Friday, January 30, 2015

Ring & Run

So, here I am, done with my job.  Meaning that I can - sort of - talk about it.  There are things that I can't say - disclosure agreements and all that, so the actual entity I worked for has to remain obscure - but I can talk about the industry, which is fun.

These past five years I've been managing a database and working as a liaison between film companies and pay-per-view.  This means that I've previewed, for free, hundreds upon hundreds of movies, including a helluva lot of porn, since this also gets sold to clients.  I've written about a million synopses, talked to studios, talked to the encoding houses that make it harder to rip the movies from DVDs or - in our case - from our system.  I've had access to some swag from film companies (the posters are junk, all of them, film companies don't part with the good stuff), which has enabled me to expand my library somewhat.  I've marketed and manipulated and run a lot of sales numbers and watched the whole distribution process - the same one a lot of you see from looking at the storefront - from the beginning to the end.

Whew.  Am I sick of it.

I love movies.  Not just recent movies, but all movies, right back into the silent era.  I really hate it when a twenty-something's "all time" list extends back to when they were 14, with a few movies they remember their big brother or sister liking.  To me, the IMDb list of the top 250 is total shit, based on a voting public that learned to punch a keyboard last decade.  Of course there are films like Inception and Interstellar.  And of course virtually every old movie on the list is replete with male toxic wannabeism.  Because that is what most movies since the early 70s came to be about, once the Hays Code was - correctly - burned down.

Not that a lot of people rating movies have any idea what the Hays Code was.

However, I digress.

I wanted to explain about the industry I'm leaving.  From the outside, it looks very lucrative.  People have been talking about the 'changes' brought on by the explosion of streaming video, how it is revivified the industry and people's interest in movies.  Daily we're hearing exciting news like Amazon hiring Woody Allen to write a television series and Sony or Lion's Gate talking about getting into the movie streaming business themselves.  But let me reassure you - it is all public relations.  In reality, the movie studios are running scared.  In reality, the business itself has a very, very narrow profit margin.

Not because the public doesn't want to see movies.  Not because the movies are bad.  But because the industry is bankrupting themselves making it hard for you to steal the movies for free.  A strategy they are failing at 100%.

Before a movie can be put on a streaming system for you to buy, that movie has to be encoded with what's called macrovision, sometime called DRM.  This is a 'vertical blanking signal' or a 'colorstripe' that must be incorporated into the video so that someone who does not know what they're doing cannot simply copy the video.  (Someone who does know what they're doing can bypass this easily).  This is a process that has to be applied to every asset in the system.  It is a very expensive process.

For an HD video - and mostly anything is HD nowadays - it is upwards of $15 or more per minute of film.  This is money that must be spent ahead of time, before the film has an opportunity to make money . . . so the reader can guess that if the film doesn't make more than a certain amount, the company loses money.

That's why, if you've wondered, you don't see hundreds or thousands of old movies on your preferred streaming system - there aren't enough people who will pay to see the film to make it worthwhile encoding.  Particularly when you consider that everything has to be re-encoded every two or three years because the previous encoding has been hacked.

It's fine for a huge film like Frozen - but Frozen has to pay for every other film in the system, including a lot of films that never pay for themselves.  And believe me, for every film that does really well like Frozen, there are three or four hundred films that utterly tank.

Why is it this way?  Because the studios insist upon it.  They would rather see their own product rot in a warehouse than risk letting it emerge without being coded.

Which brings us to the practical joke in all this.  Being an encoding house - that is, being the company that adds the macrovision - sucks.  It sucks hard.  A lot of the time the re-coding just doesn't work.  It results in stuttering, strange sounds, blocking, pixellation, reduction of sound, weird disruptions in synchronization, etcetera, etcetera.  The list is a long one and all of it has to be compensated for.  Sometimes the master received from the studio is old or poor in quality, or simply the wrong specifications for the encoding company (which is usually limited in what they can handle) - and there are problems that arise from low budget independent films that are 'special.'  This means that occasionally the work has to be done over and over, all within a certain time frame as the studio has conniption fits if the video doesn't stream public on a specific day.  Yes, the studios all get their cut from everything that shows - which undermines the profit margin still further.

How much help can you expect from the studios when these problems arrive?  Oh, pretty much zip.  Studio distribution must be a nightmare all its own, because people don't last in it more than a few years.  Nothing ever happens fast; phone calls are not returned; 'corrected' masters turn out to be the same master that produced the original issue, contacts get petulant, contacts disappear for weeks at a time . . . let me assure the reader, it is all a lot of fun.

Should I be telling you this?  Oh, probably not.  There's a chance that someone might find this, but I doubt it.  I don't think anyone at work knows how to use a search engine.

How do I know this?  Well, it has a lot to do with piracy.

See, piracy does not exist.  Well, okay, it exists, but it has nothing to do with us.  Well, maybe it has something to do with us, but most people would rather pay for things.  Well, maybe not most people, but a lot of people.  At any rate, there's nothing we can do about it, so it's best not to acknowledge that it is exists.  That is why it doesn't.

I have one story that I will tell.  Could get me into trouble, but hey, life is a risk.

