of people are seen at the side of the road, camping; they wave at the party, offering food or asking the party if they know the way to San Jose, or some such, and maybe the party asks a question, and maybe not.

Even better: The party sees one fellow trying to fix the wheel of a wagon, but as they approach, they see him try to fit the wheel on the axle three times without success; finally, on the third time, they see the fellow drop to the road, distraught, putting his face in his hands. Sympathetically, the party helps him get his wagon together and a conversation happens spontaneously.

It is this last word that's the goal. You need to give the residents or the bandits or whatever an agenda of their own, which the party observes them carrying out, so that it looks utterly spontaneous, a part of the world just doing what it does, without any sense that it's a staged event for the party's benefit. Once this is done successfully enough to convince the party that they're seeing a completely ordinary thing, not something directly intended to fuck over the party, they'll engage and find themselves enjoying it. And you'll have something better to talk about, because they NPCs will be engaged with their own lives. It's like the list I gave for the Borderland farms happenstance. It's all things that would be happening anyway, whether or not the party was there.

Lance in Louisiana answers:

Spot on advice from Alexis as always. Yet other things to consider are: the traffic on the road, you say it's a trade road, how major of a trade road is it? Those suggestions to make a random encounter once a day from the rules(whatever edition) are assuming wilderness travel, not travel through a populated area on a trade road. Again it depends on where the road is passing through, but I would assume there are many travelers on the road, probably more than one per day of travel. If you know exactly how far they will be traveling and where they will be each day it is much easier to generate those roadside encounters (random or not) ahead of time.

And as Alexis pointed out each individual on the road has their own story to tell independent of the PCs. From my experience the way to make a journey feel like a journey is to HAVE STUFF HAPPEN. Think of any road trips you've been on. How would it feel to be on the road for an entire month. That is an extremely long time to be traveling and lots of things will happen every day, sometimes small things, but they add up. For a journey that long it should be an adventure unto itself.

_____

Thank you for your contributions.  If readers would like to reply to the above, or wish to ask a question or submit observations like those above, please submit to my email, alexiss1@telus.net.  Those giving a $3 donation to my Patreon, https://www.patreon.com/user?u=3015466, can submit questions directly to me in the chat room there.

If you could, please give the region where you're located (state, province, department, county, whatever) as it humanises your comment.

Feel free to address material on the authentic wiki, my books or any subject related to dungeons & dragons.  I encourage you to initiate subject material of your own, and to address your comment to others writing in this space.

Friday, July 5, 2024

Escapism


The logo above denotes a film production company of the 1940s and 50s, which was really a partnership between two filmmakers, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.  This particular version of their logo comes from one of my Top 10 films, the Life and Death of Colonel Blimp.  It may very well be in the top 5.  Another version of the logo can be found on this wikipedia page, which also includes a manifesto of the Archers, which I only chanced to read for the first time yesterday evening.  Allow me to reproduce the manifesto, which describes Powell and Pressburger's sense of responsibility to a studio or other producers ... that is, none at all.  Quote,

"We owe allegiance to nobody except the financial interests which provide our money; and, to them, the sole responsibility of ensuring them a profit, not a loss."

"Every single foot in our films is our own responsibility and nobody else's. We refuse to be guided or coerced by any influence but our own judgement."

"When we start work on a new idea, we must be a year ahead, not only of our competitors, but also of the times. A real film, from idea to universal release, takes a year. Or more."

"No artist believes in escapism. And we secretly believe that no audience does. We have proved, at any rate, that they will pay to see the truth, for other reasons than her nakedness."

"At any time, and particularly at the present, the self-respect of all collaborators, from star to propman, is sustained, or diminished, by the theme and purpose of the film they are working on."


Let me start by saying, I agree.  That is, with respect to my own work, and how I view it.

I am beholden to no one, except those with whom I agree to be responsible towards.   If the work I do is inadequate or of high quality, I am to blame.  When I have an idea, I want to strike at it immediately.  And I believe that what I do, and what I stand for, embraces the idea that theme, or the reason for doing something, is more important than any other part of what I create.

But let's talk about escapism.

What does it mean, the "no artist believes in escapism"?  Is it true?  Does it define the word "artist"?  What is escapism, and why take the stand, among these other things, to say that as artists, Powell and Pressburger are saying that they're interested in truth, instead.

Which, of course, begs that question as well.

