Sunday, March 31, 2024

The First Concrete Step to Being a Dungeon Master

When I wrote How to Run, one subject I was able to dodge was that of becoming a dungeon master. Because I was interested in writing and "advanced" guide, I undertook the premise that the reader already knew how to DM, and was therefore adept at doing it. This allowed me to skip past the subject that ought to be included in many books that give advice on how a person might become a DM in the first place. There were lots of books like that on the market, though I feel they're all dreck, while no one had bothered to assume an audience that didn't need to be taught the basics.

A hurdle to overcome in addressing this issue is the expectations of the non-DM. Next to nothing concrete is written about what makes a person a "DM." I myself have argued that being a DM is a state of mind, based on my anecdotal evidence that most who perform the art want to do it enough that they didn't let ignorance or inability stop them. I've argued that to be a good DM, one has to do it, a lot, gathering pattern-recognition and skills along the way.

This is a simplification, obviously. I didn't succeed at being a DM because I "wanted it," as a self-help book would say. That post clarified my thinking, leading to this post. I didn't keep climbing and I didn't become a better DM because I kept learning. Moreover, I didn't "check my ego" either, because if there's anything a DM really needs, it's a bigger ego. 'Course, the goal is to have a lot of self-esteem and not to be a monster. There are egos and there are egos.

Here's a quick list of things I did in the three years after encountering D&D that improved my abilities as a dungeon master.

1.  I read the books.  I don't mean this facetiously, I mean that I read the books fervently and all the time, over and over, like a hard-core smoker digging in public ashtrays looking for butts.  I read the books so thoroughly that the bindings creased and the page corners were bent.  The pages didn't come out because, thank gawd and elvis, the DMG and the Players Handbook were made well ... but a lesser book would have come apart in those three years from all the use I gave them.

Many of the better passages became second nature to me, while anything that someone might say about the books would either ring a bell or it wouldn't ... and a lot of times, some player would "claim" a thing was in the books while I had the confidence to say, "It damn well isn't," and throw the book at the player (well-made) and say, "Find it!"  Which failed, because I'd read those books too often to be caught in a trick like that.

2. I practiced the game.  I mean, all the time, and not just when there were players.  All the time.  I was 15 and I had lots and lots of time to roll up piles of characters and assign them to miniatures and devise random tables to dictate who fought who, so I could play out combats and then assign treasure and update the characters to higher levels and have them fight again, and again and again.  I played in my room on my desk with three books open on my bed, at my elbow on one side, a nest of papers in front of me upon which I took notes, and repurposed game boards from other games to serve as templates for moving characters upon.  Ever play D&D on the "Life" boardgame and reassign the notes on the squares to have D&D meanings?  I have.  Ever played mass combats on a scrabble board where the coloured squares were either traps or treasure?   I have.

I didn't play just when I had players.  The players weren't there all the time, were they?  I couldn't wait for players.  I was obsessed.  I wanted to play.  I was like the would-be piano student whose parents are getting worried because he won't stop practicing.  I didn't need encouragement to practice.  I was busy finding new ways to practice.  I loved practicing.  I crammed 30, 40 hours of D&D play into each week, after school and on the weekends, and when I sat in class I sketched ideas out to myself in class.

There is a reality we all learn where it comes to reading, though most of us forget all about it by the time we're 10.  There is a time when we can't read; when we don't even know the letters.  There is a time when, after we're taught how, most of the things in the world that have been written are still incomprehensible to us.  At this point, a sort of self-selecting principle divides one sort of reader from the next  the willingness to read something we don't understand.  Most children shy away from that.  Quite a few are weaned onto it by being read to by their parents and others, which gives encouragement to try again, because it sounds so interesting when Grandma reads the words.  The rest of us just want to read so bad, we keep trying.  The world does its level best to put words in front of us.  Sure, there's video and music and games and all sorts of things to distract us, but even then, such things include words we don't know and ideas we want to look into further.

But to learn to read well, we have to read even when it means we're not getting the whole of it.  Even when we misunderstand.  Even when we're going over the same passage a dozen times and it still doesn't make sense.  Because that's how we learn.  We practice.  We practice even when it sucks to practice, even when it's boring, even when our fingers ache from trying to go from G to C to D.  Even when the webs of our fingers burn from doing scales.  Even when we sound like shit.

And this means, running the game when we can't run the game.  It means precisely that.  It means wasting a lot of time looking for things in books because we need to have the answer, while everyone sits around and moans or complains that the game is so boring.  For a while, we're going to bore or upset our players.  For a while, we're going to be unfair and accuse them of things.  For a while, we're going to mess up on some rule and have to retcon everything.  For a long, long while, we're just going to fuck up.

And when someone says, "Hey, the rules don't have to be this complicated ..."

... we should be thinking of how a statement like that might apply to learning guitar, for instance, and how that statement might fit into our conception of what really talented guitarists say, or how we feel about a particular guitar solo.  Do we really want Stevie Ray Vaughn or Jimi Hendrix to have taken a "less complicated" route?  Is that what we want?  Does that even make sense?

And when someone says, "Hey, make the rules up instead of looking the rules up ..."

... we should be thinking about our boss at work taking that approach to our jobs, or our spouses taking that approach to our marriage, or anybody in authority taking that approach to their authority.  And when they say that they're doing this for our own good, are they?  Is that how it feels?  Do we get a sense of feeling ... good about them doing that?

And when someone says, "Hey, give the players as many chances as possible to succeed ..."

... we should be thinking how much this sounds like giving everyone a participation ribbon in school, and how much this lowers the standard of our success, and how much it cheapens our experience at work when the co-worker who fucks up the most, all the time, gets promoted to a better paying position because "skill" is less important than "pull."  How many chances at success do you think a baseball player should get, or an actor putting on a performance for a play we paid $95 to see, or the doctor that's going to remove our gall bladder?  And how much "fun" is a player's guaranteed success?

Nearly all the advice about DMing and running role-playing games isn't just bad, it's two-faced and backhanded.  It's there to serve the speaker, not the listener, for the speaker's goal is to sound fine and encouraging, while not giving a rat fuck if the advice is useful or not.  Worse, most of this advice clearly sets out to undermine the would-be DM's capacity to ever get better at the task.  "Choose the easiest path; don't expect things of yourself; don't have a standard for anyone; ignore the rules."

In what field, in what thing we respect in this world, does this advice ever apply?  In what experience of ours have we ever learned that doing things the easiest way, by ignoring the greatest number of rules, ever served us well long-term?

And they are giving this advice to children, for fuck's sake.  And making money at it.


Just for shits and giggles, I took a title from the list provided in this post of JB's, "Making Players Shine," and suggested that chatGPT write an essay for D&D with that title.  Here it is, without a single edit:

Making Players Shine: The Art of Dungeon Mastering in Dungeons and Dragons

Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) is not just a game; it's an immersive experience where players embark on epic adventures, conquer challenges, and weave tales of heroism. At the heart of every successful D&D campaign lies the Dungeon Master (DM), the storyteller who crafts the world, sets the stage, and facilitates the players' journey. One of the most rewarding aspects of being a DM is creating opportunities for players to shine. In this essay, we will explore the art of dungeon mastering with a focus on empowering players and allowing their characters to become the heroes of their own stories.

Central to the concept of making players shine is understanding and embracing player agency. Player agency refers to the freedom and ability of players to make meaningful choices that impact the game world. As a DM, it's crucial to provide opportunities for players to exercise their agency, whether it's deciding how to approach a problem, choosing their allies, or determining the direction of the story. By giving players a sense of ownership over their characters and their actions, DMs empower them to truly shine.

Another key aspect of making players shine is designing dynamic challenges that cater to their strengths and weaknesses. Every player brings a unique set of skills, abilities, and preferences to the table, and it's the DM's responsibility to create encounters that allow each player to showcase their talents. This might involve designing combat encounters that play to the strengths of certain classes or providing puzzles and role-playing opportunities that allow players to utilize their character's abilities in creative ways. By tailoring challenges to the individual strengths of each player, DMs can ensure that everyone has a chance to shine.

