Thursday, January 19, 2017

Lurkers Corner ~ Classic D&D

I have no particular comments to make ~ but for anyone who might have fallen away, the Juvenis campaign has just discovered they're in a dungeon.


Just an extra word on an effort I took up tonight to try to nail down the various issues with different armors that I use.  The descriptions for these have never been precise and there never has been a proper metric for how they're made and what they incorporate.  With the addition of CLO and the changes I've recently made to encumbrance, there always has to be some sort of push back for players that decide to load up on armor class.  I've unbalanced that part of my game a little with these changes.  Used to be, higher armor class meant moving slower.  I'm adjusting that now to a higher armor class tires the character out sooner and starts to cause damage, while pretty much enabling combatants to move faster while wearing heavier armor.

To get this properly set in place, I need to know precisely what those armors are now, so players can make a choice that fits their needs.  The amount of exhaustion they feel has to match the improvement of armor class to make the game experience measured.

Be Capable of Harm

I was recently asked a question by a DM about his not being able to get his players interested in game hooks.  Whatever he tried to entice them with, they weren't buying.  He didn't know what to do.

I have posted this scene before, but that was four years ago so what the hell.  It's good for another go around:

On the other post that I wrote, brief as it was, I got a great comment from Yagami, whom I haven't heard from for a while:

"It seems to me often that these people have little experience in leadership roles. I have managed in my life...and it is a difficult role. And it is made difficult by the fact that people do not, generally, take seriously someone they do not find to be capable of doing them some sort of harm. Harm, in this case, of course meaning repercussions of a negative kind, not physical injury."

This is followed by a bunch of supportive statements about working and my blog that I don't need to repost here.  The key is that a DM must also be a threat.  If the players are not finding the obstacles to be, well, big enough to stop them in their tracks, then the DM has missed the object.

I have found three ways of making obstacles big and frightening.  I've written some about all three of these, but it doesn't hurt to cover the basics again.

First, make the obstacles BIG and FRIGHTENING.  If the party is walking by some great plot hook on the road, with a "ho hum" attitude, then the obvious failing is that this particular plot hook did not bash the players over the head.  This has to happen!  A bunch of big, nasty things step out on the road and no, they're not going away and no, they're not going to be ignored.  They've been paid to be there, to take care of this party, for gawd knows what reason (think of something!).  They've seen the party walking along and those look like real nice weapons and that looks like real nice armor, and those packs are nice and full.  And yes, we're going to take them.  And no, we're not a bunch of little goblins.  We're big, frightening bugbears, with axes twice the size of ordinary, able to do twice the damage, we smell, we're unhappy and yes, that is a baby's head on a chain hanging from the leader's ear.  And there are a lot of us.  More than there are of you.

Second, make the obstacles UNCERTAIN.  Don't paint up all the details, make sure that there are plenty of very disquieting things about this situation we've stumbled upon that suggests that we'd be stupid to walk away from this.  Use all the senses.  Far too many DMs are concerned with just two things: what the party sees and what the party is told by NPCs.  These things are nice but they won't carry all the water we want to carry.  The party should be hearing things that aren't seen, that are making noises that suggest, "Oh Shit, this is bad.  This is very bad."  The party should be smelling things that are just plain bad.  The party should be quietly munching dinner after dark, only to have something move wrong in their mouths, to make them look down and see that they've just bitten through a dark green worm with unpleasant red veins.  What does that mean?  Omg, we don't know, do we?  We better do something about it, but we don't know what, so I guess that means we're in pretty deep already and it is dark.  "Holy crap, something just walked across my foot!"

Finally, make the obstacles INSURMOUNTABLE.  This is key.  Create one, perhaps two obstacles that are so big, so massively connected, so well resourced, that no mere party of characters will ever be able to take them on.  The party's only chance will be staying out of sight, staying out of notice ~ and occasionally, that will mean killing a witness that might just walk back and tell the huge, terrifying, unknown enemy that we're in this town, on this day, staying at this inn.

I have several ways of creating this last entity.  I want some big, faceless organization that has nothing specifically against the party, except that the party just happens to be in the way of their plans and, well, it's nothing personal.

I want some very high level person who just happened to have something invested in that group of orcs that the party killed four months ago, that were carrying that pretty yellow stone that the party got ten gold for.  Unfortunately, the yellow stone matters, it's location matters, and the only group of people who have any idea where that stone is right now is the party . . . who foolishly got rid of it, not knowing how important it was to She Bitch of the +5 Strap-On.  Whoever the hell she is, wherever the hell she hangs her hat, whatever the hell she might have against the party for some reason.  Whatever it is, it is very definitely personal.

Finally, I want some miserable little bastard with a grudge, an unreasonable grudge, the sort that he's willing to grind and grind for years at a time, at just enough of a distance to steal things out of the party's kit, to add things to the party's kit, to spread rumours about the party and do whatever he has to do to just makes things a little harder.  It's personal for him, too, and best of all he's not interested in telling anyone.  One thing the party will eventually realize; someone has it out for them and it is getting awfully annoying and utterly impossible to ignore.

If we're offering ideas that the players scoff at and shrug their shoulders at, then we're not digging in.  The players aren't scared.  They don't think the DM is a threat.  They see the plot hooks a mile off and they can see there's no teeth in them.  They're walking all over the DM because they know, deep down inside, the DM is the sort that can be gotten around.

The obstacles are too small.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

The Bardic Struggle

Having figured out what the bard's art does [the gentle reader is not bored of these constant posts about the bard, are they?], I'm free to map out how the bard creates art and how to measure the effects of the art created.

The most obvious thing to do would be to create a study/skill called "create art," in which the bard would gain points.  As the points mounted, the bard would create better and bigger art, in a very linear manner.  This is standard RPG design.

Frankly, I find this remarkably stale.  In it, everyone's path is precisely the same, there's no room for personality and we don't even have the flexibility of being able to choose from a wide range of spells.  It is dull, dull, dull design and it is exactly the reason why the bard character comes out so flat.

Remember what I said before: we want the player to feel what it is like to be an artist.  Part of that feeling is a sense of inadequacy that the bard must start with, then overcome by virtue of multiple possible strategies.  It is the same inadequacy that a spellcaster feels at not having enough spells to protect themselves or the fighter feels at being easily thumped down to zero hit points.

Only the goal here is to restrain the bard from being able to make art like a Fable character pounding a hammer on a forge.

The very pinnacle of creation game play.

To that end, I've decided to frustrate the bard all to hell by dividing up the creative process and spreading it over several studies in the same field.

Because a character in the Senex Campaign is a bard, who has chosen poetry as their art form, this post will deal with that particular example.  Other art forms will require a moderate adjustment to this formula (which will be interesting to do), but I see no reason to worry about that until I get a player character interested in pursuing one of those other forms.

Too, I should explain that a bard has four fields of interest, three of which are not creative.  So for this post we're specifically speaking about how a bard makes "art" and "product," and not how a bard researches matters in depth (which will produce other effects I will eventually create), how a bard teaches others (the college option) or how a bard gets into the world of business (as a producer, agent, stage manager or general techie).  I'm building the "bard" character so that one does not even have to create to be a member of the class.

Let's just stick to what we usually think of as a bard.

The poet who chooses "Artistry" as the field has four choices of study: conceptualism, creativity, performance and practicality.  I'll just quickly run these down.  Conceptualism is the effort to make work that pleases oneself, the sort not likely to be understood or appreciated by others.  Creativity is the ability to think theoretically about art, to understand what it is but with no capacity to actually make work.  Performance is the ability to present work, but without a personal comprehension of how that work is made.  Practicality is the ability to make useful work that an audience on the whole would like, but doesn't allow the first sense of aesthetics.

In short, they're all meaningful . . . but they are all distinctly lacking if the poet wants to write really terrific poetry.  To do so, the poet needs all of the above!  And this is where strategy arises.

At first level, the poet can pick one of the four ~ but only one ~ in which case the poet will gain enough points to be considered an "amateur" in that particular study (+1d12/level above 1st).  As an amateur, the poet will be able to write conceptual poetry for themselves (potentially massing enough work for later on when it can be refined and published).  The poet will have the capacity for creativity without actually making any work.  The poet will be able to perform, but it will be other people's stuff.  And finally the poet will be able to write nice, practical poems, along the lines of greeting cards.

BUT, the poet also gets 1d8 -1 points of knowledge per level in the other three studies.  10 are needed for amateur ability, so the poet might become an amateur in one of the other three at 2nd level.  The poet might not.  The odds say that probably one of them will reach amateur status by the time the poet reaches 3rd level ~ and probably all of them by 5th.