Last week, unable to get access to the show in any other way, I signed onto Apple's streaming service so I could watch the show, Ted Lasso.  I had seen several scenes on youtube and was impressed by the writing and the characters, and so I threw some money at the worst technology company in the known universe and watched the show, three seasons in three days.  If you've never heard of the show, I recommend this scene and this one, neither of which will meaningfully spoil the show's storyline, but will introduce most of the characters in their best light.

The show is obstensibly about an American coaching English football, but that is not what the show is about.  The show is about, as one of the clips says, "Grow up, and get over it" ... and every decent person on the series does, which separates the overall work from all the whining, whinging, never-get-over-anything that has polluted television and film these last 15 years.  There are other themes as well, that gets me back in short order to that subject.  A work is not about what the work appears to be about:


This image is not a pipe, and it is not about a pipe.  But until the viewer can grasp this structural relativity, one cannot grasp what theme is apart from moral or message, which is what grade school clumsily fails to correct in the minds of most students.

Escapism is an attempt to emotionally or mentally flee any deeper understanding of the thing we're watching, apart from its most superficial appearance.  It is the argument that this is a pipe, or the representation of one, regardless of the artist's words.  Escapism is the insistence that things be what they appear to be, lest we become mired in a discomforting moment of reflecting on why we've chosen to do something, or see something, which might place us face-to-face with some profound or troubling aspect of life.

No artist wants this.  While the observer of the painting, or the series, or the film being made, has merely to invest a few hours in it, three days say, this is not at all the artist's experience.  There is no escapism in the creation of art, which is the principle reason that most persons do not do it.  Art requires the creator to lock his or her self in a crypt with the work being made and sink into the worst, most repulsive muck imaginable, and to stay there, day after day, month after month, sometimes year after year, and simply endure the horrid, repulsive, uncomfortable truth of it — that the work is very badly done, or insurmountable, or insipid, or any number of other soul-wrenching suppositions that an artist cannot help feeling, while wallowing around trying to make the point have merit or relevance.  This is what the archers are saying: that the naked truth, apart from her lost clothes, is worth doing it for — and is, in fact, the only reason why an artist strives to make anything.

Creating art requires the artist to immerse themselves in the depths of their work, confronting its flaws, difficulties and the relentless self-doubt that accompanies the creative process. This process is not merely about producing something aesthetically pleasing but about grappling with the uncomfortable truths and raw emotions that the work embodies.

But here, we must make a clarification between an artist and a writer, a musician, a painter or any other craftsperson able to use the instruments that an artist also happens to use.  The writers of Emily in Paris manage to cough out various shitty collections of words and characters that appears, to the unfamiliar, to be works of art, though they are nothing but frames in which to place advertising, which in turn justifies the next season of this abomination of a television series.  And should those writers win some award that's paid for by a studio, they will preen themselves and call themselves artists, and those demented souls who like the show for it's escapist qualities will likewise call them artists, which muddies all of this water somewhat for the non-creator.  It's so very, very easy in this culture to confuse "art" with "programming," and to declare that there is no difference, because it's oh so easy.  And thus is my thesis likewise easily exploded, by all those who will point at Emily in Paris or the Sabrina the Teenage Witch or any other show that provides such a comfortable, lovely experience in its lovely, lovely escapist qualities.

Nonetheless, that thesis is sustained if it's understood.  The Archers do not say that artists are not interested in producing escapism, but rather, that escapism cannot be produced by an artist.  The distinction is fine, but clear.

An artist may understand or even work within the realm of popular media, but the core of their creative process is rooted in confronting and expressing deeper truths.  Escapism, in contrast, is an evasion of these truths, providing a comfortable retreat rather than a challenging engagement.

And thus, we arrive at everything that has gone wrong with dungeons and dragons.

In its early iterations, D&D required players to immerse themselves deeply in the game's world, navigating intricate plots, moral dilemmas, and richly detailed settings. The game's creators intended for it to provoke thought, challenge players, and offer a meaningful experience beyond simple entertainment.

However, as D&D evolved and sought a broader audience, there has been a shift towards more escapist content. This trend is marked by an emphasis on spectacle, straightforward quests, and simplified mechanics that prioritize immediate gratification over deep engagement. The result is a version of D&D that offers an enjoyable, but ultimately superficial, experience, catering to those seeking a quick escape rather than a profound adventure.