We received a copy of Gravity from the encoding house and the various testers and techies noticed there was something terribly, terribly wrong with the sound at the beginning of the movie.  Now, if you actually know the film, you know that the sound at the beginning is purposefully raised from silence to comfort level very slowly.  Naturally, by a large number of people who themselves watch perhaps one movie a week - and never in the theatre, as these are business people who work 14-16 hours a day - the sound at the beginning was presumed to be a GLITCH.

For three days, rather smugly I must admit, I watched a wave of emails crashing on the shore between the studio, the encoding house and the streaming company about what could be done and where a copy could be obtained that wasn't already doctored in order to decide what the dialogue at the beginning should sound like.  Time was getting short as the film had to premiere on the system in a matter of days.  Yet no one could remember from having watched the film.  Except, apparently, me.

Eventually, I took it upon myself to solve the problem.  I found the url where you could see Gravity, for free, without needing to download it or add any special program to your computer.  I used Google to find the url.  Took me about 90 seconds.  Then I sent the url in a reply all email.

I'm quite sure no one looked at it.  Because piracy does not exist.

Anyway, looking to get out of television and into another industry.  Perhaps there is some way I could make it as a writer.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Behind the Curtain

From Doug, yesterday:

". . . that reminds me of some advice I heard from Tracy Hickman. When walking up to the Dungeon and needing a Key (because the doors were just too darn massive to break through), throw up your hands and say "Well, that's it. We tried, let's go back to the inn." A poor DM will likely have the characters discover a key/secret entrance before the characters travel 50 yards."

Exactly the situation you don't want to be caught in as a DM.  Equivalent to Toto pulling the curtain down and barking madly as you desperately turn wheels and flip switches.  You've been caught out and the players know it.

Does it make you a 'bad' DM?  If at all possible, I'd encourage the reader to avoid that notion as destructive.  I don't mean to say that there aren't bad DMs in the world - but once you begin to self-identify yourself among their number, you're in trouble.  Very soon after you will try to overcome your 'badness' by overcompensating in a dozen different ways - all of which will make your campaign worse, not better.

For example, the case above, where too much preparation demonstrates too much expectation from your players, who will be made uncomfortable by all the effort you're expending.  You're thinking, "I just want to make a better game for the players," but what they're seeing is, "Wow, this is a big cage."

This tendency to overcompensate will emerge in various ways.  You'll find yourself standing at the table, wildly waving your arms in the hope of increasing the excitement at the table, while in fact you're only causing others to withdraw.  You'll be trying to make things bigger, like the speech the king makes to the party upon their success - but as the length of the king's address lengthens, the party will be searching for exits.  You'll dig and dig for ideas that will be terrific, unique, profound, exciting, thrilling . . .  but the party will sense your desperation and will not be impressed.

Then, after you've done all this work and you've totally failed - that failure now being thrown hard into your face - it will confirm that you are absolutely a bad DM, so that now you will feel the only thing you can do is quit.  Having tried to be great, you've crashed and burned.  It's a classic result.

See, there isn't any way for you to force yourself into being a better DM.  The more you try to force the issue, the tougher it is going to get and the more you're going to be hiding behind a curtain that will fail to cover for you.  There's only one way to be a better DM than you are - and it is the hardest thing imaginable.

You have to wait for it.

Everyone starts as a bad DM.  Not everyone realizes it; there are plenty of DMs out there who have smoke blown up their ass every day by players who have never played anywhere else - or who have played with even worse DMs.  Everyone, however, started bad.

By 'start,' I mean you're in your first three years.  That seems really unfair.  Chances are, if you've been DMing for three years you probably feel not to bad about your abilities; you've already outlasted most of your friends - lasting longer than your friends thought you would - and mostly you get a lot of praise for your games.  Players want you to keep DMing and that even if you secretly doubt your ability . . . there are going to be a lot of sessions you build the courage to run by reminding yourself that the players like you.

It seems doubly unfair that you're being told this by someone older with tons of experience who must be either superior or conceited.  What do I know of your game, right?  It's easy for me to say that everyone in their first three years is a bad DM when I'm comfortably way past that.

Yet I can be draconian about those three years because I know that 'good' only comes with practice. You may be great right out of the gate, but even to you that is going to seem like shit once you've practiced and developed some perspective.

It isn't enough, however, just to keep doing the same thing over and over for years at a time.  That only ingrains the badness.  Practice implies the adaption of new things, to be able to do something next year that you cannot do right now.  And this takes time.

That is why the push to make your world better by gimmicking it up with cool traps and elaborate rooms and exciting storylines or characters is a dead failure.  Implementing any of those things well takes practice.  You have to acquire those skills steadily, painstakingly, incorporating them not just into your repetoire but into yourself.  You have to adjust your play session-to-session to actually be the wizard, without the curtain and without the pretend giant head.

This you cannot do if you're wrapped up emotionally in how bad you are.  This you cannot do if you're concerned about how long it is going to take or if you need approval throughout the process to keep going forward.

If you want to be a good DM, you're going to have to stick with it, in both good times and bad.  You're going to have to run tough parties, you're going to have to skill-up where it comes to keeping the table from getting out of control.  You're going to have to suffer.  Most of all, you're going to have to NOT QUIT.

Ever.