Conceptualism + Creativity will mean inspirational, self-styled poetry that could sell if published (conceptualism without creativity, not a chance).  Conceptualism + Performance would be the opportunity to meaningfully recite one's own personal poetry in public, increasing the poet's personal sense of worth.  Conceptualism + Practicality has the possibility of making an empathic connection to other persons, so that poetry written only for the poet might also strike other specific persons the same way.

Creativity + Performance does not increase the poet's repertoire, but it increases the level of the performance, changing that 1% x.p. bonus to 2%.  Creativity + Practicality improves the quality of practical work and its overall worthiness.

Finally, Performance + Practicality contributes to one's personal fame and listener donations.

Remember, at the same time, we are talking amateur status with each of these.  As one becomes an "authority," the pattern changes again.  It takes 30 knowledge points to become an authority, which one can do with a primary study by 3rd level ~ but it can easily take 8 levels or more to become an authority in something with an average of 3.5 points per level.  And that drag will be felt, particularly if the character just can't get their practicality up.  There's only so much one can do as an amateur.  To create really meaningful work, one has to increase one's knowledge and thus one's capacity for skilled artistry.

See, we can't make inspiration, great poetry (Sukha), if we can't work ~ and one of the skills that comes with being practical is "focus."  That is, the ability to sit and work and work and work without turning aside from the project and getting distracted.  If we can't do that, if all we can do is frivolously dick around, we'll never startle the world.  We'll never make our party as happy as they'd like.

But if we don't have conceptualism in our bucket, we'll be miserable.  Making our own art makes us feel better, it gives us a greater sense of value, it supports us when times are tough.  And if we don't have performance in our bucket, most will never know that we're a great poet.  This is 17th century.  People don't read!

And if we don't have creativity, we'll never have the inspiration anyway.

So figuring out what we can do will depend less on our skill set and more on our limitations.  We will be waiting to learn things we don't know, to make things we can't make and to hope one day we'll figure out just the hell all this shit works.

Like an artist does.

The Bardic Mini-Game

With proposed changes to the bard of late, I have seen several express a concern about the bard character becoming its own "mini-game" ~ enabling bards to play while other players sit on the sidelines and watch.

I can understand that concern.  I'm against such gaming on principle.  All players deserve attention during the game and it is up to the DM to find ways to ensure that a particular character or character class doesn't get this kind of privilege.  That people go to this place, however, this concern that the game will suddenly become bard-centric, is an expression of how other character classes created by other RPG designers suddenly became all the rage, excluding other classes.

I think that is because most RPG designers are "bored" with the old character classes.  They need something new to base the whole game on because they've become dried old prunes on the cleric or the mage, having run out of ideas, and now that they have a NEW character class to waffle on until they get bored of that, naturally everything in the game must now become about the new class.

This isn't me.  I have tons and tons of cool shit left to add to the cleric and the mage ~ and all the characters, really.  It is only that right now I happen to be talking about the bard, a class I'm trying to rescue from the dustbin of game design by making it actually relevant.

Does it mean that the bard will have some character to swing around in the game once it's been fleshed out?  Yes.  But do consider how much time is spent in the campaign listening to the cleric harp on about religion or the mage about spells, or the fighter about weapons, armor and fighting.  These classes have their "mini-games" already; it is only that we're used to the amount of time dredged up for pissing contests between hit point totals and the need to sacrifice something as soon as possible, so let's all go on a quest to do that.  No one is carping about the "mini-game" of yet another fallen paladin that has to drag the party on yet another bloody quest to get a lost virtue restored.

And let's face it: having another reason to quest, having another character class that deserves consideration, having another conversation at the table about what's relevant and what can we do now, won't be a bad thing.

To my mind, the way I will design the "work" the bard does, it won't be any different from a cleric building a temple, a fighter building a castle, a mage building a laboratory, a thief building a guild or any of the other establishment things that any character class might get want.  I think another part of the issue is that its imagined the bard will, almost immediately, be rushing around creating art and being famous.

That is not how this is going to be.  Like a 1st level fighter that is little better than a squishy mess waiting to happen, a low-level bard will enjoy an artist's path: being ignored, having little practical ability, the frustration of too little ability for too much ambition and ultimately waiting, waiting for the day when they're actually able to make the show they might dream of having.  It isn't handed to them on a silver platter.

In short, they've got to adventure like everyone else.

Thursday, January 12, 2017


Reading through some Buddhist content about happiness (sukha), joy (piti), equanimity (upekkha) and Brahmavihara ( I found myself having some strange thoughts on bard performance and the "better life."  When in doubt, always go east young man.  Always go east.

I ended up with a series of platitudes which today I cannot find, but are fundamentally tied into benevolence and charity.  The content person does not quest for wealth or power, but for well-being, well-being for self and well-being for others.  This is what the bard does ~ transmits a sense of well-being.  We have been describing this as happiness . . . but we have lacked any meaningful game benefit that this can offer.  And as I've said, I don't want to fall back on hit points, morale, saving throws or any of the usual things that get modified in the game.

On wikipedia, under piti, there's an excellent distinction made between "happiness" and "bliss" that is attributed to the 5th century treatise, the Visuddhimagga:

"If a man exhausted in a desert saw or heard about a pond on the edge of a wood, he would have happiness.  If he went into the wood's shade and used the water, he would have bliss."

This is what we want the bard to produce in game terms.  Something that the players will identify only with the bard: some effect that only the bard can cause.

With our last post, we were discussing the varying qualities of Aristotle: that happiness makes us flourish, that happiness causes us to behave virtuously, that we embrace temperance, justice, the desire to better ourselves, the encouragement of efficiency, proficiency, friendship, worthiness and respect.

We were describing experience.  We just didn't think of that.

But this is what the bard gives: experience.  Having an evening with the bard creates that sense of bliss as we immerse ourselves into the performance.  It focuses us, it reminds us of why we persevere, the experience provides us with resolve, bravery, a sense of duty, a sense of strength and possibility . . . in short, ALL the characteristics that we associate with being better in battle, with standing up to the enemy and taking a hit for the crew that we work with, with potentially sacrificing ourselves to save a fallen comrade.

I have often argued that we can't give experience for things that don't contribute to being a better combatant . . . and yet I would argue that attending a show does make one a better combatant.  It gives us something to fight for.

I can see it quite clearly.  The benefit of the bard character is that it gives other characters experience.  And the bard, in turn, gets experience from other bards.

Ah, but how?

I see two paths.  We can call them Upekkha (or Upeksa, in sanskrit), the sense of peace and well-being (equinimity, composure, the state of being sublime) and Sukha (happiness, bliss).  For certain, those terms are not going to be confused with any other term used in D&D.

In terms of bardic performance, Upeksa is the feeling we get from encountering something familiar and immensely satisfying, or what we have already defined as "product" where it comes to bardic creation. Sukha is, therefore, the feeling we get from encountering "art" ~ something wholly new that astounds our senses and overwhelms our thoughts.  Take note that I am using the word "encounter" deliberately. Visiting a theatre or attending a concert is, in D&D terms, an encounter.

Now, that is going to mess some people up.  And some people will feel that I am going a long way to completely break the game.  But rest assured, I'm being very careful in what the effects will be of either Sukha or Upeksa.


Very well, our bard gets up in front of an audience at a local roadhouse or inn and gives a recitation of a familiar poem, or perhaps a poem that has made its impression on audiences before but is not overly known to this audience.  There are perhaps twenty, perhaps fifty persons in the common room, warming themselves by the fire, ending their conversation because poets are rare and poetry is appreciated in that culture like it will never be in ours.  What happens?

Nothing, right away.  The bard has co-opted someone else's art as product and, while having produced a warm and fuzzy feeling among the crowd, we are speaking of contentment and well-being.  We are not speaking of epiphany or the scattering of formerly possessed ideals.  We're not talking Archimedes running down a street naked.

But . . . the audience goes away from the performance affected.  They are warmer in their hearts, they are a bit more interested in the world around them, they are more attentive.  Our bard isn't the greatest of bards and the venue isn't the greatest of venues, but there has been a change.

We could stipulate that for the period of a week after the encounter, each person in attendance (the party included!) will gain +1% experience above anything they would normally gain.  That's not profound, that's not game breaking, but it is significant and the party will certainly not turn it down.  It is, of course, not cumulative.  Still, having a bard on tap, knowing that small bonus will be there as long as the bard is with the party, casting poems around the campfire before we turn in, will have its impact.  If the bard dies, the party will certainly notice a little bit more than they would losing a thief or a druid.