And just like shitty television, the apparent popularity of present-day D&D has been conflated into a belief in its "artistry," as though the demonstration of a larger audience, and the awareness of more media outlets, and the occasional DM who now speaks of being a "professional" because he or she is paid, receives daily accolades.  Because someone has made a movie of it, which in no way reflects the actual game as it's actually played, or any of the characters therein, or any of the game's structure or nuance, the simple logo is enough to offer a cred it doesn't deserve.

If, upon occasion, I lose the sense of why the pursuit of a specific kind of game that I'm creating isn't me slipping off my cracker, it's only because the misery of creation is so very, very miserable.  But now and then a wake-up call, a manifesto by some filmmakers written 85 something years ago, I'm able to snap back to myself and remember, oh right, I'm not making shitty D&D.  I have no interest in escapism.  Trapped in all this muck, I forgot that a moment.  I got some muck in my eye.  I'm all right now.

The path that I'm on diverges so starkly from the mainstream that its easy to be overwhelmed.  My goal is not to churn out another formulaic product, though I've been encouraged to do that for the money.  But that's not what I'm interested in doing.  If the producers of Emily in Paris showed up with a truck full of money, I'd say no.

I recognise that most people wouldn't or couldn't believe me when I say that ... but most people, as I said, are not artists.

P.S.,

As the truck drove away, my partner would be really, really angry with me.

Wednesday, July 3, 2024

Building Something

The newest work involves the design of a very mundane game setting, a frontier set of farmhouses, with no villages, thorpes or hamlets of any kind. Just 65 persons living in 14 farmhouses, spaced 3/4 of a mile apart. With this, I've been carefully designing really basic non-adventuring set ups for a 1st level party. Possible set-ups include: a disease takes hold of some residents; a group of residents plan an expedition into the true wilderness to hunt; one farmer loses some livestock and it must be searched for; a new settler in the area has more work to do than the family can manage, and the players can help; the players are asked to help improve the area by digging a water well. This mixed in with the possibility of getting into a fight with a small group of outlaws, with vermin, with a predator or possibly a roving monster.

This gives me some leeway as to what sort of tone a campaign might possess. For example, it could focuse on the difficulties and struggles of the farmers, the isolation of the environment and the general fight everyone has for food. We can imagine a party ready to take it upon themselves to help these people, but understanding that "gold" is more or less useless; there's no where to buy things and one can't eat gold. The obvious solution that most party's would do would be to travel some distance, find food, pay for it, and haul it back ... but realistically, these isolated self-driven folk would look down on this sort of "solution," calling it charity, doubting the veracity of the party, probably refusing to eat this food that they didn't work for. Going elsewhere to buy food for these people is not the answer.

Instead, consider the overall sense of community and cooperation. Imagine that these people are not resistant or hateful of outsiders; we're not trying to create a fabricated conflict here. Suppose them to be rational, that the hands and effort of the party, working side by side with these independent peasants, could make the party one of them. They could embrace these strangers, call them friends, respect them for getting their hands dirty or breaking their backs to clear stones, pick weeds, help bring in the slain deer from a hunt or help protect the farmhouses from predators and vermin.

This sort of tone is anathema for players much of the time, who value independence and rugged individualism ... but I want to think about the game on a different level, where the thing the players work to achieve isn't stopping some evil from doing a bad thing in this moment, but helping good folk achieve good work on a day to day basis. And in doing so, becoming respected, becoming members of that community, even rising to being leaders, where the community trusts them and has reason to do so. This positions the party for those deeper adventures at a higher level, where they must enter this dungeon or clear that other lair, or root out some village of dangerous humanoids, not for the plunder, not for the glamour, but because it makes "our village" safer and better able to sustain itself.

It's not unheard of; it's the premise of a great many westerns, where the bad people act like player characters normally act, and the "heroes" are the ones who vouch for law and order and risking life and limb for cause, not for coin. I understand how in this post-colonial world how alien this sounds, how utterly unlike the premise the game appears to have been founded upon; a premise I've run many times and would have soundly defended in my youth. But even then, in playing a game, I always liked to build things. On this blog, I've written about starting a trading town, I've written about building a base camp from which to launch raids on a dungeon. I've written about starting a mustard farm.