I look around at people I am associated with in a variety of efforts - musicians, painters, film-makers, artisans, photographers, puppeteers, actors, performance artists, writers, designers, clowns, promoters, cavers - and I see a lot of people with tremendous skills and varied success.  Most of us, together, are experiencing some notariety.  We make fair money through the year, not enough to live on but fair, we produce new work, we struggle with our individual strategies to get attention and improve ourselves.  We get together for coffee and describe to one another what's working and what hasn't, what we gave up on, what we're manoeuvring ourselves to try next - and we encourage one another mostly to keep working.  We're all still in our fields after several decades not because we've hit success - those who have hit it have moved on, out of our social circle - but because we all recognize that quitting is impossible.  We've all known quitters, dozens and dozens of them; people we went to school with, people we performed with, people who claimed commitment or sacrificed their relationships for success, who burned themselves out in the process of seeking, who toured, who made themselves broke, who bought themselves expensive instruments or poured money into equipment and film, who lived for it and paid as much as any of us today have.  Only, in the end, they quit.

I'll add dungeon master to the above list, because it belongs.  It costs, it burns people down, it demands commitment and it is just as unforgiving and unyielding as any other art.  We apply ourselves to it, we experiment and investigate and change ourselves because of it.  And we get good by doing it, doing it, doing it.  If it isn't working, there's nothing that will solve that problem except doing it more.  It doesn't help to get excited or to get into a funk.  Gotta wash the emotion out of it, because that's what washes out the doubt.  Eventually, comes the certainty that yes, we know how to do this thing - because it has stopped being about patting ourselves on the back.  Now it is as incidental as breathing.

Stay with it.  You'll see what I mean.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Jumping the Rails

Occasionally in looking for content for the dungeon book, I have foolishly looked through videos on youtube titled things like 'Dungeon & Town Design' or 'Dungeon Design 101' - and I must admit, I find these things painful to watch.

Try this video by Esper, who is clearly much loved by some.  I only got at far as his description of his really 'cool' villain - a sorceress who was burned in a fire that also killed her parents, leaving her horribly scarred so that now she bears a resentment against . . . well, the party at least.

Even the villains are orphans these days.  It is amazing that there are any parents left.  Somehow, I have managed to somehow live, leaving my daughter with a father all this time - this must be what is holding her back from global conquest.

I find myself at a loss for something to say about having a dungeon 'theme.'  I ought to write something but my mind is drawing a blank.  To begin with, I don't think these people actually understand what 'theme' means - the word they really want is 'motif,' along the lines of producing a pattern that flows through the dungeon in order to obtain a sense of completion.

Only, this suggests that dungeons are made by architects and interior decorators, who conceive of the whole, bring a set of laborers and construct the whole complex in a few seasons.  As if for the Disney corporation, I suppose.  And while this makes a pleasant amusement ride, on the whole it strikes me that if the party is aware that they are on an amusement ride, the party is likely to think, "It isn't like the DM will kill us in the first room and forego all the things the DM has obviously prepared for us to see."

There's a real feeling like we've just climbed into the car in order to see the various displays and models that are set up.  We ooo and aaah at the dioramas. We do our part in pulling the levers and punching buttons, all the interactive stuff the 'ride' has given for us to do, helping us to be a part of it.  Then we step into the sun and stretch our arms and feel good about being off our ass.  We chat about it on the way to the Tiki Bar and have a couple of daiquiris, recounting the exciting parts and sharing feelings.

It all seems somehow . . . lacking.

Yet I have no way to describe the alternative.  I don't set up motifs and I don't count on the party finding the object in Room 22 that enables them to open the door in Room 17.  I don't expect them to interpret the symbol that repeats throughout - not because there won't be a symbol, but because in the long run as they are killing things, the symbol won't offer any special 'insight' into the mindset of the dungeon's resident orphan.

When the Goths stormed into Rome, I'm sure they were all very interested in the statues and the imagery and all the things that seemed to fit into the same motif - but they weren't looking for interest, they were looking for revenge and for gold (or perhaps food and articles of comfort, who really knows?).  All that Roman jazz was made for Romans,not for the Goths . . . I'm sure there were victims at the time who cried out, "Please don't destroy the bust of my grandfather's grandfather!  He was a great man!"  I'm also sure the Goth looked puzzled and then smashed the bust, because why not?

I don't think the Goth 'experience' was lessened by their not understanding the dramatic importance of the end of the Roman Empire.  They had their own motivations.  I suppose that this fits into my lack of motifs - in that I assume the players are able to come up with their own reasons for entering a dungeon.

Suppose they are looking for a McGuffin that they've heard about and they want.  How does that translate into the creatures of the dungeon knowing that the party is coming?  Or what day?  How is it these creatures are so darned ready?  Is the McGuffin really of equal importance to everyone in this situation?

The only real 'theme' that I concentrate on is making the situation very alien to the players.  This puts them off balance - like getting the car in Disneyland that keeps jumping the rails, scaring the hell out of the players more than the pretend ghosts can.

Perhaps there is an essay there.  I must give it more thought.




Tuesday, January 27, 2015

DFD Cover

Available March 1, 2015

I've secured the rights to the above photograph, so this will be the cover of the new book.  No doubt, some minor adjustments will be made regarding the titling; I don't like that single quote.  But this is essentially the expectation.

The image comes from Caver Nicholaus Vieira, who cheerfully answered my questions for much of the afternoon, expanding my consciousness about caving and offering me hundreds of details.  You must visit his site, it's a compendium of different cave views snapped by a first rate photographer.  Nick told me he was off to Colombia, to investigate caves near Bogota, so keep an eye on the site in April, I'm sure he'll have some amazing new stuff to show!