While D&D is ultimately a collaborative game, it's important to recognize that each player's character is the hero of their own story. DMs can make players shine by creating opportunities for each character to take center stage and showcase their unique personalities, motivations, and backstories. This might involve weaving character-driven plotlines into the overarching narrative, introducing NPCs that have personal connections to the players' characters, or allowing players to make meaningful decisions that shape the world around them. By fostering a collaborative yet individualized experience, DMs can ensure that every player has their moment to shine.

In D&D, some of the most memorable moments occur when players think outside the box and come up with creative solutions to problems. As a DM, it's important to reward players for their creativity and ingenuity, even if it means deviating from the original plan. Whether it's awarding bonus experience points for clever tactics in combat or granting inspiration for inventive role-playing, DMs can encourage players to shine by recognizing and celebrating their creativity. By embracing the unexpected and allowing players the freedom to explore and experiment, DMs can create a truly immersive and memorable gaming experience.

In the world of Dungeons and Dragons, the true magic lies in the stories that unfold around the gaming table. As a DM, one of the greatest joys is watching players step into the spotlight and become the heroes of their own adventures. By understanding and embracing player agency, creating dynamic challenges, fostering collaboration and role-playing, and rewarding creativity and ingenuity, DMs can create an environment where every player has the opportunity to shine. In doing so, they not only enhance the gaming experience but also cultivate a sense of camaraderie, creativity, and empowerment that will keep players coming back for more adventures. So, let us raise our dice and embark on a journey where every player has the chance to shine bright like a supernova in the vast cosmos of Dungeons and Dragons.

I could publish that, as is, in any present-day D&D forum or book, and it wouldn't be the least out of place.  It is complete bullshit from end to end, but that doesn't matter, because people  kids  will pay for it, believe it, try to run their games according to it, and never fully understand that there's anything wrong with it.

I could use chatGPT to produce an essay for every one of the titles that JB listed on his blog, package it, put a cover on it and sell it as a book on the internet without probably having to make a single edit throughout.  And while it would sell, and I would make money (and the reader would too, since Chat is available to all), I wouldn't make enough money to make it worth the powers-that-be to go after me for copyright infringement.  Which also wouldn't help them because just and you and I, Dear Reader, can produce this book and have it on the market by Saturday, so can thousands and thousands of others, just as easily.

I made a comment on JB's post that Chat has made Michael Shea, of the Lazy Dungeon Master, obsolete.  And it has.  Though neither he nor most people know it yet.

But you know it now.  And though I choose not to be a monster, there's nothing stopping you, Dear Reader, from being one.  So go ahead, be one.  They're willing, and have been willing, to shove this crap out for decades, without hesitation or a hint of shame.  To children.  So why should you be any different?

Saturday, March 30, 2024

Saturday Q&A (mar 30)

Sterling in Maine writes,

When we spoke face-to-face last summer I attempted to express to you my vision that an ideal RPG setting would react to the stimulus of player action like nature reacts to the stimulus of human activity. "Even if that meant the the PCs stepped into gopher holes a peculiarly large number of times in a row," as you may recall. What I meant to convey is that I, as referee (I know that we differ too on that role), wish to give my players the world as it is, even it is anti-climactic or redundant, because that is the world. The world exists as it exists whether or not I like it and whether or not it has dramatic value. The concept has pushed me toward looking at "closed" RPG systems as an ideal.

The group I run has been alternating between my low fantasy 1478, Sengoku-era-like-Ireland AD&D campaign and "Paris that never was" 1607 En Garde! game. It has been for me a fascinating experiment so far in terms both of the behavior of my players and my duties and role as a referee. I think that what I'd ultimately like to achieve is a system as closed as GDW's En Garde! that is simultaneously as open as AD&D. I can vaguely see a path, but it's complex and I'm unsteady. I doubt that this is a path that you are also interested in following, thought I hope it might be, but it is a path I believe I can walk better with your input regardless.

Answer: Perhaps this is a rehash of what I said on your porch, but the short version is that your game world is in danger of reproducing Skyrim. Beautiful, richly elegant, but deadly dull. 27 centuries of evident human linguistic creation, plus probably another 60,000 years of telling hunting stories around a campfire, has demonstrated that humans related to compressed event relation tactics. ASMR content on the internet aside, with streaming videos on twitch showing people asleep in their beds, or cleaning their houses (which is pretty much a solo watching activity, I should think), for nine hours, most of the time people just want a DM who will get to the point. I know I would. Of course, if your players will accept it, that's fine. But are you sure that's how they want it, or is it just that they'll take what they can get? I'd worry it was the latter.

Griffin writes,

I remember that in the past you have advocated for getting up and moving around (#2 here) so I wonder if this is a change over the years, or are they different aspects? Like moving around to see what people are rolling is fine, but stay still when presenting information?

Answer: Yes, that's more or less a good assessment. I do still advocate getting out of one's chair. I try to adopt the motionless stance when I'm standing and running the game. This happens most often when I've gotten up to get a drink or a little food, and I don't need to be at the computer screen because the party isn't in combat. An amusing part of this is, however, that if I have a cup of hot coffee, I'll stand there holding it in my hand, making small jerky motions that make my daughter — who sits nearest the kitchen — nervous about me slopping coffee into her tablet. She tells me, "Get away from me with your gesturing coffee." Which is fair. Holding the coffee like that while running is an absent-minded thing anyway.


Sorry about the lateness of this post.  I forgot it was Saturday.  How irresponsible of me.

Thank you for your contributions, Sterling and Griffin.  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,  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.    

For the sake of the RSS feeds that read this post and put it elsewhere, I need to post the full url of my Patreon with every post:  Apparently, links are rendered dead on many feeds.  Please support my Patreon, it's an important part of my monthly income.

Friday, March 29, 2024

When the Writer is Ready ...

"Well, at this point I'm not very interested at being 'a great DM.' Somehow it's enough for me as it is. So now I'm not very interested in that kind of books."

On the subject of writing books telling people "how to D&D," we can safely divide the game-playing population into two initial groups: (a) pat me on the head; and (b), like Redrick here, "meh."  It's quite common for people to adopt the excuse that since I don't want to be great, there's no reason I should be better.  Obviously that doesn't just apply to D&D.  We see it everyday in our jobs, exhibited by both the boss and one's co-workers.  "We're doing well enough; let's not make this more difficult by trying to do better."

As far as those wanting a pat on the head, there's plenty of sustainable energy from those who give brilliant advice like, "keep learning"  without, obviously, making any suggestion about what ought to be learned or where this knowledge is to be gotten.  If this is the sort of advice you want to get, try chatGPT.  It's wonderful for that.

Me: I want to write a book teaching people how to be a DM for Dungeons and Dragons.

Chat: That sounds like a fantastic project! Being a Dungeon Master (DM) for Dungeons and Dragons is both an art and a skill, and there's a lot to learn and share in a comprehensive guide. Here's a rough outline to get you started:

Title: "Mastering the Dungeon: A Comprehensive Guide to Becoming a Dungeon Master in Dungeons and Dragons"