I think building gets very little credit in this game. Far less than it deserves. Nor are we just talking about houses and economic ventures. There's the building of a reputation, the building of trust between oneself and the residents, the empowerment of one's character in gaining the respect of people in the game world with power and their own agency. We only think of power in terms of how many spells we have or how much damage we can do; there's no room in a typical DM's lexicon for building a world that accentuates planning, collaboration or the development of the setting ... yet I believe that the players enjoying the evident fruit of their labours could be the richest and most fulfilling experience possible.

Much of the drawback is the need to create artificial conflict between NPCs and players. We see so much of this on television. People can't just work together. They can't achieve things together. They must be depicted as disagreeing over policy, of maneouvering behind each other's backs for leverage, of being absolute moral vacuums in their willingness to perform any loathsome act if it wins them one fleeting moment of besting the other character. DMs are raised on this story content, as we all are, and for them, "story" means drama, not out of some rational motive, but for the pure, unrelenting need for conflict ... because conflict is "interesting."

It's not, really. We know that Tom isn't going to succeed, or that Jane's efforts will end in her humiliation, or that the marriage between Brent and Rebecca is destined to break up, no matter how close they are in the first season, because every facet of every story is a glass pillar waiting for the hammer to fall in the second season or the third season or whenever the writers run out of conflict.

Instead of contrived conflicts, instead of the DM always inventing another obstacle to fuck over the party, instead of the party hacking every ally in the back before the ally can hack them, the enviroment and the task at hand, making this settlement thrive, or making the surrounding hills safe, has plenty of obstacles and trials without needing to invent interpersonal drama. And as hurdles are overcome, players can feel a genuine sense of accomplishment, creating a game experience that rises above all the others as "that one time we built something, because the DM let us."

It is perhaps because I have been at this 40+ years, and that I am tired of the endless cycle of conflict-driven adventure cliches. It's my game, and I'm a player in my game, and I want to make things. If there had ever been a DM in my life whose game I would have been a player in, that DM would have let me do this.

Sunday, June 30, 2024

Dratgash Hills


Once I would have rushed to post this map on this blog, but a previous version of this has been on patreon since yesterday.  The above has no fixed location in my gaming world, instead representing the "explored" lands related to the play tutorial on my wiki, specifically this page for the "Dratgash Hills."  The wilderness generation seems to be working fine, though it's going to need a hundred tweaks and added material as time passes, which is the intent and purpose here.  For the present I'm satisfied that it is building a world, though somewhat mundane by 5e standards.  Personally, I've always found the actual concrete play the most interesting thing, since I'm interested in making right choices for survival, rather than getting my fantasies on.

The map shows 6-mile hexes in bold, 2-mile hexes in semi-bold and 0.741-mile hexes in faint lines.  I don't plan to map the whole world in this format, only what this party encounters, with the light brown area showing, generously, the parts the party has tramped through.  I had experimented with this map design about a year ago, not sure how I was going to use it, but I felt it would be best to keep it hid until it came to be useful.  I do like the trees a great deal, especially as usually I don't do trees well.

The small number "3" in the corner of one hex indicates the number of "happenstance" rolls that have been made there, which must be kept track of.

As soon as the party actually encounters a dangerous living creature, which would be nice, actually producing a combat, I'll make another combat video.  Meanwhile, as I say, it's been a lot more time spent on Patreon lately, primarily because of the chat room there.

It's not a lot of people using it or anything, it's only that on Patreon, I get a better idea of who's actually reading my work, of who's involved, what their opinions are and what things I should work on.  The campaign poll, when I put one up, gets a good conversation going.  A 1$ donation gets the reader into the poll and the comments section there, but a $3 donation gets into the real conversation, the one that takes place in the chat room.

Hell, what are you going to spend $3 on, anyway?  At least you can lurk in the chatroom, which most of my supporters plainly do, since I'm there several times a day, every day, and I'm always ready to answer questions or say something.  

Come and join my patreon.  It's better than blog-reading.

Saturday, June 29, 2024

Saturday Q&A (jun 29)

Bob in Ohio writes,

I started playing D&D in the late 70's but got out before 2.0. So I missed 3.5 and 4 as well, then came back to 5 in 2018 or so. Didn't like some of it so at my table I use 5e as the base with a LOT of cuts and homebrew. The Hasbro/WotC conglomerate is rolling out 5.5/6/One soon. And the PHB and DMG have hit. And it's ..... woke?