Predatory Play

I wish I could express how saddened I am at the comments lately received on the subject of player-versus-player.  It measures up there with my feelings about the patch for this practice, depicted as a player being shot in the back.  I wonder if the entity who invented the logo even considered depicting two figures dueling.  Probably not.

No, killing another player is depicted as an act of cowardice.

Online, its validity is defended as the personal right of a player's agency.  PvP is freedom.  The freedom of a player's character to act in a predatory fashion towards other players, who - it must also be argued - have no right to live if they will not defend themselves.

That is, if they're given a chance to defend themselves.  Because it is always better, and easier, to shoot the fellow player in the back.  Hell.  Dumb bastard should have known not to let his guard down.

Are we tired of this subject?  I'm not seeing that in my numbers.  My numbers are very high right now.  For a 'non-issue,' it is getting a lot of attention.  I'm seeing a distinct rise in toxic comments - but to be honest, nothing to compare with the comment on a previous post that described PCs dropping their gloves and helmets in order to go at it "like men."

I am flogging this horse today because it is not yet dead.  I'm quite certain that it will never be dead. I'm equally certain that my futile attempts to kill this horse will fall far short of making a meaningful change.  It is only that . . . those here rushing to the defence of player-versus-player clearly feel threatened by the discussion.

Why should they care.  I have no power to enter their campaigns and put a stop to it.  I have no influence with the game makers or with gaming stores that could be encouraged to ban the practice.  I'm just a guy with a blog.  Where is the threat?  Where does the vehemence directed towards me come from?  What is this need to insist that I am somehow challenging the freedom of anybody?

The reader can figure this out.  It isn't hard.

Well, the horse is still alive.  And I haven't anything I can think of to add.  We can probably leave the matter in the street, thinking perhaps that someone will quit a toxic game or that someone will end the toxicity in their own game.  Hope, yes?  The hope that we can find better ways to express freedom than through contests of manhood perpetrated through fictional constructs.

There is only hope when reason fails.

Monday, January 26, 2015

The 4th Rule

There is a reason why there is a fourth rule in the comments section. That rule states, "If I get the tiniest, infinitesimal whiff of an insult, either to me or anyone else, then you're gone."

There are some who will say that this rule is hypocritical.  They will say that because I freely insult people who comment on this blog, it is unfair or unjust that I will not allow those people to insult me. They will say that I should look into the mirror before I condemn others.  All these things they will say in order to make me feel ashamed.

I do not.

Let me be clear.  This rule is not hypocritical.  There is no deception here.  I am clearly stating, I have rights on this blog that other people do not.

This blog is not a democracy.  This blog is a venue for my thoughts, my philosophy, my ideals and the efforts that I make to produce the best possible game that I can for my players.  This blog exists because I write in it, I maintain it, I keep it going from day to day and I invent ALL the content that encourages people to come here in order to be entertained.

You, person who will say this or that about what is right or wrong about my blog, are permitted to contribute only if I decide that your contribution is of value to me or my readers.  This means that if I do not consider your contribution valuable, then your contribution is ZERO.

Think otherwise and you are deluded about your rights and privileges.

Why is it this way?

Because in the halcyon days when I permitted anyone to comment on this blog and say what they will, this blog was innundated with trolls.  Trolls who co-opted and derailed the content within for their purposes and their philosophies, in order to get a free ride on work that I did in order to promote themselves.  In time, I grew sick of this.  In time, I decided to begin moderating comments.

THEN, because I was largely tolerant in my moderating this blog, a series of very clever trolls managed to get under my skin, drawing me into flame wars that caused the content and arguments in posts I wrote to be tainted, coloured and ultimately ruined.  The nicer, more respectful I was of commentors, the greater a target they made of me.  In time, I grew sick of this also.  So I became a total draconian asshole about the comments that I allowed.

This has GREATLY increased the quality of the comments section of this blog, though it has moderately resulted in fewer comments.  Occasionally, there are long periods without comments. I am learning to adjust to these periods and to recognize that they occur not because people are not enjoying the blog, but because people feel uncomfortable with giving me excessive praise.

Being in the public eye and being a target in the online D&D community, I have learned something about people and trolls.  Very often, they are difficult to tell apart.  Occasionally, no doubt, I have mistaken someone for a troll who was not.

But there is a point to be considered.  People who seem like trolls are ALSO people who are not taking the necessary care to act very deliberately otherwise.  In managing a blog where hateful comments are made regularly, I have learned a cardinal rule: "If it looks like a troll and acts like a troll, and makes obsessive responses defending itself like a troll, then it IS a troll, even if it is not."

This is the Internet.  Here the rule is, you're a troll until you prove otherwise.  If you don't like that, Fuck You, you're a troll.  If you feel this is unfair, Fuck You, you're a troll.  If you think that you are being mistreated and that you deserve better, and you think I should bend over backwards to make you happy and your life easier, Fuck You, you're a troll.

I hope this helps clear up any misunderstandings about this blog.  I appreciate your patience in listening to and coming to grips with the way content is managed and displayed on this web page.  I trust that you will learn from this experience and allow it to aid you in understanding how the internet works and how strangers, like myself, really feel about your value.  I encourage you to grow from this understanding, in order that you may someday recognize that until you give people a reason to think about you otherwise, you don't count.  You are disposable.