Of course, as the bard progresses in level, that percentage will increase also.  We already give a 10% bonus for having a better strength for a fighter or a better wisdom for a cleric; why not a 2-5% bonus for having a better bard?  It may only be an additional 20-50 points on every thousand, but it will be 20-50 points for every person in the party.  When thinking about the online Juvenis party right now, with four characters and five followers, that's 180-450 additional experience for every thousand gained.  That's not peanuts.

But let's take the next step.  What about improving the venue?

We were talking about the bard performing at a bar.  What about an open-air stage?  What about an enclosed theatre, an opera house?  And what if we are not just talking about any poem, discussed for a few minutes or half an hour, but an epic poem that takes an hour to tell.  What about an National Epic, memorized in its entirety, tailor-made for an audience that gets weepy every time it is heard (and being the 17th century, it isn't heard often).  What is the benefit from that?

I can see going as high as 15-20%, for the space of a week afterwards.  Such events would be spectacularly expensive, they might last only one performance or perhaps for a run of a week, like the Bayreuth festival (but in my world it is too early for Wagner).  It would be hard to seriously to keep attending something like this and still get any proper adventuring done . . . but imagining travelling seven hundred miles just to attend the festival.

And perhaps it might have a diminishing effect.  The most profound concert in Europe, given perhaps in Vienna, gives a 20% for the first week . . . and a drop of 1 or 2% for each week thereafter.  The players could space out on the bonus for months, making their plans to visit the same concert next year, every year.  THAT is granting something to the players that they really want.

Really, the potential is masterful.  Players are suddenly asking if there's a theatre in the city; they want to go to the city instead of the town because there might be something more.  The bigger the city, the more profound the encounter they might have.  And it is something else for them to spend their money on (at prodigious prices ~ it cost more than $350 to see Springsteen in concert in 2016).

Moreover, it gives something concrete for a bard to shoot at.


Now, this is different.  The benefits of Sukha can be obtained only once per artwork ~ and only from the artist actually responsible for that artwork.  So before Sukha can occur, the bard has to produce something personal and unique . . . and before that can happen, the bard has to get an inspiration and then work to make that inspiration happen.

That is a lot suddenly resting on top of the bard's being successful.  Now it isn't just getting the work finished.  Now it isn't the work bringing happiness or causing the locals to be more productive (though it might do that too).  Now it is the players waiting for the work to be done, because they are going to get experience from it.

Now the bard is hearing, "Is it done yet?  Is it done?"  And when the DM asks for the bard to roll the die to see if it is, every neck at the table is outstretched to see what the result is.

That's combat.  That's what happens with combat.

And because the bard's work isn't going to be accomplished with just one roll, there are going to be stages to the success of this thing.  And with each stage, the players get a little closer.

To make that work, the benefit for hearing the work has to be meaningful.  That is, if it works, right?  We talked about art not working.  If it doesn't, the bard won't be the only failure.  The whole party should be banging their heads on the table.

Want to know what it means to be an artist?  It means when we fail, everyone fails.  Just look at the favorite sport on the internet.

So what is that benefit?  Well, that depends on the amount of work done.  And that depends on how hard core the bard wants to be before risking total failure (and possibly an in-party lynching).  Working for a quick result might require two success rolls and then the final check against the stat indicated . . . and it might give 4% of the bard's total experience on hand to listeners (with some sort of adjustment for the level of the listener or lack thereof).  If the bard is first level and has a thousand experience, that's no big deal.  Oh, too bad, we lost 40 x.p.   Big whoop.

But let's say we have a poet that is more ambitious, deciding that this is going to be a serious poem, an epic.  There are going to be a series of 10 needed successful rolls that will extend the making of the poem to perhaps a year, until such time as the bard reaches 5th level and has a total of 20,000 x.p.  Suppose that the fallout from this poem will be 20% percent of the bard's total experience; that's 4,000 experience, bang, all in one swoop.  Wow, what a poem!

As I say, that would have to be reduced for characters of less than 5th level.  It could be argued they just don't "get it" ~ it is above their experience level.  Still, we could have an adjustment like two to the power of whatever the difference in levels was: so divided by 2 for 4th level, by 4 for 3rd level, by 8 for 2nd level, by 16 for 1st level and by 32 for the non-leveled persons.  This would still mean 125 x.p. for the common listeners.

The limitation is that each person hearing the poem can get this benefit only once (after which it becomes just another Upeksa), but there are virtually an unlimited number of persons the poem can be given to.

"Oh, just joined the party?  Oh, you must take some time and get the bard to recite his Clown's Panurge . . . it's fab!  You'll be changed, I promise you."


The potential changes here are enormous.  I was talking it over with my daughter just now and making jokes about the party rallying around the "culture stick" and screw the mage.  In my daughter's words,

"There are two characters hanging off a cliff and you can only save one.  Do you save the mage or the bard?"

I know that I am crazy half the time and that I am constantly raising the bar on the game to the point where most would find it impossible to run ~ but I'm just going to say that this is the most profound idea I think I've ever had.  It is nowhere near the "thread" I talked about yesterday.  Five hours ago I had not one iota of a wisp of a dream of this idea.

But now I think I'm the most brilliant person who ever wrote anything about D&D.  Feel free to just write "OMG" or "Wow" in the comments.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Lurker's Corner ~ Protocols

I feel like I'm constantly having to bring up issues having to do with protocols during the online games, much more so that I feel like I'm doing while at a table. That is probably because I am doing it in text.  Still, it comes up a lot and, in text, it is quite frustrating.

Every game has protocols.  These are to stop people from attempting to edge the rules on any part of the game that might be too fuzzy to be covered by rules.  Eventually, any consistent edging requires the necessity for creating a rule just to manage that situation.  For example, take this one from major league baseball:

Rule 5.07(a): Pitchers may disengage the rubber after taking their signs but may not step quickly onto the rubber and pitch.  This may be judged a quick pitch by the umpire. When the pitcher disengages the rubber, he must drop his hands to his sides.

I like using baseball for examples because (a) it is a game and {b) virtually everyone has played it. Take note of the example given.  It demonstrates clearly that pitchers were frequently trying to get the better of the batter by subverting the batter's ability to be ready for the pitch.  In fact, it was getting so bad that pitchers would prepare their bodies for throwing a pitch while still off the rubber ~ thus the necessity for the rule where the pitcher must have his hands down and at his sides.

This gets fairly complicated:

Set Position shall be indicated by the pitcher when he stands facing the batter with his pivot foot in contact with, and his other foot in front of, the pitcher's plate, holding the ball in both hands in front of his body and coming to a complete stop.  From such Set Position he may deliver the ball to the batter, throw to a base or step backward off the pitcher's plate with his pivot foot.  Before assuming Set Position, the pitcher may elect to make any natural preliminary motion such as that known as "the stretch." But if he so elects, he shall come to Set Position before delivering the ball to the batter. After assuming Set Position, any natural motion associated with his delivery of the ball to the batter commits him to the pitch without alteration or interruption.
Preparatory to coming to a set position, the pitcher shall have one hand on his side; from this position he shall go to his set position as defined in Rule 5.07(a)(2) (Rule 8.01(b)) without interruption and in one continuous motion.
The pitcher, following his stretch, must (a) hold the ball in both hands in front of his body and (b) come to a complete stop.  This must be enforced. Umpires should watch this closely. Pitchers are constantly attempting to "beat the rule" in their efforts to hold runners on bases and in cases where the pitcher fails to make a complete "stop" called for in the rules, the umpire should immediately call a "Balk."

In my game, I'm anxious to establish similar guidelines for player behavior.  For example, the assumption that a given player on a side goes first, when in fact someone else does due to position or dexterity.  Situations where players declare an attack and then throw the die before the attack is established as legitimate, possible or credible, forcing the DM to rescind a "great throw" on the player's behalf, because it was thrown at the wrong time.  This is always demoralizing in the game, with most of the blame falling on the DM who forces the players to "toe the rule" ~ something they don't mind doing when the mistimed roll is bad:

This I particularly dislike.  I would rather every roll made counted.  It sucks when players say, "I attack!" then rolls a natural 20, only to be told afterwards that they're nowhere near the opponent and the 20 doesn't count.  Follow the sighs of disappointment, "Aw!", then follow the next opportunity when the player rolls a 3.  I don't personally need this, the party doesn't need this, and it is easily contained by disallowing the players from making ANY rolls without confirmation first.

What many don't understand is that having protocols to control what's rolled and when actually saves time and keeps game play moving forward.  There are less arguments, less misunderstandings, less expectation that the campaign will be about "gaming the DM" and more effort made to just play.