Introduction:Welcome to the World of Dungeon Mastering
      • What is Dungeons and Dragons?
      • Why Become a Dungeon Master?
      • What This Book Offers
Chapter 1: Getting Started
      • Understanding the Role of the Dungeon Master
      • Gathering Essential Materials
      • Choosing an Edition: D&D 5th Edition Overview
      • Setting Up Your First Adventure
Chapter 2: Building Worlds and Narratives
      • Crafting a Compelling Setting
      • Developing Engaging Storylines
      • Creating Memorable Non-Player Characters (NPCs)
Chapter 3: Rules and Mechanics
      • Understanding the Core Mechanics
      • Combat: A Detailed Overview
      • Handling Challenges and Skill Checks
      • Incorporating House Rules
Chapter 4: Preparing and Running Sessions
      • Session Zero: Character Creation and Expectations
      • Structuring Your Sessions
      • Improvisation Techniques
      • Managing Player Choices and Agency
Chapter 5: Managing Players and Table Dynamics
      • Fostering a Positive Gaming Environment
      • Dealing with Player Conflict
      • Balancing Player Engagement
Chapter 6: Creating and Balancing Encounters
      • Designing Balanced Encounters
      • Adjusting Difficulty on the Fly
      • Using Terrain and Environmental Factors
Chapter 7: Building and Managing Campaigns
      • Planning Long-Term Campaign Arcs
      • Integrating Player Backstories
      • Maintaining Campaign Consistency
Chapter 8: Enhancing Your Game
      • Incorporating Props and Visual Aids
      • Using Music and Sound Effects
      • Experimenting with Alternative Game Styles (Theater of the Mind, Hexcrawl, etc.)
Chapter 9: Troubleshooting and Problem-Solving
      • Addressing Common Issues at the Table
      • Handling Player Disengagement
      • Rebooting a Stalled Campaign
Chapter 10: Continuing Your Journey
      • Resources for Further Learning
      • Joining Online Communities and Forums
      • Seeking Feedback and Improvement
Conclusion:Congratulations! You're a Dungeon Master
      • Final Words of Encouragement
      • Appendices:Sample NPCs and Monsters
      • Sample Adventure Modules
      • Glossary of Terms
      • Character Sheets and Blank Maps
Remember to include examples, anecdotes, and tips from your own experiences as a DM to make the guide more relatable and engaging. Good luck with your book!

See?  No thinking necessary.  And if you want to wade into a world of garbage thinking, ask Chat to explain any of the above points.

The problem isn't that writers of game books choose not to be useful; it's that the actual philosophy of how to describe gaming, and what gaming is, and what matters, contributes to a culture of "proactivity" that is more concerned with organising the bullshit than discriminating between what is and what isn't helpful.

Me: Explain how to deal with player conflict, as a DM, within D&D, in paragraph format.

Chat: Dealing with player conflict as a Dungeon Master (DM) in Dungeons and Dragons requires a delicate balance of diplomacy, fairness, and assertiveness. The first step is to address the conflict openly and directly. Encourage players to voice their concerns in a respectful manner and ensure that everyone has an opportunity to speak without interruption. As the mediator, listen attentively to each side's perspective and strive to understand the underlying issues. Once the root cause of the conflict is identified, work with the players to find a compromise or solution that satisfies everyone involved. This may involve making adjustments to the game mechanics, revisiting previous rulings, or clarifying expectations for future interactions. It's crucial to remain impartial and avoid taking sides, focusing instead on fostering a collaborative and inclusive gaming environment. If necessary, remind players of the importance of respect, teamwork, and mutual enjoyment. Ultimately, the goal is to resolve the conflict constructively while preserving the integrity of the game and maintaining positive relationships among the players.

See?  Whatever the question, the result is a parade of subjective non-specific things you ought to do, without any possible comprehension between what's offered.  There's no point in asking how to be "diplomatic" or "fair" or "assertive" ... the answers are all equally subjective.  Not because Chat is designed to be subjective, but because the source material that Chat is pulling from is only more of this.  These are what all the source materials already existing on the internet, or in those piles that Chat was trained to comprehend, are designed to convey. They simply spew tons and tons of this kind of material ... because it fills pages.  Lots and lots of pages.  Pages that people are willing to pay for.

It's the same rhetoric the pervades the self-help phenomenon.  It's not possible for a person to just "be more assertive" or know what to do just because players have been encouraged to "voice their concerns."  Like a book that urges you that getting better isn't that hard, that you have to just keep climbing, that you have to believe in yourself and not give up, none of this actually tells us what we should be doing.  And worse than helping, self-help books prevail upon the reader to think more and more about the problem by promising a solution that never, in fact, materialises.  In effect, the book blames you, the reader.  If you, the reader, would just be make the right adjustments to the game mechanics, your game would be great.  If you, the reader, would just remind the players of the importance of teamwork, your game would be great.  But somehow, it never is.  And because of the source material you're reading, the answer to that, too, is obvious.  It's because you, the reader, didn't do it right.

I don't know how I can make this clearer.  You, dear reader, are the victim: and the self-help book industry is blaming you.  Because it empowers the self-help book industry.  Q.E.D.

However, the RPG industry has insidiously embraced this industry for a long time, so that they've successfully convinced the balance of would-be DMs that this is how advice ought to be given.  Many, many commentors habitually describe these phrases, such at those Chat above generated, as "concise" and "practical," though obviously they're not.  It's not ignorance; it's a belief that, in the absence of any concrete information being available, many convince themselves that they were helped by such books, although in fact it was little more than a pat on the head that effectively said, "just be yourself, you're a good person, everything's fine" or some other similar drivel.

For any book to be actually helpful in training a dungeon master to do any of the things generated above, in concrete terms (that is, existing in material or physical form, not abstract), there are specific things that it needs to do.  But to portray that, I'll have to use an example from a completely different

Me: How do I prepare a soft-boiled egg?

Chat: To prepare a soft-boiled egg, start by selecting fresh eggs from the store. Fresh eggs ensure a firmer egg white, which helps maintain the egg's structure during cooking. Next, fill a pot with enough water to cover the eggs and bring it to a rolling boil over high heat. Gently lower the eggs into the boiling water using a spoon or tongs, being careful not to crack them. Set a timer for about 4 to 6 minutes, depending on your desired level of doneness and the size of the egg. While the eggs are boiling, you can prepare an ice water bath to stop the cooking process and prevent overcooking. Once the timer goes off, use a slotted spoon to carefully remove the eggs from the boiling water and transfer them to the ice water bath to cool down. Let them sit for a few minutes before gently cracking the shell and peeling it away. Serve the soft-boiled eggs immediately with toast or incorporate them into salads or other dishes. Adjust the timing as needed based on altitude, egg size, and personal preference. With practice, you'll achieve perfectly soft-boiled eggs every time.

There.  Stores exist.  There are eggs there.  They have recognisably different properties that can be defined.  Do this.  Then do this.  Set this timer.  Recognise you may have specific tastes regarding how long the egg ought to be cooked to fit your personal needs.  Use these tools.  Let them cool.  Crack the shell and peel it away.  Practice the procedure.

Until the question, "How do I become a dungeon master" can be defined in this manner, the book you're reading is useless.

Naturally, the begged question is, can a book about DMing be written in this way?  Is that possible?  Quote, "Because it doesn't seem possible.  I've never seen such a book; no one has ever published such a book; the company hasn't even hinted that such a book could be written.  D&D seems so, um, subjective to me."  I find it hard to believe that a concrete book of this time is a believable possibility."

Yep.  See, this is why the self-help industry is very careful in targeting a particular kind of subject ... squidgy, imprecise subjects.  Little did I realise in the early 80s, with my first experiences of D&D, that the inability of people to be precise about the sort of game they wanted to play would open the door to the sort of writing that would make so much money from telling romantics how to get married, or would-be businessmen to become rich and famous, or youtubers how to make tons of money making their own videos, etcetera, etcetera.  But here we are.  Don't discount what I just said about the industry setting out to convince you, the reader, that you need the self-help industry.  It's your life-line.  After all, there's no other possible way you could start a successful business.  You have to believe in yourself.  You have to think your way to success.  You can't just do a simple thing well, keep doing it well, be polite to people, don't overspend, learn the industry you're in, pay attention to changes and work all the time, so as to be successful.  That's just crazy talk.

When a person on the internet says, "Stop playing 5th edition," we read that as "opinion," which can be instantly ignored.  But when that same person says, "foster a collaborative and inclusive gaming environment," that sounds very positive, and therefore obviously much better than "opinion."  Gosh, I'm going to keep playing 5th edition, only from now on I'm going to foster a collaborative and inclusive gaming environment.  That'll work.

There's a method of telling the difference between "opinion" and "knowledge."  The method hasn't been around very long.  Only 2,300 years and some.  The distinction addresses one of the most subjective subjects there is, human thought, yet somehow gets a lot further towards providing a concrete definition than a typical how-to D&D book. Here goes ...

According to Aristotle, knowledge is characterized by certainty and necessity, based on true and justified beliefs grounded in demonstrable evidence or logical reasoning. In contrast, opinion lacks the certainty and reliability of knowledge, as it is based on appearances, probabilities, or premises accepted as true but not necessarily universally valid. Knowledge involves understanding the causes and principles underlying phenomena, whereas opinion relies on perceptions and beliefs about the world that may be subject to error or revision.