Thank you.

When Wisdom Isn't a Dump Stat

Look forward to the day when players will be able to talk to their own characters.

On January 15, a group of German developers released a video describing "An Adaptive Learning A.I. Approach for Generating a Living and Conversing Mario Agent."  In effect, the model allows the video game character Mario to interact with the user, while learning about his environment - through messages given by the user and through personal experience.

This allows Mario to verbalize the situation that he is a part of - but in fact it really doesn't translate as 'self-aware.'  We are a long way from Mario sitting down and pondering the purpose or relevance of his existence - which would probably end in Mario deliberately running into goomba again and again until it proves impossible to commit suicide in this manner (he always resets).  Thereafter, Mario is likely to get really depressed.

Naturally, this makes me think of characters existing in a D&D game that are animated on the character-sheet, asking the question, "Can I pee now?"  Ignoring the question, of course, results in the character getting distressed and eventually peeing, Sims-like, onto the bottom of the character sheet.  Answering "Yes" lets the character walk off screen for a while before flushing a toilet and reappearing.

Time spent depends on how much armour the character is wearing.

I'm crazy enough to think it would be pretty cool to have a character image standing on your sheet, eating, cleaning their weapons, looking bored and so on.  Upon hearing the DM ask, "What do you do?", the character says to the player, "Oh PLEASE, can we attack it?" or possibly, "Um, let's run away."  When the player rolls a 3 on the attack die, the character raises an eyebrow and asks, "What the fuck is wrong with you?" of the player.

A good thing?  Well, it depends on the sort of relationship you develop with your character.

Yesterday, I had a moderate flame spat about player-vs.-player - which I'm going to continue to carp about in the future.  We all have our pet causes.  Were I to play in someone's world, only to find that PvP was allowed, my first thought would be, "Well, it will be impossible to ever develop or get attached to the character I am running in this world."  My second thought, a nanosecond later, would be "What the fuck is the point, then?"

I used to play war games.  As my experience in role-playing grew, the war games steadily lost value for me.  Today, I freaking despise RISK, though I've easily played a thousand hours of it.  I'm not interested in faceless, wooden characters.

If playing meant coming to a consensus with my character about what we should do next, that would be fucking awesome.  I mean that.  Being able to instill my character with traits of cowardice or aggression or what have you, so that these were elements that needed to be overcome when I was recommending the character do this or that - fuck, that's a game within a game that I want to play.

Part of that is because I am actually very easy.  See, I will write here and tell you that you're a fucking idiot for playing a game a particular way.  I will express my discontent and disgust, I will provide a host of reasons to explain why others should - and probably are - also disgusted with you, or even why you ought to be disgusted with yourself.  I'll go on and on about it, brutally, miserably, without any tolerance, empathy or respect for you as a human being or even a biological entity.

What I won't do is stop you - at least, unless you want to do it on my carpet.  I won't lobby the gaming convention to put an end to your game play, I won't physically come around and knock the dice out of your hand, I won't crash your computer or SWAT your house or send crap to your mailbox or start #gamergate on your dumbass in an effort to intimidate you into changing your moronic ways.  All anyone ever has to do to continue an activity I don't approve of is to ignore me.

Granted, that can be hard to do.  But the fact is, I don't care about you.  You're just one more of the seven billion on the planet, 35 million of which are dying every day.  Until you comment on this blog, you're just a statistic to me.  And I am really, really comfortable with your existence as a statistic.  As a statistic, you can run about playing your game your way, however that pleases you.  You can live your life, work your job, fall in love, get married, raise a bunch of wonderful kids, whatever the hell you want - because, in reality, I am only a statistic to you.  It works both ways, you see.

The only thing that changes our statistical status towards one another is our choice to listen.

There are some out there that I don't care to hear.  They haven't got an argument, they haven't the courage of their convictions, they're slippery and obfuscating and they don't take responsibility for the things they say.  It is always someone else's fault.  It is always someone else's responsibility.  Fair enough.  These people exist, they will always exist.  But I will choose to let them exist as a statistic.

People who stand up to me, who fight, who present a position they're prepared to embrace, these people always find me very easy-going.  When the issue is, how are we going to get this wall built, I know perfectly well when it is time to stop arguing and work.  And I do work.  In the scheme of things, I spend far more of my time working than I spend trying to change minds.

A character of mine that can talk back to me would be marvellous.  Someone with guts and good instincts, someone ready to get in there and take chances, someone with practical suggestions and strategies that I could consider and tweak . . . I dream of that sort of thing.  There'd be a lot of "Yeah, let's go with that!" and "All right, if you're up for that, go!"

And if I had a character that disagreed with me constantly, that deliberately threw monkey wrenches into success for the hell of it?  I would shrug and tell them, "Whatever."  Because, in the long run, that is what I always say with people I don't care about.

Believe me, when characters in D&D start to develop personalities, wisdom will very quickly stop being a dump stat.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

This Is Not Me Being Nice

Last night, I blew my player's minds.

I don't care to go into details - there are a lot of them and I could rattle on for a few thousand words trying to get the reader up to speed, but that would accomplish very little since the emotion of playing would be lost.