Monday, January 9, 2017

The Metrics of Happiness

My next struggle for the bard is creating a metric for performance, namely the effects of performance and the overall definition for how we see a performance from an amateur bard as opposed to an authority or an expert.  How, exactly, does a performance from a pleasant singer at the open mic night down the street compare with the professional who comes to sing for the local fair?  What is the difference between going to a concert to see the latest band climbing the charts and a chance at seeing Bruce Springsteen?

Again and again I find myself coming face to face with happiness and the need to create some sort of defining measure for it.  On the whole, there isn't need of one for the players.  The players are happy or they are not, depending on their feeling for the game, their sense of achievement, the anticipation of success or the concern about the death of their characters . . . but we don't need to create a number on their character sheets that defines whether or not they're happy.

Non-player characters, however, that's a different thing.  For the most part, no one has bothered because, well, who cares?  If the non-players get in the way, we kill them, and if they don't get in the way, good.  Why in the name of the game would we give a damn if any of them were happy?

I grant that.  The only reason I have at the moment is that the bard is going to want to get up in front of these non-entities and read poetry or sing a song, and it would be nice to know if the audience claps or not.  It would be nice to know if there was any reason to do it, beyond the bard saying, "Yes, I sang for them last night."  That's not much.  I mean, once or twice, we might be able to fool ourselves with our imaginations into thinking, "Cool, it was great being a bard last night," but that's not going to sustain itself through a whole campaign.  It will get sour fast.  Soon enough, the bard is going to not bother.

It would be pleasant if the bard had a reason to bother, which is what brings me around to happiness.  Let's just say, for the sake of argument, that a particular sort of bard was able to make a particular crowd happy to a particular degree.  And let's say that a better bard made everyone feel happier, and that a terrific bard made everyone positively joyful.  We might even be able to think of a collection of adjectives for seeing Springsteen.  I have it on good authority that people pay hundreds of dollars to see these things in order to have an experience that will last them the rest of their lives ~ that's got to count for something.

More to the point, seeing someone perform live can be a life-changing event.  People walk out of such events on the edge of making a decision about who they are and who they want to be.  We want to include that, yes?  We want the bard to feel the experience of creating that . . . and on some level, we want the bard to be able to see other, more fabulous bards, and experience that change for themselves.

Okay.  How?

Just now, no idea.  Working on it.  On the whole, happiness is a state of mind.  It has confounded philosophers for three millennia, not to mention a host of people tackling the subject from a biological, psychological, economic and artistic point-of-view.  We don't think old Alexis is going to solve it in a fortnight, do we?

Here is what I have.  Happiness makes us flourish.  That is, it causes us to do more than simply wallow in our happiness, it has a side effect of causing us to either continue doing the thing that makes us happy in exclusion to all else (hedonism) or it causes us to seek a means of keeping ourselves in a state of health and welfare that ensures we will never be unhappy again.  The latter interests me, since it is the most positive, practical aspect of what the bard might be able to cause: people work harder, they sing while they work, they fight less, they invest their money, they set up families, they strive for a better life, they explore, they invest in progress, they imagine a world that will be in existence after they've left it.  If the reader wants more, it is all there in Aristotle.

He has all this flourishing bound up with "virtue," which for most people in this culture is a sort of dirty word. The politics of Virtue has come to stand for every miserly, uptight, sanctimonious, pompous, anti-sexual voice that's ever been raised for the "good of the country" and "decency."  This is not what it meant to Aristotle. Mostly, to get to the meat of it, Aristotle meant virtue as not being stupid.  Temper your habits because untempered habits will fuck you over big time.  Be prudent in your decisions because too many stupid, rash decisions will ruin you.  Be courageous because cowards are hated by everyone and that will certainly make you miserable.  And be just, because if you treat others badly, they will most certainly make you pay for it.

Don't be stupid.  Which, if memory serves, will lead you into a life of efficiency, friendship, a sense of self-worth and, on the whole, someone respected in the community.  These four things will help ensure your happiness, as it is easy to be happy when you're prosperous, appreciated and respected.

Applying this to the bard.  We need to imagine our ordinary little bard, a poet say, getting up in front of a crowd at the local roadhouse, calling out for attention. I've already established in a previous post that our bard is somewhat talented ~ so it doesn't take long to get the attention of the room, given that the room is in a late medieval world where poetry is something not seen regularly and would be received like Beyonce randomly turning up at your local pub and being willing to belt out a song or two.

What happens?  Well, presumably, the bar fills up with people who have a good time.  And then they go away, back to their lives, and make decisions based on what they just experienced.

We know that for sure.  We know it, because we do it ourselves, all the time.

The question is, how to measure it?

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Like an Artist

There are two key structures that I want to design into the bard character, and both were discussed in the comments section of the last post.  In this, I want to be clear: these rules are based upon what I see as the necessary elaboration of the bard character.  I've been pulled once (it is so hard to resist being an emotional being) into what is a bard and who is a bard, and I don't want to discuss that again.  I want to talk about the mechanics of making a bard work.  Esoteric discussions that do not involve metrics are actually of very little help.

I know that is bound to choke discussion, as I have found whenever I get into the metrics of something.  I am hoping, however, to obtain some understanding for my end goal with the bard.  Very well, down to the meat of it.

Art vs. Product

I'm taking the point of view that a bard, once reaching the status of being a 1st level, is a competent craftsperson.  They can play songs, write with efficiency and clarity, cook well, throw a pot, fashion leather, sculpt and so on.  It isn't a question of whether or not they can do these things well.  They can.  This is a fixed ability, not something that needs a roll to check.

Use this as a guideline: if a 1st level bard draws a lute out at a tavern and begins singing, people all around will enjoy the singing.  Again, it isn't a roll the bard needs to make to find out if people tell him to put the lute away.  They don't.  At first level, the bard is as competent as an average modern day artist who people read and go, "Hey, that fellow can write," or, "Wow, that picture looks just like me."

However, most of what the bard produces is "Product."  The songs sung at the tavern are familiar songs, the meter used to make the poem is a familiar meter, the story told by the puppeteer is well-known, the food is commonplace and recognizable.  And 99% of the time, this is what a bard does.  Bards take the stock forms of their individual skills and abilities and make proficient, workaday, conventional products therefrom.

As well, the bard never really moves away from this.  Bards have a small repertoire of things they know at 1st level and as they grow in level, that repertoire grows as well.  But it never stops being about producing product.  Shakespeare rewrote Marlow and used earlier works as his fundamental guidelines for churning out play after play, the Impressionistic crowd copied from each other, filmmakers borrow techniques, potters watch other potters, jewellers steal, everyone does it.  Over time, it only looks unique and artistic because most of the hoi polloi aren't sophisticated or engaged enough in the field to recognize the difference between something new and different and something regurgitated.

This can be a tremendous frustration for an artist, when something is celebrated as Brilliant and Unique, when in fact is it derivative of some style or particular work that has simply dropped sufficiently out of fashion that the 25-year-old reviewer has failed to acquaint themselves with it.  Those inside the profession, however, know; and so, too, do the creators themselves, who are perfectly aware of the stealing they've done and are also perfectly willing to keep quiet about it.  If the masses want to be duped, and want to give me money for duping them, then all the power to me.

All this, then, is product.  Art is what product steals from.

Art is what a bard does 1% of the time.  That up front needs to be understood clearly.  This is not a case of a bard deciding between A and B.  This is a case of a bard having to do A because B just isn't there.  The bard will absolutely rush to do B, the moment B presents itself, but so long as B is a fickle bitch, then A will have to do.

So when does "art" present itself?  Here we are looking for a specific word, that being "inspiration."  Art happens when the bard encounters inspiration, which isn't a case of just wanting it.  Inspiration has to be gotten ~ and regarding inspiration and the game of D&D, it needs to be gotten out there.

We can make a few guesses at what in D&D would be inspiration.  A legitimate near-death experience.  A magnificent undertaking that ends well.  Something horrific on the Lovecraftian level.  The death of a friend.  A love affair of note.  Something truly memorable.

But, no, the obtaining of an inspiration is not experience, it is not another level, it is in fact absolutely nothing but air.  Having an inspiration means almost nothing in terms of creating an art work.  Remember, 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration.  All we are saying is that once the inspiration has been sought for and obtained, thereafter the bard has to figure out ~ in their capacity as the representative of a particular art form ~ how to make the inspiration real.

Success vs. Failure

Before we can talk about this, we have to define the difference between these two terms.  This, fundamentally, is what the last post was about, though I think that was missed by some.