Start with Orcs. Remember those little pig snouted things that were the go-to foe back in the day? They're now humans. And either Hispanic or perhaps Romani. The dwarves are depicted as gay barristas - they've tattooed each others beards on their arms! You want human orcs and gay dwarves in your game? You go! You do you. To oversimplify "This ain't your father's D&D."

IMHO It's a move even further away from the game "as intended." Does this make me a "gatekeeper?" I don't think so. As I said above — you do you. Bottom line — after giving it some thought this afternoon — those that own D&D have decided they will no longer be designing/providing the game I want to play. Michael Shea has long espoused that we don't need their books to play. And you long ago embraced that philosophy. But this has been my wakeup call.

Answer: I hate to ever think that Michael Shea and I have anything in common.


Maxwell in California writes,

The range on the fireball spell looks wrong.  Should it be 100 ft. per level?

Answer:  GAWD no. Figure. You can't have the spell until you're 5th, which means the minimum range it's ever going to have is 60 ft. It means that yes, you have to get close and personal. The radius is 20 ft., so you're easily 40 ft. from the blast; gives you lots of room if you don't want to include yourself in the fun.

Maxwell: Gotcha. I happened to have the AD&D PHB open and it led me astray. So much for mages as artillery :) Regarding "Gives you lots of room..." OK. Plus IIRC you allow a mage to reduce the size of a spell if they want (i.e. 20 ft radius is a maximum; it could be lessened to 10 or 15.)

Answer: "Mage as artillery" is broken game design. Just thinking ... suppose you don't use the "reduce the size" feature, and a 1st level has a "fireball" scroll. That's a range of 20 feet. And the radius would be 20 feet. Technically, it would mean the mage could kiss the fireball, but I'd rule that it wouldn't scorch.


_____

Thank you for your contributions.  If readers would like to reply to the above, or wish to ask a question or submit observations like those above, please submit to my email, alexiss1@telus.net.  Those giving a $3 donation to my Patreon, https://www.patreon.com/user?u=3015466, can submit questions directly to me in the chat room there.

If you could, please give the region where you're located (state, province, department, county, whatever) as it humanises your comment.

Feel free to address material on the authentic wiki, my books or any subject related to dungeons & dragons.  I encourage you to initiate subject material of your own, and to address your comment to others writing in this space.     

Thursday, June 27, 2024

Content is Hard

Content is hard.  For those creators who are dependent on coming up with wholly new material every time they post, or want to upload a video, I feel for them, I truly do ... because on some level, they're dependent on finding something to write about.  Oh, how I have been there myself, so many times.

Many of the once-brilliant creators I follow are so plainly done.  Compare this, which came out yesterday, to Danskin's earlier work.  Compare this, from a week ago, from Olsen's earlier work.  Compare this, from gawd knows when because it took so long for Rowntree to put something up, to his earlier work.  All three examples represent enormous amounts of effort; plain evidence of comprehension and purpose; unquestioned ability and skill.  And all three are absolutely the creator going up his own asshole, for lack of having anything relevant left to say.  This isn't a recent problem.  All three have been struggling for years now.  Since the onset of covid, none of them have remotely produced the relevancy of work they once created.  And that is the key word, because the fault in their work isn't their artistic ability, but in their inability to be relevant.

How I pray I'm not them.

I don't know that I'm not ... but it has been explained to me that part of my path is that I'm not casting around each time I post, or each time I imagine a project, for something new to write about.  I can, at a whim, sit here and write about dungeons and dragons for an hour, easily, on any part of the game, on the spur of the moment.  I'm not trying to write reviews of things, which forces me to go out and find things to write reviews about.  I'm not dependent on gimmicks like "30 things that begin with an 'N'" that I have to write about every November.  I can make maps every day for a couple of months ... and then not.  I can work on the wiki everyday for a couple of months ... and then not.  I literally have no end to the open-ended projects that exist in my setting, that I can't possibly ever finish, because they're monumentally huge.  I'm not dependent on someone else's movie, or someone else's recent release, or someone else's questions and involvement.  If the Q&A lies empty, so it goes.  It doesn't make or break my presence here.