These are players who began in my world in late 2005.  They are running the same characters they began at first level.  They have crawled their way through a very difficult, sparse experience system that has enabled them to where they are now hovering around 275K in experience.  Today they shrug off blows of 20, 30 damage, but they remember when it took only a few little hits to put them on the edge of death.  They remember when the druid Pikel, now with 91 hit points, always needed saving. They remember when the mage Garalzapan would enter combat and go down with one hit.  They remember when it took an 18 to hit something, when they would miss and miss before getting knocked unconscious.

Their characters are a mass of memories.  Memories of dozens of humiliating combats, of staggering through cold weather after a near escape, of collapsing and literally dying of pneumonia, of begging for help from people much stronger than they were . . . and now they are those people, doing the work themselves and needing help from no one.

These are characters that have been painstakingly crafted, infused with purpose, struggling with the unknown, searching and puzzling out the things going on with the world and steadily getting a handle on what's happening.

Last night, I made a series of reveals to the party in the form of an NPC the party has been trying to find for an actual year of gaming.  I revealed information I conceived of in 2007 that I have never, ever told anyone.  Other things that I have keeping to myself for three and four years.  Secrets locked inside my head to explain why THIS GUY has hiding and what THIS THING is actually for.  Secrets telling WHO they're up against and why they've already MESSED UP where it comes to killing him.  Secrets that made the party laugh and shout at the absurdity, curse, pound the table in excitement and finally applaud.

Maybe in other worlds there a people who do not experience the transforming lives of their characters, their creations - for I consider these characters to be works of living art that the players are building through years of play.  It does not matter that the player may be the only person to truly enjoy the character to its full degree or that knowledge of the character does not reach out beyond the party.  These works of art are real to them, adored and LOVED.

The reader doesn't understand this?  Has the reader ever made anything?  Does the reader have a novel that they've tried to write, that they still have in a folder somewhere?  Does the reader have a thing they made for their father or mother?  Does the reader even remotely understand sentimentality?

Now suppose I break into your house and the only thing I do is burn that thing.  It's worthless, right?  It's stupid that you still keep it, right?  I mean, anyone who would love a silly thing that isn't valuble to anyone else, that person must be pretty fucked up, eh?

Yeah.  It does matter, doesn't it?  Even if no one else cares, YOU care.  You love that damn thing, even if you get a little embarrassed at the idea of showing anyone else.

But some people . . . fuck, some people.

I got this comment earlier today to a silly joke I posted about player-vs-player:

"Something that puzzles me about this blog is the intense dislike of PvP you seem to have, not just as a poor gameplay mechanic, but to the point of animosity towards players who enjoy it. It just doesn't match the vast majority of my experience playing and running, or what I've heard on other blogs and message boards . . . In the course of standard campaigns, PvP has been a very rare occurrence and hasn't seemed to ruin the game for anyone."
There's more, asking me why I have such a bug up my ass about this.  The reader says he's confused; he doesn't want to start an argument.

Well, it punched my button.  And methodically I set out to rip the guy a new asshole.  Because his innocence was almost worse than his ignorance.

Yeah.  What's the big deal?  So what if I destroy something that belongs to someone else?  How is that wrong?

I know what the 'vast majority' is thinking.  You're not that invested in your characters.  You don't care that much.  When you kill the character of another player, they don't seem to care very much either.

Does this not express how pathetically sad these worlds must be?  And how vacuous?  These are participants that are so far down the evolutionary trail they can't muster the least sentimentality about something they've made.  How can these people have any fun if they are so dead inside they can't . . . feel something about their characters?

Worse, they can't understand how someone else can have feelings.  If someone at my table raised a sword against one of my characters, believe me, the battle wouldn't be carried out with dice.  I wouldn't have to intervene.  My players would rise as a body and toss that fucker out the door.

Believe me, if that isn't the game you're running, you should WISH you were.  If your game doesn't work like this, and you still think that yours is a good game . . .?

You wouldn't recognize a good game if it kicked your reproductive junk through your windpipe.



Make Friends

I may change my mind about player-vs-player, if . . .

Proposed:  if you have a character dumb enough to get into a combat with another player, and not make amends before the combat is over . . . and your character dies . . .

You're out of the campaign.  Permanently.

See?  No revenge possible.

Make friends with your new co-players.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Cities: Two Rivers Together

As promised, let's talk about Cities.

In searching for examples, whenever possible I will try to produce both an American and a European example, as I have readers from both areas.  If I think of one in Australia, I'll jump on it.  I have very few readers in Asia, so I'll restrain myself from offering examples from there.  However, I would like to point out that the examples I'll be discussing appear everywhere, not just in any one part of the world.

Having started this article, I may intentionally set out to write a dozen posts, one for each major kind of settlement (the remaining 10 I mentioned yesterday are sub-categories of these 12).  That should give me something to do when I need something to write about.


This is Pittsburgh.  If you look it up on Wikipedia, you may notice that it doesn't say That Europeans founded the city, only that it was named Pittsburgh by General John Forbes. In fact, the value of where the Monongahela & Allegheny rivers met (forming the Ohio River) was well known to native Americans centuries before, as well as to French trappers in the 17th century.  Of course, Wikipedia history doesn't begin until the French and British begin fighting over it, but then it isn't as if trappers were writing stuff down.