If you want to dive into this  and trust me, you won't enjoy it  the works are Nichomachean Ethics and Prior Analytics.  But this is all I'm going to say about Aristotle today.  You think.

For a book to be helpful regarding D&D, is must be rooted in research; that is to say, the writer must have done more than play the game, and must be willing to go further than giving subjective advice without concrete examples of what is meant by the words used.  If the writer says, "D&D requires a delicate balance" of anything, then the following must be included: (a) several factual, concrete examples of this balance; (b) a specific step-by-step guide, equivalent to how to boil an egg, to explain how this balance is achieved by someone who has never done it before; and (c) a conclusive paragraph explaining how the results of this balance cannot be achieved in some other way, specifically because of what the balance concretely does.

If these three things are not written about this balance, then the passage is not merely opinion, it is BULLSHIT.  It's certainly not knowledge.  Aristotle says so.

No, two out of three is not enough.

For a book to be helpful regarding D&D, the advice given has to be universal. Let's see, what does that mean? It means it can't be contingent on specific circumstances, individuals, or subjective perspectives. Instead, universal knowledge is applicable across all instances of a given phenomenon and is independent of particular contexts or personal beliefs.  In essence, the knowledge claims must possess characteristics that are genuinely "knowable."

If the advice being given is, "do what feels right," or "you do you," these things are utterly subjective in their perspective.  In no way whatsoever is this advice objectively comprehensible.  It doesn't even help me know what feels "right" for me, much less the next person.  Something that's universal is often characterised by its necessity.  You NEED this if you want to boil an egg.  It can't be done at all if you don't have this specific thing, namely an egg, the water it has to float in or the heat needed to boil that water.

For a book to be helpful regarding D&D, the advice can't make false promises.  It cannot give assurances that something unrealistic will happen.  We can't say, "this book will make you a better DM," because we don't know who's reading it.  When you pick up a book about chemistry, you don't find in the introduction, "This book will make you a better chemist."  In fact, absolutely nothing whatsoever is said about the reader, because the book is about chemistry, not the reader.  A book on how to play D&D should not start with the question, "Why Become a Dungeon Master?" ... because my choosing to become one or not is none of the book's fucking business.  The book should shut the fuck up about why I'm reading it and get about the business of telling me what I want to know.  A high school chemistry book might have an introduction about why chemistry is a great subject, but that part's written by some educator, not the chemist!  The chemist doesn't care.  The chemist is concerned with chemistry, the reason the book is being written.

There is too much time spent in these books that have nothing to do with the subject at hand ... which is, without a doubt, evidence that the book's goal is not to teach us how to be a dungeon master, but how to appreciate the author's suffering and how to feel worse about ourselves.

And finally, for a book to be helpful regarding D&D, though I've already said this, it must provide real-world actions that I, the reader, can take.  And I, the reader, must in turn take those actions, experimenting with them to see if they ARE universal and not, in fact, about blowing smoke up my ass.  These actions should be crystal clear.  "Stop playing 5th Edition," for example.  Buy 3rd edition books, 2nd edition, 1st edition, for these reasons.  And we, as the reader of this book, like we would if we were reading a chemistry book, knowing very little ourselves about chemistry, should trust that the damned author understands the material being presented.

When the D&D book says, a DM must have these specific, point-by-point expectations of the players, for these reasons and these reasons, and must enforce these expectations, in this way and in this way, then we as the people who wish to become better DMs have to embrace that concept and walk the path laid out for us.  We can't suddenly decide, "Wait, my friend's feelings were hurt," and then choose not to enforce our expectations for that reason ... and suppose at the same time that we're going to somehow understand what's being said and why.  The book can explain, "Sometimes you'll have to hurt your friend's feelings," and "In the end, you'll discover why your friend will be grateful for that" ... but if we won't actually go through the actions in order to get the wisdom, then we deserve to be ignorant.  Because this is how knowledge works.  Sometimes, what we suppose is not knowledge, and conversely, knowledge is often what we don't suppose.  Part of the reason for that is because, according to Aristotle again, your suppositions are "opinions" and NOT KNOWLEDGE.  The book is here to provide knowledge.  It shouldn't be here to assuage your suppositions ...

... particularly because your suppositions aren't universal.

Would it be easy to write a book like this?  Fuck no.  Is a chemistry book easy to write?  Is a children's book ...?  All books are hard.  If you, dear reader, have no idea how a book like this would sound, or read, or have to say to you, then you're obviously not the person to write such a book.  And if you choose to base the probability of such a book based on your suppositions about it's purported existence?

Then you're a bloody moron.

Thursday, March 28, 2024

The Campaign Travels the Volga River

Continuing from the last post.  These events described below happened some 18 or 19 years ago, so please recognise that neither I nor any of the player characters can quite remember exactly what happened.  Celeste, my daughter, has been helpful in filling in some gaps, but there are names and such that have just disappeared, as well as the details behind vaguely remembered combats that took place.  None of us kept an elaborate record until years later.

After having visited the market at Voronezh a couple of times, for my trade tables were up and running at the time (though they'd undergo a severe overhaul in 2009), the party indicated they were more interested in exploring to the north and east, rather than the west.  They set out for Borisoglebsk, an alternate market yet in the county of Voronezh, but very different.  With the history of my Russia being very different from the real world, much of the central Volga river remains in the hands of the Tatars and the Jagatai (or Chagatai) peoples.  That is, orcs.

Borisoglebsk is a seasonal market, a tiny village of just 150 people, where orcs and humans trade by agreement with each other.  Starting in the late summer, the steppe is too cold to travel upon, so only the permanent residents of the village remain and no sales take place.  In the summer, when the party was there, nomadic peoples travel there and settle for a month or more, so that the "population" swells to more than 2,000.  Many of the things sold aren't officially part of the village market, but rather goods that can be got by wandering among the tents.  Both orcs and humans understand that this tenuous arrangement is more valuable than an outbreak of violence would be; but there are young fools on both sides, and brief fights to occur.

These are usually arranged to take place in stone pits, a la the beginning of the old Conan film.  While the party was here, we picked up three new players.  Mike and Andrew lasted for all of one running.  They chose to ignore the dangers, double-dealing a set of ruffians; frankly, I can't remember the details, but it would have been pretty transparent what they were doing.

These two players were friends of mine, about 30 y.o., who learned I was running a campaign, something they hadn't done in many years.  They had all the bad habits of players who think roleplaying is about being a jackass and getting away with it, with the usual assumption that a DM won't kill them, but will always find a back door for them to escape through.  Andrew's character was quietly assassinated, the way someone would have to be in Borisoglebsk.  Mike was forced into a pit match and he died there.  Neither held it against me, but they decided my kind of serious gaming "wasn't for them."

The third player to join was Tucci, who goes by his last name because his first was far too common in school.  He was a schoolmate of Celeste and Kevin.  Tucci rolled up a monk, which also still lives to this day, a fellow named "Shalar."  Even back to 1980, my associates and I understood the two basic flaws with the Player's Handbook monk character was hit points and armour class.  Improve the latter by two points, and change the HD from a d4 to a d6, and a monk as written is totally sustainable.  I've run a few myself; they remain my favourite character, though I never play any more.

Tucci is a terrifically goodnatured fellow, sardonic, brave but not completely stupid, though the balance was different back in those early days.  I'll talk more about that after.  He took advice, fit easily into the party and I liked him right from the start.

The party decided to travel north from Borisoglebsk, circling around the orcish lands up to Tambov, then towards Nizhne-Novgorod, modern-day Gorkiy.  This is a huge market town on the Volga River, which enabled the players to improve their belongings to some degree.  Damned if I remember what they bought, but they were pleased.  From there, they travelled southeastward into the small land of Harnia, a gnomish kingdom in the present day oblast of Penza, for those who might be interested.  There were a few combats along the way and the party had reached 3rd level.  Tucci, unfortunately, wasn't as consistent a player as the others, which only meant that he tended to gather experience a little slower.