It is almost habitual to think that "failure" means bad.  But remember, we are defining the bard as an able, competent artist, not a wannabe who someday is going to be able to make art.  That is nonsense.  J.D. Salinger was only in his late 20s when he wrote Catcher in the Rye ~ which, for all its faults, is without a doubt a distinct, different voice in literature.  We only fail to see that because is in not 1951, when the book was published.  But Salinger was certainly not a 9th level writer.  However much we want to believe the equation that Level = Art, we need to get away from that concept.  The real equation is that Work = Art. Characters with level only have more resources, and therefore the capacity to create larger pieces of art, more expensive pieces of art, pieces of art that require dozens or hundreds, even thousands of participants.

Moreover, resources mean distribution and notoriety.  Quality is not, in itself, a guarantee of notice.  Very often, "art" as I've defined it is often so different, so obscure, so uncomfortable, that it is only understood by other artists . . . who in turn make product out of it that is less different, less obscure, less uncomfortable, and therefore more easily consumed.  This formula is so completely misunderstood by non-artists, despite the endless works that try to describe it, that it is strangely "natural" to think that good artists will automatically be recognized as such.

To use an example from a different field, it has been said that Newton's Principia Mathematica was incomprehensible to nearly everyone who read it, even other mathematicians.  But because it is math, even ignorant people are by and large willing to accept that the book is highly valuable.  Yet at the same time, we encounter no hesitation whatsoever to call great artworks "worthless" and "shit" when they prove too hard to read.  "Yeah, War and Peace. Why would anyone ever read that?"

From this, I postulate that "failure" does not mean bad.  We could rather argue that failure implies a disconnect between the artist and the audience, even with other artists.  An artwork that inspires no one to produce product certainly falls short of affecting anyone.

There is another "failure" that is worth noting, that I did touch upon with the last post.  That is, the failure to get the result wanted.  Let us say that I produce a song about the solitude of individuals facing a terrible oppressive nation, to offer solace to the few intelligent men who, like me, feel helpless in the face of a mighty exploitive entity.  And much to my unhappiness, I discover that this book is embraced, nay, publicly celebrated by the united forces of the KKK, who claim it as the modern bible of their cause.

What am I to do?  My name is now certainly being exploited by an entity over which I have no control, while at the same time every stranger I meet presumes immediately that I must be part of the KKK because I wrote the book for them.  Talk of the solitude in the face of an oppressor.  My career is over, my name is over . . . the most I can do is change my name and hope I can disappear into obscurity.  That is, if I haven't put my picture on the cover of my book.

"Success," then, is the opposite of all this.  Success is communicating, success is inspiring others to make product, success is not having one's name spoiled or being misunderstood, not being vilified and not being burned in effigy.  And, potentially, getting a little money out of it too.  Perhaps a little fame, but this is the 17th century and without the benefit of mass media, fame is in small packets.  We all know the name of Cyrano de Bergerac, technically alive at the time my world takes place, but it is probable that most of the people living in Paris had never heard of him, certainly most of the people in the countryside of France hadn't and only a tiny percentage of people outside of France would have ever read him.  About the same number of people who have read him today.  Yes, we know who he was, but have you read his Comical History of the States and Empires of the Moon? ~ had you even heard of it?  Can you confirm without a doubt that I'm not inventing that title without looking him up?

Creating Art

We want a metric that will let the bard character, once having obtained the inspiration, to create an artwork without having to actually create the artwork.  But we also want that character to have some influence over what the artwork will be, how big it is, what it's general tone and subject will be and what general direction of effect it will have.

I propose that we use the universal condition of all D&D characters, the character stats.  A bard looks over the options presented and decides what to take a chance on ~ because, yes, while the quality of the art is not in dispute, the reputation and comprehension of the art is.  But before we get to that, let's define the stats in terms of artwork.

Charisma is obviously beauty, the awe-inspiring pleasure of form and appeal that causes the viewer to drop jaw and stare.  Of course, the opposite is there as well, the desire to horrify, to force others to turn away, like Hieronymus Bosch, to use a relatively contemporary example.  Opposites apply to all the art forms that can be made - and success does not depict necessarily beauty or ugliness, but which the bard desires.

Constitution is health, the patriotic, the celebratory depiction of the present culture, religion or state.  It is also the demise of the state, anarchy, subversion, treason and rebellion.

Dexterity is difficulty, intricacy, the making of something that seems so absurd in its construction that it cannot possible stand, or something that the human body cannot possibly do; or making a tool do something that no one could have imagined was possible.  It is also the pure naturalness of form, of movement, of perfect ease and embrace.

Wisdom is educational, it is making the viewer, listener or subject aware of what has happened, how things work, how the universe functions, what is truth.  And it is also what is not truth, it is fantasy, it is strangeness, it is using the preconceptions of the mind to subvert the mind.

Intelligence is the call to think, to see, to obtain realization, to seek paths of greater understanding, to investigate, to ask questions, to insist that there is more than what we understand.  And it is tradition, ignorance, hate, resistance against reason, the insistence that investigation is evil and that things should be taken on faith.

Strength is strength; it is military might, it is a call to arms, it is compelling, bombastic, it is marching music, it is beating feet and booming drums, it is sinew and force of will and personal success.  It is also weakness, pandering, the denial of personal responsibility . . . and it is porn, it is debauchery, it is hedonism and lust, it is all the crutches that people lean upon because they are too weak to endure.

Some can take that list as moralistic.  I'm not too worried about that, I'm only interested in a metric for defining.  That is because, once we hammer out rules for what makes an inspiration into an artwork, we need rules for what effects an artwork has.

And we can begin those rules by saying that AFTER the artwork is made, after it is released, the character makes a check on the ability they have chosen.

Most characters will play it safe.  Bards have a high wisdom and a high charisma, it will be safest to make artworks that play to those abilities.  But whatever they case, they'll have to do the work before they can know if the work was in vain or not, or what the outcome will be.

THAT is the player understanding what it means to be a bard.  That we are inspired, we pick our chosen message, we pick our form, we start the work, we keep at the work, we finish the work . . . and all the while, we're not sure.  Will it work?  Will it?

It is easy for a player to say, "I write a song," then throw a die and know.

What if we make the player wait to roll.  What if the player has to sacrifice time for session after session, until at some point in the future, the time comes for the die to be cast.  What will that feel like?

It will feel like an artist.

Monday, January 2, 2017

All Right, With Feeling

Regarding the structure of bardic knowledge, the focus is something more than enabling a character to sing songs and write poetry.  There is something more inherent that must be part of the class, something that has eluded me up until now and which I think has eluded everyone.

The fighter is a visceral experience.  It strikes at the inner part of the body.  The player feels the axe hitting and breaking the enemy ~ and this is something the player never has the opportunity to feel, because we live in a modern world where we do not gird on swords and go to war (and if we do, it is very different now).

This is why people play a fighter: to have that experience of mastering the weapon, of swinging, of hitting, all of these things being part of the lexicon of the game.  We do not roll the die, we "swing."  We do not succeed in rolling a number, we "hit."

The same is true of the mage, for players want that visceral experience of wielding enormous power, blasting open the gates and engulfing enemies in a blast of flame or lightning.  In no way can we do this in real life.  Nor can we enjoy the death of an unknowing enemy from our knife in his back, nor the pride in communicating with the gods, or in any other thing having to do with the classes in D&D.  We play these characters because we cannot do what these characters do.  This is the appeal.

Then how does the bard fit into this?  The fight is adrenaline, magical power is adrenaline, the back stab is adrenaline, the turning back of undead by sheer force of will is adrenaline . . . where is the bard's adrenaline?

The answer most will give is fame.  Adulation, the shouting of a thousand voices, the celebrity status of the great artist when stepping forth onto the stage.  Except . . .

After a moment's thought, we realize that doesn't work.  The fighter can obtain that visceral pleasure from the death of a single bug, the cleric from the simple restitution of a few hit points, the mage from a single imaginary missile that causes no more than 2-5 damage.  And the bard . . . from two people in an empty bar giving a standing ovation?

See?  The bard, as we tend to view it, needs the huge audience or else it's a let-down.  That's because we've fetishized the bard as a celebrity, as the inevitable receiver of other people's affection ~ but that's nothing more than a sort of dependency.  The sort of artists who crave approval invariably come up short in the end. There is never enough approval, not even for the incomprehensibly famous, certainly not for Elvis or Marilyn.  Fame is worse than fleeting, it is unsatisfying, it is a broiling, magnificent cup of smoking, multi-colored liquid that has less taste than water upon the pallet.  It is not what artists are made of.

If we are to give the player the visceral experience of being an artist, we must begin with the premise that they have no understanding whatsoever of what it means to create art.  Some of us do, oh ho, but most see the process as either incomprehensible or unquestionably frightening.  The greatest fear of the largest number of people, it is said, is to be on stage and face an audience ~ that thing that artists are somehow willing to do not once, but every day, sometimes with two shows on Saturday.