The smaller river on the map, the Allegheny, is the important one.  It flows southwards through the west Pennsylvania plateau it created, with tributaries reaching a mere 8 miles from Lake Erie.  Those 8 miles are critical.  It allowed explorers and trappers to portage from the river system of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River, through the heart of North America into the Ohio-Mississippi river basin.  Where it joined with the Monongahela allowed access into the mountains of West Virginia.

In the 18th century, Pittsburgh would grow big and rich on farm products, minerals, coal and the production of steel.  In the early 19th century, both before and after the opening of the Erie Canal, it would become a transportation hub and supply center for the development of Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana.

This is Duisburg.  It's what Pittsburgh would look like if it had been founded by the Romans (there's a myth that Duisburg was founded by the first German in 2395 BC).

Note the elaborate terraforming of the Ruhr River, entering on the right of the picture before it joins with the Rhine.  The Ruhr has long been the richest coal-and-iron district in the world, forever competing with Silesia in Poland, Krivoy Rog in Russia and Liaoyang in China.  There is really nothing like it in America.

The Ruhr river is short, only 135 miles - but then the Monongahela is only 130 miles, so there's a definite comparison there.  It doesn't matter that these rivers do not extend very far.  They are deep and they lead into important heartlands for industry and agriculture.  The connection where the rivers meet provides fabulous opportunities for trade and exploitation, enabling the masters of these towns to grow rich through the influence they had over where the rivers reached.  Duisburg, like Pittsburgh, is set up to take advantage of trade moving through the middle of the continent.  The Danube and Rhine river systems were connected by the Ludwig Canal, completed in 1846 (and since vastly improved upon).  Of course, long before the actual completion of a joint waterway, goods were moving up the Danube since the late Roman period and being tranferred into the Main river valley.  The Main, like the Ruhr, also flows into the Rhine.

This is Mainz.  164 miles upstream from Duisburg.  It too has been around since the Romans.  The Main river, again entering from the right, is a bit longer - 327 miles.

Incidentally, my apologies to some for not listing these numbers in kilometers.  It isn't that I'm not comfortable with kilometers; I can envision them fine and I wouldn't hesitate to use metric for technical work.  It is only that for my D&D world I have gotten into the habit of using miles because metric did not exist as a measurement system in the 17th century.  As such, I torture the hell out of my players by insisting on the use of pounds, gills, drams, firkins and pottles, etcetera.  I think it is fun.  I trust most gentle readers are able to deal in both miles and kilometers - there are plenty of calculators around online if it is getting frustrating.

This means the Main river reaches deep into central Germany.  In the time of the Holy Roman Empire, the Catholic Church in Rome owned the city of Mainz - they knew what they were doing.  The profits from river taxes alone served to keep the church fathers in velvet for many hundreds of years.

I have one more example.

This is Khartoum.  Recently it has grown to the size of Chicago.  That is not a lake at the bottom left of the picture, that is the White Nile River (often thought of as just the Nile).  The Blue Nile, entering from the right, is the stream full of muddy water.  Yes, that is correct: the White Nile is blue and the Blue Nile is brown.

Khartoum's history is even shorter than Pittsburgh's.  At the time Pittburgh was founded, this confluence was populated by just a few small villages. It took British engineering to make practical use of the fork's potential access to southern Sudan and high Ethiopia.

That is because without modernization, Khartoum is just too remote.  It may be perfectly located on two rivers that both reach a thousand miles into the hinterland, but this is eleven hundred miles by river from Aswan in Egypt, through some of the driest desert on earth.  Without railroads and modern shipping, it must rely on local trade - in a part of the world without industry, where agriculture is thoroughly homogeneous.

Large towns and cities are not magically made important by the confluence of rivers.  It's important to consider which rivers are involved.  Granted, any two significantly sized rivers will probably result in some sort of town anywhere in Europe, where the population is very high, but other parts of the world, not so much.  Where the Murray and Darling rivers meet in Australia (two very large river basins), there is only the small town of Wentworth.  There's no need for more infrastructure than this - and besides, it floods like crazy.  That is something to keep in mind where river towns exist.  Two rivers - twice the chance of flooding.

Consider, too, that where the Ohio and Mississippi rivers meet, the only significant town is Cairo, Illinois - not a big city and somewhat removed from the confluence.  It also floods.  Worse, it does not serve a significantly populated hinterland - therefore, minimal trade.

I hope this has been helpful.  Perhaps it has not been as rigorous a measurement for a 'city type' that readers had been hoping for . . . but towns and cities grow and develop for very specific, individualized reasons.  A particular fork between two rivers is made important by more than the fact that there are two rivers.  We must also consider the portages those rivers offer in their upper courses, the eventual destination of downstream, the resources surrounding the river valleys, the predilection for the area to flood, difficulties in creating weirs to defend against flooding, the length of time the city has had to terraform, the balance of agricultural hinterlands vs. mountains, etcetera, etcetera.  There are many things to consider in deciding what makes a big, important city and what makes a small transshipment dock.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Putting Down Roots

If you give any thought at all to mapping your world, you will hesitate before deciding where to place towns and cities.  It would be best if some logic were involved - but it is hard to envision the problem from your present viewpoint as GOD.  Instead, you need to imagine that you're just an ordinary person.