They felt intimidated in Harnia, deciding to travel through and see what was there, without disturbing anyone.  In Bortrun, a fair-sized city of Harnia (modern Kuznetsk), the party was approached to carry a message eastward into orcish Jagatai, to the city of Samara on the Volga.  The same Samara that's there now; in my game world it's a fairly international market city, with strong ties to the far east beyond the Ural Mountains, Siberia and such, none of which is in human hands; it's also the first step on one route to China.

The letter was to a Moscovite noble, Petrov Famitch, who was posing as a merchant in Samara.  There was no danger, they were told, but the letter had to be delivered soon, as time was a factor.  The players agreed and set out, the journey being about 150 miles.  They encountered an orcish patrol and dispatched them with little difficulty, as they'd made friends with a hill giant by that time (name forgotten) who agreed to help them through the more dangerous hill country.  Three days from Samara, it rained heavily, a cold rain, and Pikel rolled a 1 on a d100 and came down with a bad cold.  A similarly bad die roll the next day nearly spelled his death.  When the party reached Samara, Pikel was unconscious with pneumonia, carried thankfully by the monk, who by the tables I was using in those days, had rolled a height of 7 ft. 2 in., and a weight of nearly 300 lbs.  An apothecary was found and Pikel was saved, but it took three weeks for him to recover.  Kevin's bad luck with that incident has come up many times, for as I said, bad luck is rare with him.

Petrov Famitch was nowhere to be found, but at last the party located an associate of his.  The letter told that there was a siege planned upon the Moskovite river fort of Saratov, down the Volga from Samara.  This was something that Petrov had discovered on his own, and being a paladin lord, had already taken a collection of his retainers down river to accomplish what the gnome in Bortrun had wanted him to do — prevent the siege if possible, or remain there to lead a force the Bortrun gnomes intended to send.

This associate, name long forgotten, but we'll call her Maria Sokolova, was also a retainer of Petrov and was waiting for more of his retainers to gather in Samara before heading out.  Learning of the party's bravery in crossing the Jagatai frontier, she offered for them to attend her down to Saratov and the party agreed.  They had neared 4th level by the time they reached Saratov, which was under siege by an orc army.

Following "suggestions," the players harrassed the fringes of the orc troops, picking up some treasure and improving their fighting skills.  They met Petrov, appreciated greatly a few gifts he gave them in the way of +1 weapons and armour, and then accepted a dangerous mission.  Gnomish support was just days away; when they arrived, an attack at a key point of the orcish horde would be made, to break into Saratov if possible.  The party was asked to hazard a passage through the army to a concealed door in the city's fortifications and bring maps and a message of when the attack would occur, and where, so they could lend whatever forces that Saratov had, to squeeze a passage through the orc army.

This proved dangerous but doable.  Garalzapan died on the way and was raised inside the city successfully; the rest of the party made it there on vapours.  The attack was made, Saratov citizens flooded out of the gates, the party missing everything because they were recovering.  The orc army broke and ran, Saratov was saved ... and Petrov Famitch died in the effort.

Nevertheless, the party was deeply moved by the whole adventure, and in particular felt warm and fuzzy because of their own contribution in helping a hero (for the city of Saratov were shattered by Petrov's demise) to retake the city.  I could see plainly through the eyes of players who had no long-standing perception of what D&D should be or usually was, that making changes in the game world was better, by far, than just gaining treasure and gold.  I'd always tried to make my adventures meaningful, but perhaps because they players were young (18 by that time, since it was about 2006), and perhaps because my ability to run had improved, I could see they were gobsmacked by the way things had played out.

Anyway, the treasure reward brought them to 5th level, and that meant henchmen, or "henchfolk" as I'm calling them these days.  Shalar didn't get one that day; he'd missed too many runnings, and monks level very slowly.  We also got three new players ... so it is regarding these details that I'll pick up the next post.

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Monday, March 25, 2024

The Campaign Gets Started

Well, this isn't "new" content, exactly ... but if it's warstories, at least I don't have to invent things.

Around 2004, my partner Tamara, who'd never heard of D&D before we'd met in 2001, showed signs of wanting to know how to play.  I hadn't pressed her to do so, which is why three years passed of her watching me work on D&D before stepping up herself.  I must point out that during those years, I didn't have a campaign going, nor did I have any sort of online presence.  To her at the time, my "game" was nothing more than my accumulating details about the world in general and working on my trade system.

When we met, even the trade system did not exist.  I'd been mucking about with the idea since 1986, but I hadn't solved the math and couldn't actually make it work.  The solution was a sort of flexible mathematical device that could stretch like an elastic, but like an elastic, it would stretch only so far.  This keeps the numbers from exaggerating, so that even if something is very expensive in a place where it isn't made, it isn't impossibly expensive.  This was always the problem from the beginning.

Anyway, I'd tell Tamara every once in a while that I was going to have a bath and "think" about the trade system.  This involved me going to the bathroom, turning off the lights, running a hot bath and thinking for 30 or 40 minutes before getting out.  Forcing myself to problem solve, so to speak.  I'd run possible calculations in my head based on the parameters I had: number of references, base totals for products, distances, supply vs. demand, food vs. manufactures and so on.  Then I'd get out, fool around with a few tests and fail, shrug, and let my head rest on the subject for a couple of weeks.  I did this for years.

This sort of behaviour was completely alien to Tamara.  She'd never known anyone with that kind of nature, had never had an artist as a friend, or known a mathematician, or had a problem she had to solve with skull-sweat.  To her, what I was doing made no sense at all ... but since I'm very passionate and I get excited when I hit upon some new thought, like Archimedes running naked down the street screaming "EUREKA!", when I actually did figure out the trade system in 2002, and then tried to explain it to her, Tamara's interest in this thing D&D began to grow.

She asked if I could teach her how to play and I agreed.  This started with both of us rolling up characters, as I wasn't going to put her on the spot without my helping.  She rolled a human fighter named Allyson, and I added a dwarven thief named Frith.  We played twice, with me setting up very simple scenarios (I don't remember what those were), while I'd suggest that we could (a) do this or (b) do that.  It was basically just make your pick.  Tamara found it a bit intriguing, but couldn't get the hang of it without my instigation.

One afternoon she was explaining this to my teenage daughter, who has a thing about being named online.  I'll call her "Celeste."  Celeste lived with her mother Michelle and her grandparents, not me, and this is a very long and sad tale that I'll tackle eventually on the Shifting Sands blog.  At the time, Celeste was just 16.  She suggested playing with Tamara, whereupon I retired Frith and ran them for a little bit.  I'd never actually run my daughter, though she'd seen me run others many times when she was much younger.  She knew my idiosyncracies and she'd played with kids her own age off and on since she was nine, so the combination of her and Tamara worked out for, I think three runnings.   At which point, Celeste suggested that her boyfriend Kevin should join us.  This would have been late 2004, when I had just figured out how to build the sort of 20-mile-hex map that has become iconic since, which I started for no particular reason in the oblast of Voronezh, southeast of Moskva.

I suggested that we use the new map, and that if Tamara and Celeste wanted to roll up new characters, they could, along with Kevin of course.  They both decided to do so.  Tamara rolled up a mage which she named Garalzapan, Celeste rolled up a ranger that she named Fayln, and Kevin rolled up a druid he named Pikel.

I put them in the little village of Kolyeno, on the vast rolling steppe between the Don river and the Kopyor, a place with 156 people.  This was their home town.  And wanting to give the three of them a feel of "traditional" D&D, I didn't mind running them in the "Caves of Chaos," though I made changes to the number of creatures to suit just three 1st level characters.

Fayln still is an 80 lb. female elf who hit like a hammer even then, especially as I was still using the silly rule of rangers causing an extra point of damage per level against some creatures.  Garalzapan is also still alive in my game, though Tamara has retired; he has an 18 intelligence and she was very lucky with her spellbook rolls.  Pikel is also still alive, but the rule about his being limited to leather armour, and only a druid's hit points, were a hazard.  Because the mage needed a screen, Fayln and Pikel were it; and while Fayln could hold her own, Pikel always needed saving.  Fighting the ogre in the Ogre Cave, area E. in KOTB, Pikel very, very nearly bought it ... and for many, many years afterwards, as Pikel grew to be a very powerful druid, the party would remind him of when he was "soft and spongy."