How do we tap into that?  How do we realize the struggle of the artist prior to the creation of the art ~ that doubt, that uncertainty, that unknowing terror that this artwork will fail, the embarrassing shame of churning artwork that might succeed and taint us for the rest of our lives.

Art is never a clear, certain success, like we imagine it must be for every bard who would enter the game.  The fighter will ultimately become Jenghis Khan, the wizard will ultimately be Gandalf and the bard will ultimately be . . . who, exactly?  Name the greatest bard of the 17th century, or the 15th, or the 12th.  Do we know them from the crowds of people who followed after them or do we not merely know them from a single book, as we know Roland, put together by someone else a century after Roland's death.

Nevermind, the character's bard will be Elvis, yes?  Everyone knows who Elvis was.

But why should that be the case?  Can we not think of lesser artists who are still admired and appreciated? Of course, yes.  But we can also think of artists who did not have the lives they wanted, or the fame they cherished.  I am thinking here about Alec Guinness, who spent his life becoming a celebrated actor of stage and screen, only to hate the last quarter of it as thousands of adoring fans gushed over him for a role that he took for money, that he considered not worth bothering about.  Or, if we prefer the profane, what became of Pee Wee Herman's career after he became known as a public masturbator?  Do we remember any of Joan Crawford's movies or do we remember that she beat her children?  Isn't it strange that Mickey Rooney, who appeared in hundreds of films, has become best known for a bad, in poor taste portrayal of an upstairs Japanese neighbor.

What does it say that Gloria Gaynor, a steadfast Christian whose career was founded on the iconic hit I will Survive, was never comfortable with it becoming the gay anthem.  What does it say that J.D. Salinger's book Catcher in the Rye became a wank manual for would-be terrorists?  And what sort of career did Salinger have, or Harper Lee for that matter, after writing an iconic book read by tens of millions, they were unable to produce another title remembered by anyone?  What does it mean to be a group of artists, like the Osmonds in the 1970s, who had more than a dozen top 40 hits, none of which are played now on any oldies station outside Utah (where, I assume, it is a state law).  Success is a brutal, difficult to understand thing, and is certainly not tied to fame.  Charles Bukowski was never "famous," but any serious poet alive today has read him.  Nietzche lived his whole life in an unpleasant vista of social hatred and obscurity, but he merely changed the world.

What defines success?  What offers the artist what the artist needs or wants?  We have to understand these things if we want to give the ordinary, everyday, non-artistic player the opportunity to be an artist for a few hours every few weeks.

That's the goal.  Anything short of that is simply window dressing.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

What the Party Isn't Given

One of the realities of my sage abilities system is that while it gives additional abilities and skills to the players, letting them shape their characters more deeply and expanding greatly on the class structure as well, the most important thing is what the system does not give.

When 3rd Edition decided to create feats, they concentrated everything on a die roll that would make pass/fail the standard of the system . . . and because the feats were based on bonuses to that die roll, technically everyone could perform any feat, if they were lucky enough.  A die roll meant that success was improved, not necessarily guaranteed.  It also meant that not having a feat was not a crippling matter.  We could jump the gorge, if we were pressed to do so and we might make it, no matter what we lacked on our character sheet.

It was an improvement over AD&D's approach to minor abilities, which was that everyone can do everything, almost equally.  Strength might have some influence on our ability to leap and dexterity on our ability to walk a narrow ledge, but none of that had anything to do with class ability, race, shape, size, etcetera ~ and certainly nothing to do with player character munchkinism.  Moreover, when it came to a skill that had nothing to directly to do with adventure, there was no limit whatsoever.  Thieves and mages could walk through woods as easily as rangers and druids, everyone knew how to start a fire or build a tent, and certainly everyone could stand guard with equal ease or buy a donkey and of course handle it like a muleskinner.  Why not?

By creating a set of abilities that meant a character could absolutely do something, without a die roll (make poison, identify the location of the party, make wine that could heal hit points, open a lock with a pick, sail a boat, forage, identify poisonous mushrooms, ad nauseum), it also meant that all those things would be something that characters absolutely could not do.  Suddenly, a fighter can't teach someone else to fight, a mage can't just buy a dog and have it fight in combat, a ranger can't properly load a mule nor convince it to move forward as wanted and a character absolutely, without question, will drown if they try to swim.

This is a magnificent issue where it comes to player experience.  They find a book and suddenly there is a chance that no one in the party knows how to read.  There's a boat tied to the dock of the underground river and the orcs are hot on our heels, but does anyone in the party know how to keep us from smashing on the rocks?  There's no fire started and there's no tinder either; who among us knows how to start a fire from scratch?

This stuff is limiting, annoyingly so. It is not the stuff "heroes" need to deal with.  All our heroes can automatically do anything they want, since the storyteller conveniently covers them over with magic ability dust that permeates every crevice and crack of their upbringing. If necessary, we will invent a grandmother, an uncle, a neighbor down the street or what have you to teach the hero how to perform an appendectomy with a rock, a toothbrush and fifteen feet of twine.  No problem.

But when the party aren't able to do that, and it is in their face from the start, watch them start to move together as a group.  Suddenly, it isn't a question of liking the ranger because he has a lot of hit points; if the ranger dies here, the rest of us are going to starve to death in this wilderness because we wouldn't know the first thing about finding game.

It is unfair . . . but it is also marvelous.  All the more because as the players acquire skills that no one else can do, it is suddenly no longer necessary to fight gods in order to feel like one.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

We Want Happy Players

I have recently found that it is supposed that I am inflexible where it comes to character generation ~ that once a player chooses, say, where their stats go, what their proficiencies are or what spells they might want to use, that's it, the player's decision is set in stone ~ no matter what.

First of all, I rush to say this isn't true.  I am more than flexible where it comes to player's character decisions, because I want the player to be happy.  An unhappy player will quickly lose interest in a game.  An unhappy player will fret and complain, and ultimately stop being in the game.  There is no percentage in making a player unhappy.

That is why I am more than willing to let characters swap around their stats, their decisions about what weapons they'll use and what spells they want up until the last moment before they actually join the game.  They should feel that if they have miscalculated or misunderstood some rule, that they have the right to redress the situation.  I have always felt this way.  If the character's weapon proficiency is too expensive, and the character wants to change that proficiency, then DO.  It is no skin off my nose.

Why should it be?  I am not invested with characters having such-and-such a wisdom or such-and-such a weapon.  They're all available and they can all be chosen ~ or not chosen, as the case may be.  None of them will ultimately guarantee the survival of the character . . . though yes, some will certainly detract from it.

This goes Double for situations where the rules are in flux ~ the sage abilities, for example.  Here the characters are guessing at what will work for them in the long run from a list that, for the most part, is fairly crude.  I am forever working on these damn things, the range of possibilities are vast and it is inevitable that I will have fallen short somewhere in both description and invention.  I still haven't got sage abilities at all for the monk and bard, whereas for most of the classes they are outlines at best.

Which means I must be considerate, here.  I want happy players.  I don't intend to get gamed by a player who chooses one set of sage abilities for one adventure, then tries to set themselves up with a different set for a different adventure.  But at the same time, prior to the start of the game, any decision regarding any part of the character's creation can be reconsidered.  After the start of the game, well . . . I will take that on a case-by-case basis.  I have allowed characters to choose different spells or shift other details, particularly in situations where I have made changes.

For example, a few years ago I rewrote all my mage and illusionist cantrips.  I added quite a few interesting ones and threw out a few from the old days.  Once I finished, I allowed all the casters affected to change re-choose their cantrips from scratch.  That was only fair.

That's how it goes sometimes.  The rules change and everyone gets a clean slate.

Hey, we're all just doing our best and it is only a game.  It might help not to embrace some image of me that I'm an uncompromising martinet.

Monday, December 26, 2016

Lurker's Corner ~ A Cold Examination of the Barrow Fight

Here we are, Monday again, and there haven't been many posts on the blog this past week.  At the same time, I am thinking sincerely of making the Lurker's Corner a regular thing . . . but perhaps once a week is too often.  There were many, many comments on the post last Monday, however, and that is encouraging.

I did say a week ago that I would wait until the combat was over before making any personal comments about what I felt had gone wrong with the party.  We only managed to get three rounds accomplished since then . . . but with Gudbrand dead, as Rowan slides into unconsciousness and both Aleksandra and Lothar likely to be attacked by two or three beetles each, things have gone far enough that I don't think any of my comments right now can seriously change the party's situation.