And I have only myself to thank for that.  The teenager me went at this game's design with hammer and tongs from the beginning, certain that I could deconstruct every element in it and make it better.  Gygax's DMG had so many faults and failings that I cheerfully set out to rewrite tables and expand portions of the book.  Single sentences in that book led me to projects that I've pursued for thirty years, some with mixed success, some with startling results.  I may be tired; I may not know, for a week or two, how to create a given table or explain a set of proposed rules, but I'm not bored with the work I do.  It seems all the time that the path in front of me is ready to be trod upon and the direction plain ... and all in all, I don't feel irrelevant.  Most of the time.

I've had moments, certainly, expressed on this blog, when I've wondered if AD&D itself has become so irrelevant it won't survive my lifetime.  I've had moments of enormous blind rage at various successful toadies who, unlike those respected persons I began this post with, do not have ability, skill, insight, a willingness to work or a purpose ... except, perhaps, to bilk people out of their money for shit content.  I have definitely felt ignored.  Painfully so.  But it still feels like the work that I'm doing has application and value.

I can't begin to guess at what to say to those creators who are losing their verve.  I don't believe they know it.  Or perhaps, the well really is dry and this is all they've got left.  In either case, it's a doomed situation.  If they've lost their sight regarding their own work, then nothing anyone else says or does will ever reach through the fog of self-righteousness that a creator has to wrap tightly all round as protection against the slings and arrows of ignorant critics.  That fog is critical.  If I keep insisting that you, dear reader, don't understand what I'm doing, and that you can't understand it because you haven't the ability to do so, then I can sustain myself and my "vision" until the day it all collapses and I collapse with my arms around a horse's neck, gibbering out promises that I'll protect it.

On the other hand, if I've lost the sight, truly lost it, and am unable to see my way to any content that doesn't wallow in the mire or insignificance, then gawd, what a pathetic case am I.  Like a professional guitarist adrift on a desert island without a guitar.  Don't look at me.  Please don't suggest anything.  Please, I can't bear it.  I can't bear what I've become.

It is the most miserable fate I can imagine ... to want to create, for these fellows plainly want to create, though it takes them a year to create and edit just two hours of minimalistic content, in some cases using a team of four or five people helping them.  I can edit 15 minutes of video in an afternoon; I can write 15 minutes of dialogue in about 90 minutes.  Yet these poor souls must needs 7 months to find a subject, read books on the subject, carefully craft their dialogue, purchase props, angst over their camera angles and costumes, painstakingly edit and so on, to deliver a video for youtube that's not quite as long as a feature film, with only one performer and the most minimalist of lighting or movement.  The agony they must go through, questioning every line, reshooting or rewriting every facet of ever second's delivery ... or perhaps the months and months of dreary wall staring as they furtively seek something to film or deconstruct.  I am so glad I'm not them.  Go up my own ass I may, but I don't take 9 months to do it.

Before encountering these recent works from these other creators, I was having my concerns about my own recent efforts.  Does it make sense to run myself in a randomised game system?  The combats are fun, reassuring to see posted, and I look forward to another; but is this whole thing just a weird, mastubatory debacle that I've talked myself into following the collapse of my offline game campaign?  I can't lie to myself, this might be the case.  I'd considered doing something like this before, more than a year ago, but I couldn't see having the time, nor really the motivation to do it.  I had players already.  I could play test stuff with them.

So, perhaps, I've gone off a deep end somewhere.  I admit I'm not finding the randomness "easy," especially the wilderness, which is vastly more difficult than a dungeon.  I reassure myself that it's because I haven't been doing it very long.  There are a lot of twists and turns to account for that aren't second nature, in this format.  I want to get going, but I have to keep stopping because some table needs making.  It's frustrating that I can't just play.

But am I losing my marbles?  I'm not asking the reader ... after all, my own fog of self-righteousness is firmly in place.  I'm taking a moment and orienting myself, looking at the various familiar benchmarks and deciding if these unlikely places really do need to be surveyed.  I'm checking my instruments, my calculations.  Hell, I'm popping my finger into my mouth and using it to test the wind.

Am I losing my marbles?

I don't know.  But this seems like what's next.  I have a lot of other things I could be doing; and happily, I got a lot of solid work done on the Guide this week.  But this, this weird random thing ... this seems to be next.  I don't know what it will produce, I don't know what inspirations it will give me.  I'm trying to trust myself, my instruments and my calculations.  I'm saying out loud, I'm not these others that I used to respect, but have since begun to wonder about.  I think.

I'll have to see.