As a player, Celeste is hyper-prepared, patient and resistant to unnecessary problem-solving.  She'd rather just get into a set of events where the goals are clear so she can swing.  She hates "solving the problem that gets the party to the next problem," which defines a vast quantity of game modules.  When I had the party run in Death Frost Doom, she was so infuriated by the bullshit puzzles that at inevitably she refused to go on playing.  Eventually, the whole party at that time agreed that we'd just skip any puzzles that remained.

Kevin is a brilliant tactician, a very clever spellcaster, incredibly lucky with dice (watching him makes no difference) and absolutely a disaster at role-playing.  Any situation that calls for asking an NPC anything is just dead air to him.  Once Pikel reached 5th level, with a sufficient number of spells under his belt, he became the lynchpin of the party's combat offensive.  Fayln hits and causes all the damage, but Pikel's always at the right place at the right time.

Tamara hasn't the game-playing experience to really master the game, though she saved the party's bacon time after time.  When she was playing, and that was for 11 years, she gave it her all, she took advice, she proved an excellent problem solver and she had a knack for rolling a natural 20 at the verge of things going into a TPK.  However, one thing she didn't like was my way of setting up lose-lose scenarios.  Oh, I don't mean the party would lose, but rather that the consequences of winning always has some bitter pill that ended up leaving a bad taste in the party's mouth.

To give a sense of this, you can go on a quest for the father to rescue his daughter, and you can rescue the daughter ... but when you get her back home, you discover the father has been stabbed in the back and murdered by the girl's uncle; and now that is the next adventure.  You can find the uncle, corner him, waste his minions and finally push him into the sea, where he drowns, but when you go through his things, there's an arcane, powerful book written in a language that you need the dead uncle to interpret.   And now it's too late.  So you have to adventure to learn the language of the book, which you succeed in doing ... only now you wish you didn't know it, because it's raised this horrible monster that's now laying waste to the countryside.  Oh, you can ignore the monster and go on your way, but you know that you're responsible for that monster existing, so ...

Tamara used to say, "GREAT!  It's DM shitland all over again."  For most players, this sort of twist is intriguing, like wondering where I'm going to go with this thing ... because heck, who wants to end the campaign, right?  I like the campaign drifting forward logically from adventure to adventure, rather than there being any definite end to things.  Tamara, on the other hand, began to feel, "What was the point?  We just end up creating new problems."  Eventually, at a time when circumstances suspended my campaign for quite a long time, she decided just to bow out.  And so she has; but thank heaven, because when I run today, there's a 3-year old boy running around, who loves his Grandmother, who is there to look after him.

I'll pick this up with the next post.

Sunday, March 24, 2024

The Well Is Dry

Well, let's get off the pot and write something.

Briefly, because I don't want to waste a lot of time with this, but look at the splatterfest that D&D has become: a lot of fervent baity material based on "solving problems" while, in fact, just vying for as many clicks as possible.  Click this to learn about myconids, click this to learn that difficult terrain exists, click this for "news," for "lore," for audio D&D tools.  Come one, come all, step right up, don't be shy!  Gather 'round folks, gather 'round, for today, right here in the heart of our great role-play selection, we've got spectacles that'll dazzle your senses and leave you begging for more!  Yes, boys and girls, ladies and gentlemen of all ages, brace yourself for a journey into adventure, into amazing great weapon combats, into charm spells and worlds brought to life!  Do you want to know about paralysation?  About blindsight and truesight?  About mystery goblin dice?  Do you have the nerve to challenge the greatest monsters in the universe?  Well, folks, today's your lucky day because D&D is filled with wonders of every kind!

Okay, I'm an old man.  Which is one reason I know when smoke is being blown up my ass.  I might be impressed if any of this shit had real merit, but it's just the same crap repackaged from 1988.  When I read that Matt Colville, the great Matt Colville, has written a module that encapsulates the ESSENCE of D&D: exploration, combat and puzzle-solving, I'm pretty much fucking done.  Look, it's a movie.  It captures the essence of movie making: actors, settings and dialogue!  How can it not be amazing?!

This is why I haven't written of late.  Not because this shit is just recently out here, but because I've reached a point where the thing that I love, the thing that I have a passion for, has become the only thing for which the internet is a complete waste of my time.  I don't know, maybe there are home renovators in the world who can no longer watch home renovation videos, or read home renovation books.  Maybe there are knitting fanatics who would rather cut their throats before reading one more "Knitworld" magazine or watch one more amateur drop a stitch.  Maybe that's how it is for other people.  I don't know.  I've done an awful lot of cooking.  I'm not the greatest cook in the world; I don't think I'm the greatest DM either.  Then again, I can watch a cooking video.  I can still enjoy watching someone skillfully cut a watermelon into odd shapes.

But I cannot watch another fucking video about D&D.  Of any kind.  I can't listen to anybody for more than about 20 seconds.  I just want to scream.  I guess there are idiots in the world who must have random encounters explained, or told the need to make puzzles or why combat matters, but after 25 fucking years of this shit on the internet, it's really enough.  D&D is obviously too small a field to sustain more than a few dozen separate discussions.  Clearly, it takes no more than three weeks to say everything that a person needs to know ... and then, because that's all, the only thing to do is to just keep saying the same things, since the blind, ignorant, myopic morons who play this game won't get it on a 45th telling anyway.

My blood is up.

Breathe ... breathe ...

Most of what I've said in the last 16 years of this blog has fallen on deaf ears.  I've done my best to be clear, to include charts and pictures, to be creative with my descriptions and metaphors.  I've broken things down into smaller, digestible chunks and I've used relatable analogies and real life examples to help convey ideas.  I've ranted and I've spoken pedantically, I've lectured and written humour, I've answered questions and asked more than a few of my own, to elicit a meaningful response.  I've explained technical jargon from other fields and studies and showed how they related to the plain language of D&D and role-playing.  I've put up polls to understand the reader's point of view, I've endlessly called for comments to ascertain what else I might describe or how else I might address the problems people have.  I've repeated points, rephrased arguments, done all I could towards the goal of empowering the reader to be a better dungeon master, to be a better player, to recognise what makes either a good thing and even how to support and provide guidance to good players and DMs the reader might encounter.  I've dissected, deconstructed, used a pointer to describe structural and functional features of the game and taken unconventional routes to convey my ideas.

I'm not done.  I'll never be done.

But I am at a point where if I want to write something, or say something, there isn't a crutch left for me anywhere.  There are no readers piping up to suggest directions for me.  There's no one in the audience raising a hand and saying, "But Mr. Smolensk, when are you going to explain about this?"  There's no resource anywhere on the internet I can turn to, no treatise I can read, having anything to do with this subject.  All that's left to say can now only be those things I realise on my own, without help.

And let me say a few things about that.

I'm not Isaac Newton.  I don't pretend to be.  The man mastered physics and I master a stupid game called Dungeons and Dragons.  I don't need to be reminded of my place in the whole of human accomplishment.  But as an example of being on the fringe of a particular specialty, Newton published PhilosophiƦ Naturalis Principia Mathematica in 1687.  And the next book he published, Reports as Master of the Mint, which was not about physics, came out in 1701.  He wrote that report every year for the next 24 years.  His next book about math did not come out until 1707, twenty-one years after the Principia.

In the intervening time, he wrote letters to friends, people who understood him, and apart from that, according to reports, he spent a lot of time as a rich person in a rich house, in a firm effort to be unpestered.  He didn't publish anything about math for all those years because he didn't think he had anything worthwhile to say.

As I said, I'm not Newton.  I've had a lot to say, though of course it's all dreck compared to Newton. His words have survived four centuries and will go on that way.  My words are in danger of evaporating before Tuesday.  Let's not pretend there's a comparison here.