Let me just say that as I write this, it is round 11 and I'm waiting for Aleksandra to make a move and end the party's action for the round.  I hope to publish this after that move is made, so that the players are locked into whatever the 12th round might bring.  But I'm going to publish as soon as I'm done.

As the DM here, I have the benefit of knowing what the party was about to meet, so in many ways what I might say about their "errors" could be construed as unfair.  After all, I did not need to throw 12 beetles at them.  I could have thrown 6 or 3.  Moreover, I could have set up the "dungeon" so that the party had plenty of time to get down the makeshift rope together, even plan a strategy before they got attacked.

I didn't, however.  I didn't think about how the party might react.  I thought what might conceivably make a home for itself in a barrow in Norway; I began with the premise that it ought to be something that could dig up from below, since the top of the barrow would be all stone.  Once I decided upon beetles, primarily because it was an opportunity for the party to harvest the nodes on the beetles' for coin, I decided that given that it was Spring, the weather would be moderately warmer and that they would have begun to lay their eggs.  I envisioned four pits, and decided an average of three beetles per pit would be fair.

I decided that one pit would attack up front, once provoked, rolling 2-4 beetles appearing.  Then, each round following, I would roll a d6 to see if the beetles from the other pits joined in.  The first round, each pit would join on a 1; the round thereafter the pit would join on a roll of 1-2, then 1-3, then 1-4, as long as it took.

As it happened, one other pit joined in with the 3rd round after Aleksandra woke the first beetles, in round 4; then the other two pits woke together the round after, round 5.

I want to emphasize that what follows is only my opinion about how the players should have handled the situation.  But let's also be clear; I have done nearly a hundred combats with players since developing these movement rules about 8 years ago, some of those combats ridiculously huge.  I have noticed some patterns in that time.

Here are some issues I think are worth addressing:

Online Thinking

I'd don't know what else to call this.  Now that I've started some twenty people in my online campaigns, I have to wonder what sort of worlds that people run in.  Knowing that you have limited resources, and knowing that you WILL get other proficiencies in the future, why oh why would you not take a club as a proficiency?  Why would you presume that because it isn't on the market list that a club is something that can't be made?

First and foremost, why would the ranger choose to put his highest stat under charisma, particularly since his age would have assure an 18 strength, with +1+2 bonuses, if he hadn't decided to throw the 17 away on a fairly useless stat for a ranger to have.  Surely, a 13 would have been sufficient!

Similarly, why would a low-level assassin choose bolas as a proficiency?  Not a dagger?  Not an easy to find weapon, or one that would suit the environment?  There is a reason that bolas developed on the Pampas, a big, open plain, with very few trees, rocks or objects between hurler and target.  I've noticed that there's something strange about people's choices ~ put something strange on the list and players will be drawn to it like a moth to a bug-zapper . . . only to get killed by it, just like a moth.  Given that the bolas couldn't even be purchased in the present circumstances of the assassin, assigning this as a proficiency, when the assassin would have gotten another one after three levels, makes no sense.

But it is the sort of decision I've gotten used to seeing online people make.  At least the sort of mistake Gudbrand made, failing to buy weapons, is a mistake I've seen live people make.  But in all my playing of D&D, right back into the the 80s, I've never seen players make the kind of choices I see them make online. This goes double when we get to the battle sequence, below.

Failure to Take Advantage of Resources

Let's start with the players who decided that they absolutely would not hire their men-at-arms.  It stated clearly in the background generator that these people were friends!  Dani's started with the thoroughly great morale of only 6, meaning that on a 2d6 she had a 27 out of 36 chance of being willing to die for Dani in a bad situation. 

But the 6 g.p. was too high a price, given that Dani had only 10 to her name.  Nevermind that Gudbrand could have easily afforded it (he had 70 g.p.) or Rowan (who had 190 g.p.).  Lothar had a harder decision ~ the morale of his friends would not have be as well as Dani's, and the men-at-arms were more expensive.  Still, one of them would have been useful for a dungeon, given that they were sappers, and therefore could have managed getting in on their own.  As well, they would have spent the 24 g.p. on some equipment of their own, something I would have thought to bring even if the party did not.

And let us not forget that Engelhart's older sister would have worked for FREE.

Two extra men in the battle could have made a real difference . . . at least one of them could have hauled on the rope, dragging people up, so that they didn't have to climb once they were all inside.

It was argued that the party was very short of funds, but there was Engelhart's boat just sitting there in the harbor, worth hundreds of gold, while Lothar had access to 450 g.p. in stolen furs.  All I said about those was that it wouldn't be a good idea to sell them in Stavanger.  Did the party not consider selling them someplace else?  Someplace that it would have been relatively safe to get to, without being attacked viciously by a dozen monsters?

And what about Engelhart's family, where is says on his background that "friends of the character will be treated well"?  Did the party not think this would mean they could get fed?  I made sure that Engelhart's grandfather gave the party some presents.  Why did no one think to approach the grandfather and ask for an axe or something?  I would have probably given an old battle axe, good damage and break on a 1 in 4 if dropped.  But no one even asked. Lothar could have holed up there for a week, surely ~ "treated well" would certainly have included nursing his ills!

Failure to Read or Comprehend Description

I have to believe this has everything to do with how other people run their games.  I had made it fairly clear before the party decided to go out to any of the barrows that I could make them more "interesting."  Has no one heard the [erroneously attested] Chinese curse?  How clear do I have to make it?  Should I have said, "Oh, I'm sure I can put things in the barrows fully capable of killing you"?  Do I have to make it that clear?

But the assassin dove in first without any hesitation, despite a serious lack of proficient weapons.  Then there was an interesting disconnect, one which Aleksandra may not have understood.

Initially, she said that "Once everyone is down who wishes to be down, I toss a rock towards the red glow." [The Barrow's Entrance]

This is a difficult phrase, one which I always encourage players NOT to use.  See, as a DM, I never, ever, assign any importance to what a player says they "will" do.  Planning to do something is not the same as doing, and in order to keep order at the table I don't presume that anyone does anything until they state clearly that they ARE doing something.  Which Aleksandra does, in the next post:

"Alright.  I toss one of my rocks towards 1008." [Under the Barrow]

With all the confusion that has gone on with the previous post, with players starting and stopping themselves from going down the twine, I started the next post on the campaign so that it would be understood that only two actual people were DOWN: Aleksandra and Lothar.  I stated that Aleksandra could hear nothing, adding that the sound of her heart in her ears was "the loudest sound you can hear."

I don't know why she presumed that there was nothing to be frightened of at that point.  It got confusing, with Engelhart somehow thinking he could see Aleksandra (when it was clear from the image that he wasn't in the room), as well as Engelhart, Gudbrand and Rowan all indicating in three successive posts that they assumed were all down the rope, even though I had not told any of them that they were, even going so far as explaining that they had weapons out and were ready.

This was absolutely profound to me.  I had explained the rope/twine situation, had explained that it would take rounds of time to get down, had shown in an image that only Lothar and Aleksandra were in the room.  But presuming all three had read Aleksandra's post about throwing the rock, they ALL seemed to suppose that the world would stop spinning on its axis long enough for them to all climb down the twine (2 rounds for each) before anything would actually happen in the room.

This sort of thing is so frustrating.  I said there was a glowing in the room, then ignored the party hauling out torches because there was no need for them.  Once the party was out of the sunlight, the glow from the four pits was more than enough to see inside ~ but I didn't make this clear enough and that fault is on me.

And worst of all, in the midst of trying to explain all the confusion to the players, I completely missed that Lothar had pulled his bow and made it ready to use.  So, as a matter of fact, I owed Lothar a bow shot in the first round of the beetles appearing.  Unfortunately, Lothar took my mistake as a DM's ruling [which he shouldn't have], so that he stated again in round 1 that he was loading his bow, when he should have been screaming at me that his bow was already loaded, stated clearly in the previous post.

After all, when I was bitch-slapping the three people who were still up-top, Lothar was in the room and did have plenty of time to load the bow.  Therefore, I wasn't speaking to him at all ~ something that would have been obvious, had we all been sitting around a table.  But we weren't, we were trying to do this in text, and in the interest of saving everyone's time, the whole comment thread became a nightmare.

Would Lothar's bow shot have made a difference?  Possibly.  We'll never know.  I make mistakes, I totally discounted that shot, Lothar assumed I was on top of it so he didn't bitch-slap me and the shot was lost.

It is difficult to run this game in voice; it is insane to do it in text.  The only thing I can do is to try to browbeat people into understanding HOW to communicate, one step at a time, not saying what they'll do in advance of someone else doing something, but to concentrate on exactly what they do right NOW and at no other time. The failure to grasp this definitely led to a lot of misunderstandings, and those misunderstandings led to big trouble when the battle got started.