Towns are built by all sorts of people.  Some are built collectively - a group of settlers appear at the same time and within a few weeks a small town exists.  Other towns begin with just one house; another person comes along and builds a second house nearby, then a third and so on until the collection of houses makes a town.  Still others begin as a resource is discovered and random people converge to grab as much as they can.  Towns even emerge by Royal Decree, where soldiers appear to produce a military town or naval port out of nothing.

These methods all have one thing in common - they serve a need, one that exists before the town.  This is very important and must be understood wholly.  Towns do not create needs - though it will often seem that way.  At the heart of every town's founding - and in its growth - is a need being served and expanded.

Consider the one house in the example above.  Let us say that you are alone.  You have no family, no ties, no political motives, no plan except to live apart from other people.  Where is it you build your initial shack?

Well, you will need food and water.  Most particularly water.  Food tends to be either on the hoof and moving about, or growing near water, so it will be most convenient if you are near enough to water that the journey you take each day to get it is minimal.  That need exists already.  The house is build to service that need.

If another comes to build a house nearby, it must be that the same water source is sufficient to serve more than your needs.  If that water source is rare while the potential for food in the locality is high, more and more people who need food and water will arrive to exploit it.  The town, if it evolves, will arise to organize the distribution of food and water, to keep the locals from harming one another and ultimately to enable transportation of outside goods inwards in exchange for local surplus.

The town itself does not create this surplus.  Neither do the people.  While they do the work, the surplus is inherent in the location, whether or not a town ever existed.  The town succeeds because the surplus is possible, inducing people to arrive and work it.

When more people arrive, seeking more than the surplus can provide, we get unemployed labour and beggars - who in turn do their best to sell whatever they have that can be devised, leading to vice.  Vice is merely the result of people without traditional resources or skills taking advantage of a population to sell (or make money upon) what does not require traditional resources or skills: prostitution, theft, murder, forgery, fencing and so on.  Vice is only possible when the population itself becomes a resource that can be exploited through corruption, immorality and trespass.

Whether you are alone or in the company of other settlers (or a monarch deciding where a city ought to exist for the good of the kingdom), you are compelled to make certain judgements about the exact placement of any settlement, from a house on up.  These are judgements regarding the settlement's defense, practicality, resources (as we've already discussed), accessibility and its protection from the elements.  Choose wrong and while the town may emerge for a time, eventually it will be abandoned or washed away by nature.  Town histories are filled with tales of towns that were moved across the river or five miles further up the road, devastation by invaders, fires, depletion of resources and so on.  When a devastated town retains a good location, it is rebuilt.  When a devastated town was badly placed, the former citizens give up on it.

Some towns thrive for centuries before failing.  Sijilmasa, in modern Morocco, was arguably the wealthiest city in West Africa a thousand years ago.  Located on the edge of the Sahara, it was admirably suited for caravans departing from gold-rich Mali, Guinea, Ghana and Bornu, the perfect transshipment point from camels to donkeys before transport over the high and dangerous Atlas Mountains (camels do not like mountains).  As a result, the city grew huge - but by the mid 16th century, without much notice or fanfare, the population evaporated.  As wikipedia says, "The ruins of the town lie for five miles along the River Ziz."

What happened with the beginning of the 15th century, circa 1415 forward?  Portugal happened.  Specifically, John I.

Imagine what that must have been like as the 15th century waxed and Sijilmasa waned.  Year by year, less camel trains arrived from Mauritania and Mali.  With the founding of Arguin on the Mauritanian coast, in 1445, began a series of forts that would eventually bury extensive trade through the deserts of West Africa.  Family by family departed Sijilmasa . . . until at last the city was gone.

When I begin again, I'm going to talk about specific types of cities, why they're founded and what happens when they're successful.  It's a large task, as I count 22 specific town forms in my bucket.  For each, I will give examples from the real world.  I hope this will help expand the idea of what functions a town performs and how you should better understand the story behind the towns in your world.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

2015

I wonder if more than a few readers have noticed the quiet note I wrote yesterday over the donate box, above the art of How to Run.

I am finishing another book, The Dungeon's Front Door & Other Dungeon Essays.  I plan to have it ready for sale the 1st of March.

It includes a rework of the 3-part essay I wrote a month ago (that was a test, to see if the content had any value), along with all new content, all about dungeons.  As before, I'm working to include humour into the book and making it a thoroughly enjoyable read.  It should run around 30-35 thousand words, which will make it bigger than the small essay book I put out last year but only a third the size of How to Run..

I don't expect donations.  I do hope that some of you will consider buying yet another book from me.

Come the end of January, I am going to be unemployed.  This isn't a surprise; I learned that this was going to be the case in late January 2014.  The department that I have been working for these last five years was being overhauled and I was being kept on to help in the transition.  That transition is almost complete.

This last year has been amazing for me.  Struggling to get How to Run written, selling the book and watching it do well has been immensely satisfying.  I feel that this offline content has demonstrated for many that I can write pleasantly and interestingly when I take the time to research and craft my content.  I hope I can build on that reputation by working to be more useful to the reader, exploring avenues that are of wider scope and value.

I have done so much writing this last year.  Perhaps the best writing of my life.  I look forward to 2015 and doing it all over again.  Like before, I have a bigger book coming out later in the year - but I'm not offering any spoilers on that quite yet.

I meant it yesterday when I said thank you.  Thank you for your comments, your patience with me, your interest and the efforts you've made to try the things I've argued in your worlds.  Rest assured, I have much more to tell you.