But when I have nothing to say, there's a tacit understanding that I really should write a blog post anyway, or else by Tuesday, my existence would be in danger of being forgotten.  So I come up with something.  As I said, however, this isn't like it used to be.  Once in awhile, somewhere on the net, I could read something by someone that sparked some part of my intuition, making a post possible.  Lately, not so much.  Not at all.  In fact, there's really fuck all out there.

And I haven't got anything new.  I underwent a helluva a lot of stress last month; we lived packed together like sardines, with a 3-year old boy to boot (and let me tell you, there's no question my grandson is a boy, in spades, complete with hurling and death defiance possibilities), without an argument taking place.  Which, given the intense volatility of both myself and my daughter, who matches me in every way and has the benefit of being 24 years younger than me, is something of a miracle.  We're both very glad about that.

It's done now, though, and for the present, I'm just not that into teaching.  I haven't anything new to say.  I have no fruitful new way to explain the art of DMing.  I haven't conceived of some profound new way to calculate encumbrance.  The well is dry.  I need rain.  A little rain and maybe I can go back to filling buckets, but for the present I'd be happy if I'd write one gawddamned paragraph for the Guide, which I can't even look at presently.  I'm sick to death of playing video games but, alas, it's about all I have the mind for.

Earlier this year, I filled the void by posting my Ternketh Keep.  Would anybody be interested in my giving an account of the whole of the offline campaign I've been running (with a seven-year break near the end) since 2005?  I could do that.  It would just be war stories, but it would fill blog posts.

I'm going to post this on my patreon,, where the public can comment if they want.  If I get a few non-regular readers there say yes (the regulars, I know what you feel), then I'll get started.  Otherwise, I'm perfectly happy to let this blog stand dead until 2045, if need be.  If Newton could do it, I can too.

Saturday, March 23, 2024

Saturday Q&A (mar 23)

 Maxwell in California writes,

I am a natural pacer. I have spent my entire life walking while talking. it’s how I think through everything. Sometimes people find it distracting. Or even offputting, saying that it makes them feel like I’m going to pounce on them.

As I recite, I compulsively pace. I feel like this is to be corrected. I am trying very hard to root myself to the spot, even using a timer to test myself. But it is quite difficult.

Is this actually a problem or should I just focus on doing a good job presenting the world?

Have you had some tics, or habitual gestures, or other things you’ve had to rein in while DMing? If so, and if you were able to dein them on, what effect did have on your game?

Answer: Early on, I taught myself to get out of my chair when I was DMing. At first, this felt unnatural ... but I was playing in a very large room, the cafeteria of my High School, so there was plenty of room to step back from the game table and frame out scenes with my hands. Later, I discovered that talking with my hands, which I'd done since elementary school, was progressively getting in the way of my communicating to people I thought I was making myself more clear, when in fact I was pulling their gaze, causing them to become so distracted they didn't hear the words I was using.

There is a form of public speech problem called "prowling." You can see even very experienced speakers do it, in university lectures or Ted Talks online. The speaker walks back and forth across the stage, back and forth, back and forth. A prowler will argue, I'm moving so that I can talk to everyone. A prowler will argue, "I'm demonstrating that I really care about the subject." What they don't understand is that prowling is mesmerising. It's like watching a pendulum swing back and forth, back and forth. A really good listener will focus on the spoken words, but half the audience just drifts out.

I learned in my more serious acting period, performing at the Edmonton Fringe Festival and auditioning for film, that the very best way to communicate is to have your body be absolutely frozen except for your facial expressions. Humans relate to a speaker entirely because of their facial expressions. We're programmed to read the tiny muscle patterns of others; we're hyper-tuned to the tiniest of facial movements. Waving our arms around, or moving our bodies, just spoils our potential impact, because it pulls our face out of our audience's reach. If Simon Sinek prowls across to stage left, for all of that time I can't see what his face is doing while he's talking. If he's shaking his body to make his point more emotionally, he makes his facial muscles shake and we lose the connection we'd have gotten if he wasn't moving.

There's no reason you can't walk while you think, or walk miles outdoors if it helps you think clearly. I used to walk and do that, but I find these days that a shower is more efficient; I suspect there's a thing about the change in body temperature and some sort of sensory deprivation caused by the water beating on my skin ... but it doesn't matter. Do whatever helps you think. But D&D is a performance. If you want to rivet your players, don't move. Emote and speak. Compare this excellent scene between two very different actors in one of my favourite films:

Watch Olivier's apparent lack of expression, which lets every tiny tick produce an emotional impact. Watch how intensely still that both he and Sybil Thorndike both remain, though she occasionally flips her head, which makes them both riveting. The glass in her hand doesn't move. Olivier directed this, and he practically beat Monroe with a stick to get her to stand absolutely still. She still bobs around, but it's done so mutedly it's hard to believe she's the same actress as she is in other films.

Obviously, not everyone is an actor, or wants to be. D&D is just a game, played with just your friends. You don't have to go to this extent. You certainly don't have to reproduce the style of Olivier! But a little consciousness, moving a little slower, being a little more still, will have tremendous impact on the witness.


Thank you Maxwell.

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Tuesday, March 19, 2024


For some time, I've progressed away from a format of dungeon mastering tutorials towards the more sustainable desire to just show off my work.  For many of my viewers, this hasn't been a positive development.  As such, those who cared about how to deal with troublesome players, or how to describe a dungeon, or how to encourage role-playing or whatever, have simply drifted away.  Those who remain of that kind know the tutorials are all still here, floating in the enormous backlog of my posts over these last 15 years (if they can be found).

For myself, I got tired of producing these sorts of posts ... less because I began repeating myself and moreso because they received, on the whole, either resistance or passive agreement.  Once upon a time, back when angry birds roamed the earth, these posts garnered a lot of attention and produced excellent discussions that ran for thirty or forty comments; but those days, along with the "blog" I suppose, are gone.

We're in a place now where discussion has lost it's verve.  And for the record, "what can you show me" is a better path.  It removes the casual blatherer from the fore, putting the worker, the operator, "creator" in front.  Of course, there are still performers and hustlers, but steadily in this experiment we're calling the internet, ephermeral things are on the decline.  They'll be with us forever, no doubt.  But there are only so many cat videos we can care about; so many kids dancing well in their living rooms we have time for; and so many people spewing out yet one more diatribe on why the right way to play D&D is ...

I'm rather comfortable shucking off that shirt and dropping it on the floor, where it can be laundered should I want to put it on again.  I have little left to say.  Steadily, I move further and further from the world of game modules, D&D online social events, even the desire to visibly see other people play the game.  I just don't relate.

Recently, JB posted a series of posts detailing numerous modules that were part of some contest.  I couldn't bring myself to read past the first sentence of each post.  In retrospect, I've been running a single "module" for 15 years now, taking place on Earth, where the various boundaries and choices within the module steadily drift from location to location, occasionally upon a specific theme and occasionally just to fill a few runnings with whatever the players are interested in at that moment.  If I need something to happen, I invent it out of my own head.  I don't steal it from other creators because what they're creating is ... of absolutely no use to me.

The trouble, naturally, is that when I'm in a state of creation, I post on multiple platforms and there's new material every day.  And when I'm not in that state, as with the moment ... there's really nothing to say.  I talk about myself.  I talk about my discontinuity with everyone else.

My houseguests have departed as of Sunday.  There are less interruptions, there's no 3-year-boy laughing and running back and forth, back and forth, in what I could only describe as the desirable manner.  I'm finding myself able to think again.  I'm just sort of kicking ideas around.  Working at the job and thinking about getting started on serious stuff.  But for now, just enjoying the quiet.  At my age, quiet is a wonderful thing.

For those waiting, I apologise.  Soon.  That's all I can say right now.  Soon.

Friday, March 15, 2024

These Simple Days

Again, I've had a long, difficult, unsatisfying week, where my own intentions and plans have been repeatedly put on a shelf.  This week worse than most, it seems.  No maps, no posts, no book writing, with five of us living here the house looks a disaster, and as of right now, I haven't any questions or answers for tomorrow's Q&A.

In self-defense, Tamara and I took a drive around eastern Alberta, visiting the badlands by Drumheller, the dinosaur capital of Canada, and then tooling through the pot and drumlin country between there and Stettler to the north.