The Party's Inexplicable Choices

First, I want to explain that the party had LOTS of hit points.  Look at the hit point damage from the end of the beetles' attack in Round 11: the party has taken 77 damage and three of them are technically still on their feet.  Even with the inexhaustible supply of bad luck experienced by the party, it is clear from the potential damage they could take that they had a deep, deep well from which they could expend hit points, waiting for things to get better.

Why didn't things get better, then?

Well, start with Gudbrand from Round 2.  He had disappeared most of the day, I was anxious to keep the campaign going, so I rolled a d20 for him and caused him to hit and kill the beetle in front of him.

This led to a bunch of unnecessary self-recrimination, that simply could have been overlooked.  Instead, it caused the player behind Gudbrand to indicate that he was running out of the combat, apparently hiding behind Aleksandra, rather than just attacking one of the two beetles remaining.  Who knows!  That attack might have hit ~ and even if it didn't, Gudbrand just being there in front of the beetle, giving the beetle something to hit other than Aleksandra.  But by taking himself out of the battle for Round 3, he basically crippled the party's combat strength by 50%.

Then he does it AGAIN in Round 4, deciding that the right thing to do is abandon the party completely, because he's busy with his real life and had chosen not to "burden" the party by staying behind and helping them live.  And this in the face of seeing right there on the screen that the party has just acquired 4 new enemies.  I didn't know what he was doing for sure, but I suspected: it was only when, in Round 5 he actually declared he was leaving the barrow, that I had evidence ~ whereupon I threatened to dump his cowardly ass out of the campaign, causing him to suddenly decide that maybe he better carry his own weight.  By then, of course, four rounds of damage dealing or taking had been lost, since even in Round 6 he hasn't made an attack.

Which brings us to Engelhart, who got onto the floor of the barrow in Round 4, at the same time those beetles appeared.  And what does he do?  Does he rush right over and help Lothar kill the beetle that is right there, within reach?  No, he rushes for "higher ground," where he'll have to wait a whole round (in which time he is totally useless) before he can get a mere +1 bonus.  Meanwhile, Lothar misses, and is now the only target that can be hit by the beetle in front of him.  Engelhart could have been right there to perhaps soak up some of that damage, but he isn't, he's well away from any danger.

In Round 4 the players seem to be working together ~ for what it is worth, ganging up on one beetle.  But while Rowan could have thrown his club at the oncoming beetles, he instead decides to spend all his movement accomplishing nothing that round.  He had a spear!  Why didn't he throw the club and fight with the spear?  At the same time, Lothar and Engelhart turn their backs on the oncoming beetles, when a hammer could have been thrown ~ except that the cleric took a maul as a 1st level weapon, in a forested/cave land, making about as much sense as a bolas.

At least they hit the beetle.  And no great problem, since the beetles don't have enough move to attack them anyway, so they can easily turn around and just fight.

Except . . . they don't!  Lothar continues to keep his back to the four beetles attacking, in order to kill that one that's been hit before, presumably because it will be easier to kill.  Do they teach this sort of maneuver in military school?

Meanwhile, Aleksandra attacks and then retreats, ensuring that Lothar has no support at all, since Engelhart has done the same.  Thus, when the beetles move in, the split the party in half, since of course they rush into the empty pocket the party created.

Now, this sort of thing has nothing whatsoever to do with bad rolls.  This is just horrendously bad tactics ~ but it gets better.

Engelhart widens the gap still further by continuing to back up, so that as Lothar does the same he still doesn't have anyone at his back and there's still a gap.  Meanwhile, Gudbrand is front and center, the first and best target in front of the beetles, where his +1 defense looks pretty pathetic.  And since Engelhart is at the back of this mess, the one fellow with the most hit points at this point has put himself where he is threatened by only one beetle.

In Round 7, both Gudbrand and Lothar are predictably stunned ~ they're the most vulnerable characters.  Engelhart doesn't get attacked at all, so that the weight of the next round is certain to fall on Rowan, who has nowhere to throw Gudbrand except in front of the beetles.  Engelhart is totally blocking the party's retreat by sitting in the totally useless fullback position.  The party is in huge trouble right now, with only two real defenders, both three hexes apart.

Then Rowan, beyond inexplicable, ignores the four beetles in front of him to again turn around and attack a beetle that Engelhart can absolutely handle.  Why?  I have no idea.  This blows my mind . . . particularly as it means he and Gudbrand will be swarmed by five beetles the following round.  

Then, while Engelhart moves towards Lothar and Aleksandra ~ presumably to close the hole ~ he creates another one, totally abandoning Rowan and Gudbrand at this very critical moment.  And again, the cleric manages to get himself into a position where he will experience only one attack in round 8.

This is so consistent it is almost hard to believe it isn't deliberate; I don't think it is, though.  Engelhart floats all over the battlefield, however, and either by luck or intention keeps avoiding being in the thick of it.  And while he may not have wanted to keep avoiding being attacked, he certainly never rushes forward to risk all to hold the party together!  He's in the center for three rounds and yet he's never in the thick of it.

So, in Round 8, the inevitable happens.  Gudbrand gets his ass kicked all over, leaving Rowan with his ass hanging out.  But instead of saving Rowan by attacking the beetles in front of the druid, the ranger rushes over and stands over Gudbrand's practically dead body (-8 is pretty much out of the question), while Engelhart plainly runs away from the center position to attack the lone beetle that Rowan hit two rounds ago.  And, making my jaw drop, Lothar also ignores the threat to Rowan and attacks that beetle as well.  But at least the ranger is using his body as a shield.

Now, I don't know how Engelhart feels about this.  Perhaps there is some logic here ~ but the fact is, he's completely avoiding being attacked by the beetles between Rowan and Aleksandra, while both Engelhart and Lothar abandon Aleksandra completely.  

I think perhaps the continuous missing had a psychological effect.  Certainly, by this time the Lurker's Corner post had gone up last week and everyone was talking on the campaign as if hitting was "impossible," so why even try?  That was a very bad head space to get into.

With the tactics employed, there was no chance of this going good places.  Aleksandra is surrounded by beetles in Round 8, Lothar and Rowan are getting swamped by the other five beetles and Engelhart is, once again, conveniently out of the struggle.  All those hit points that Engelhart has, that could help others not be stunned, are just sitting there.

Rowan runs out of luck in Round 9, Lothar also.  Now it is totally up to Engelhart to hold the line; Aleksandra, getting really lucky this round, realizes that she has to get back to where others can help her.

And now, seeing what Engelhart does, there's no question in my mind.  He walks away from Lothar, leaving the ranger to be attacked by 3 beetles, while retreating to a place where he has only one beetle to face.  How many ways are there to interpret that?

Round 10.  Gudbrand dies, but its a good thing, because three beetles begin to feast on his corpse.  This gets them out of the fight altogether.  Yay.  Aleksandra, who did not get supported by Engelhart moving Lothar into 0910 and taking the brunt of the attack at last, is now attacked by four different beetles.  Of course she is hit twice, miraculously making a check and remaining conscious.

Desperate now, Lothar overbears the beetle between him and the rope out of this hell-place, succeeding and using the beetles eating Gudbrand as a shield to try and get out.  All he needs is for Engelhart to step up, try to kill the beetle he's just moved or at least keep the beetle engaged long enough to let Lothar escape . . .

But Engelhart doesn't.  Instead, Engelhart uses this golden opportunity to flee completely out of the battle, ostensibly to cast a healing spell for 5-8 points.  Of course, the party is easily losing double that per round from the beetles attacking, and they'll all be dead by the time the cleric gets his spell off, but that's how it goes.  When all the beetles are feasting on everyone else, Engelhart will be in the perfect position to climb the rope and escape.

I'm sorry, but that is how I see this.  The party made huge tactical errors, repeatedly splitting themselves up when they could have been fighting together.  Gudbrand the assassin frittered, letting the real world intervene in his character choices, whereas Engelhart ~ by chance, by poor tactical decision or by sheer unwillingness to put himself in danger, perhaps because he lost the will to believe his die could roll above a 13 ~ wound up abandoning the party when his hit points would have increased the chances of everyone's survival.

Now, I don't want people to accept the above as fact.  I am one fellow, I'm not perfect.  I made several errors in running this game and was called out, justifiably, by all the characters, including the fellow behind Engelhart.  I'm just as capable as anyone of misinterpreting something.  Don't let my position as DM or blog-owner discourage you from telling me I'm wrong [politely, without name-calling, if you would be so kind].