Took this picture of Tamara yesterday; she's the smaller one at the bottom, just in front of the world's largest dinosaur's left foot.  For the record, 86 ft. high.  Tamara wasn't impressed; but she did love the appearance of the landscape, of which I'll post elsewhere sometime soon.

It was just a day trip, nothing very special, except that we enjoy each other's company a lot and we don't have any trouble talking continuously for 10 hours, even after all this time together.  I've been working on a story about her and I from way back in 2002, as the next post for Shifting Sands.

I've been enjoying that experiment, and there's evidence of it catching on.  I need a little practice writing non-argument, non-thematic content, but that'll come.  My biggest concern is that a lot of the stories I have to tell make me sound either irrational, like a fool, or contains too much of what my daughter calls my "assholicity."  It's a pity that in retrospect, so many of the moments when I stood up for myself, or went to war to die on a some hill or other, ends up after so many years with my thinking, jeebs, what the hell did I think I was accomplishing.

It may be different for other people, or maybe not.  Of course, other people quietly put those stories in a mental closet for permanent storage, in the hopes that the key to that closet might be lost as soon as possible.  I can't say exactly why I'm not doing that; or why I want to roll stuff like that out.  It won't be to make myself look good, I can tell you.  In fact, I'm very conscious of that.  All the stories I've told so far are fairly neutral, being things that happened to me, as they might happen to anyone.  I'm telling these in the hopes of building some credence for when I write a story about some moronic thing I did, or when I caused hurt to someone, or in fact failed as a human being.  I figure I'm bound to tell a certain number of those stories, before I tell even one story that puts me in a good light.  The last thing I want to accomplish here is my own self-aggrandisement.

Yesterday, travelling along country roads and highways in those parts, I talked to Tamara about hunting partridge and pheasants with my father, and the canoe trip I took down the Red Deer river, which we  crossed on our journey yesterday four times.  Tamara's not from around here; she spent her youngest years in a place called Hickman, Kentucky, on the Mississippi river, in the 1960s.  So everything we saw yesterday, especially the badlands, was new to her.  Most people can throw a rock across the Red Deer.  It's not the Mississippi.

But ... just now ... not in the headspace to write any story tonight.  I'm finding this post a trial, as I fuzzily await the end of this weekend.  My daughter and son have keys to their new place, and so begins the removal of furniture and other things from our environs to theirs.  They have a far harder weekend ahead of them than Tamara and I; we're given an exemption from these things as the "kids" have plenty of help from their friends, and don't need us old people.  Our job is to manage the grandson, whose in a state of confusion and panic because he hasn't had a proper home in more than a month, as this is the first time he's been old enough to understand what moving actually means.  I didn't encounter what Julian's encountering now until after I'd finished high school.

No, I'm writing this post in support of the fiction that I haven't died, and that I'm still in possession of my faculties and self-will ... neither of which seems, at the moment, remotely believable. There will be no Q&A tomorrow.  I trust I can get my wits together to return to work on my book, so that for the first time in four weeks, come the 22nd, I'll have a preview to post on Patreon.  And maps to post.  And blog posts.  And my sanity.

Saturday, March 9, 2024

Saturday Q&A (mar 9)

Maxwell in California writes,

Do you ever have game towns that enforce a law where weapons may not be openly carried (except by nobles, soldiers, or other people with special privileges)?

I ask because, while encountering and overcoming friction is central to playing the game, I think this scenario would be quite likely to make players bristle. I’m curious if or how you’d run it — and if so, whether you would, within the urban environment, deliberately provide some spaces of “breathing room” where players could try to get away with open carry. A description from an old post of yours, don’t know which, comes to mind: you suggested that an area of town with burnt or dilapidated housing could serve to stage a fight for a few rounds, before the NPCs scattered, knowing the authorities would arrive.

I’m imagining the knock on effects of a “no carrying weapons” law: thorough searches of property at the town gates; an outcry and swift arrival of the guards if a PC insists on wearing his sword belt into the street; players brainstorming how to smuggle the party’s best magic weapon to some crucial spot … as DM, I could get much mileage from a privileged NPC drawing his sword and threatening an unprivileged NPC in plain view of all.

Answer: I have used the rule of restricting player weapon use according to local ordinances, though I don't do it often. There's nothing inherently wrong with it, but there is an understanding in the medieval world that anyone who can afford proper weapons is likely a member of the upper classes, or potentially in service of another lord, and therefore beyond contestation. I'd argue the only reason ever to have such an ordinance would be a situation where the town was in relative chaos, factions were fighting in the street, and the city magistrate was desperate in his or her attempts to establish order.

But note that the Montagues and the Capulets, among other rakes of the most civilised part of the world, Italy, were naturally expected to be carrying weapons with which to duel and such. In my opinion, it's far more likely that an ordinance would exist that stated where fighting with weapons could take place, thereby allowing enemies to blow off steam, than to actually restrict the weapons themselves. Thus, the authorities would arrive to stop fighting in the wrong places (see Dumas' The Three Musketeers), or perhaps on the wrong day (no fighting on holy days and such), or even the wrong time (morning please, certainly not after tea has been served!).

Finally, as far as threatening unprivileged persons, the point is that they're unprivileged. It's quite possible they wouldn't possess even the right to live ... though why a rational person would injure or kill such a person is quite outside standard practice for the period. Even in D&D, it could bring a lot of trouble from a privileged person if we happen to injure a cherished servant or the only gong farmer in the neighbourhood, it gives no treasure, a miniscule amount of experience and is quite ridiculous. It takes a 21st century person with a penchant for sadism gained from modern times and media to think this is a "thrill." As a DM, you'd be in your rights to say to a player intending to do such, "Um, no, you can't bring yourself to do it; you have a rational thought and it stops you." Or some such limitation. Think of it like not being able to jump a two inch wall in a video game, because it's not a part of game play. On the other hand, if you prefer your characters to have the freedom to create trouble for themselves, and don't wish to restrain them, let them have at it. The worst it can do is turn the campaign into a cartoon.

OhioHedgehog writes,

After a search of the blog and the wiki I've found very little about tattooing (which has suddenly become "a thing" at my table.) Wondering if it will be touched on in the Street Vendor's Guide? The background provided by following your posts about virtually everything else equip me with the wherewithal to create/design what I need on my own so I'm just curious.

Answer:  I hadn't intended to include tattooing as a service.  A quick search tells me that tattooing in the Medieval-Renaissance periods was typically done by individuals who'd acquired the skill, but who had no traditional location or shop where they might do it.  It may have been possible that individuals offered tattoos as a broader range of services, but actual prices would probably have been negotiated on an individual basis.

Creating the tattoo without modern equipment involved repeated puncturing of the skin with a hand-held needle to create the desired design.  It's possible that a light mallet was used for this purpose, to tap the needle in to improve the experience for the tattoo artist, who could thus be more precise since it would ease pressure on his or her hand.  Pigment and dye was then rubbed into the punctured skin; this could be done before or after the skin was penetrated.  Healing was dangerous because it would have been more difficult to keep the area clean and prevent infection ... something that wasn't much of concern among extremely isolated tribal peoples in the era, since they were wholly immune to any infection that might have occurred in their region of habitation as a result of hundreds of generation, even thousands, of continuous occupation.

As far as the Streetvendor's Guide goes, one must realise that even in this day and age there are many who resist the notion that tattooing is either healthy or commendable.  In many cases, open display of tattoos is treated as evidence that a person is either irresponsible or prone to self-indulgence, leading to preconceptions that may stand in the way of a person's financial or career success.  Much as I hate to admit it, by including tattooing in the Guide, regardless of how it's intended, could create the same sort of negative response that I'd receive if I included, say, slavery or a price to have someone murdered.  Comparing this against the actual benefit of including nine lines with a tattoo price on page 213 doesn't seem like much gain overall.  So I don't believe I'll be including it.


Thank you for your contributions.  Been such an annoying week, I'm sorry I'm only answering these questions today, and not some days ago on Patreon.  My apologies.

If readers would like to reply to the above, or wish to ask a question or submit observations like those seen here, please submit  to my email,  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.