Friday, August 22, 2014

Full Circle

Last night, my partner Tamara was telling me about the events surrounding a game she's been involved with - that I'm not playing.  She began in another campaign when I was working on my book and she's gone on with it, so that Wednesday's I get some private time to work on things while she adventures into the world of other DMs.  It's good experience for her, as mine was the only campaign she'd previously played.

She was asking me about a DM's ruling, one that had annoyed her.  Seems she had mis-fired her bow. The DM - without any tables, previously created rules or established framework of any kind - simply ruled that the arrow struck another character standing to the left of Tamara.  Why?  Well, the DM called it 'role-playing' - which failed in Tamara's opinion to justify the incident.  There was some discussion at the table - apparently - and then it got dismissed by DM's fiat and their game continued.

It really bugged Tamara.  I have a rule that friendly fire can occur with missile weapons.  Roll a 2 on a d20, and IF there's a character standing in a 30 degree arc directly in front of you, then yes, you hit him or her in the back.  But this was another character standing 90 degrees to the left, completely outside of where Tamara was aiming - and she wanted to know "What the hell?  Why did he do that?"

I don't pretend to know the DM's motive.  I would imagine he was trying to make the game more interesting, to use the randomness of the die to create tension by having something odd happen.  That's my best guess.  For my purposes, the incident serves as an example of why things that happen have to make sense.

It's very simple.  Because the incident didn't make sense, Tamara's reaction is to a) immediately compare it to another world where there IS a rule that does make sense; and b) to distrust the DM's motives for running his game.  Distrust in turn breeds disinterest, which only causes her to feel less immersive in the DM's campaign.  Knowing she has an alternative campaign provides a greater reason to feel less committed to any campaign where random, non-rational decisions are made by the DM, encouraging her to simply stop going to games.

Will she bother to explain this thinking process to the DM?  No.  She will not.  She's already tried to argue the point about the arrow when it occurred and she was shut down.  Why would she bother to express to the DM the larger point of why the DM's world isn't working for her?

For most, it seems like such a minor issue.  Okay, he made something happen, it was five seconds of game time, what's the big deal?  The game isn't supposed to be about what's real, it's supposed to be fun.  Right?

It surprises me that a culture that can scream at a television set because an umpire makes a marginal call about a ball moving 90 miles an hour over a plate in a completely different game can be so dismissive of a highly questionable call during a slow moving game in which the player is directly involved.  It is all a question of degree.  The DM that handles the game so casually that even an umpire in a company softball game would pale to think of it rarely understands or even considers the consequences of such rulings.  It is as though the DM perceives that he or she has an inexhaustible well of ad hoc calls that they're entitled to make, upon which the player will make no judgement or have no negative reaction.

This mindset can derive only from cognitive dissonance - which I admit I find myself face-to-face with again and again where describing the behaviour of other people.  Do they not realize the crops they're sowing?

The begged question becomes, "How many questionable rulings can a DM make before consequences occur?"  But does it really matter?  Would it help knowing that you had twelve or fifteen, knowing that if you weren't steadfast in never making a bad ruling that you'd eventually use them all up out of sheer laziness?

In fact, every bad ruling made is a potential character kill - if we define 'kill' in this case of the player deciding that enough is enough, I'm not coming back to that campaign.  The only reasonable alternative is to get rid of the DM's fiat, embrace interchanges about rationality when they occur - to ensure that every member of the party understands why something has occurred - and to take the whole matter of ruling very seriously.  As a DM, you do yourself a tremendous disservice if you make rulings which you cannot explain by a means less general than 'role-playing' or 'because.'  You're driving players away from your table.

And because they will probably never tell you that's the reason they've left, you'll never know why. You'll never make the connection.  You've treated them dismissively, and now that dismissiveness has come full circle.

Is this really what you want?


Although I talk extensively in my Guide about Dungeon Mastering, this post has been an original point that was not included in my book.  I said that I was inexhaustible.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Western Ghats

All right, going back to the jungle post.

Some have recommended that I turn to previous existing data bases in order to create my own - and I must admit I dislike this idea.  To begin with, I have no idea what sort of actual research has gone into these data bases.  Secondly, they are no doubt non-geographically specific, which I already stated I need to have. Finally, I doubt very much that the behaviour of the animal in included - and at any rate, I need behaviours that are tailored for my world.  For all these reasons, someone else's data base for someone else's world simply isn't going to work.

Listen close, my brethren - don't let others do your work for you.  You rob yourself of the benefit of exploring the world for yourself.  You steal from yourself all the skills you'll develop, the learning you'll gain - and most of all, the inspiration that will be yours from having read the materials for yourself!  Have you learned nothing from university?  We do not innovate and invent by depending upon the possibly lacklustre, lazy work of others.  We gain genius through doing the work ourselves and doing it well.

With these habits in mind - good habits, gathered with wisdom - I took up a region of the earth where a relatively small jungle occurs:  the Western Ghats of India.  These are a string of mountains down the west side of the Indian Subcontinent, 2000 to 4000 feet high, extending from near the equator some 1200 miles towards the north.  And from within that area, I obtained the following list of large animals.  I'm afraid I skipped birds (for the most part) and fish, partly because those are both huge databases and at the same time not especially useful for what I have in mind.  However, I know I will go back and do some reading about both, and perhaps see if inspiration hits.  Aha.

Here's the list of real animals I found:

Now, let's compare that with the list from the good ol' DMG:

Well, as I said before, the couatl is certainly not common to India; the same with the African, or loxodont elephant.  The lion is from Africa also and the jaguar is an Amazon cat.  I couldn't locate any scorpions, snakes that were in fact poisonous, or even large.  Those creatures exist in India, but not in the Ghats.  Giant ants aren't prevalent, nor are toads.
Still, this leaves a few original creatures.  The black bear is clearly the sloth bear.  We can replace the baboon with the macaque.  The DMG should have included the wild boar and giant boar on their list, but we're here to fix that.  We have the muntjac, the gaur and the sambar for herd animals - though the Monster Manual does provide figures for cattle and the stag.

The only purely magical creatures AD&D offers are the lamia and the weretiger.  But I think we should be able to do better.  The trick isn't to come up with a way to use the smaller animals, but to imagine better, more profound versions of the smaller animals - that's the way to expand the creatures that inhabit our little jungle.

The strangest is certainly the purple frog, also the pig-nosed frog.  It's far too small to be anything on its own, but the details about it being bloated, with oral suckers, and making the sound of a chicken clucking must suggest something.  We might imagine it six feet in diameter, preferring to live in shallow pools, being able to flatten itself or puff itself up to twice its ordinary size (bloating) - it could thereafter spit water perhaps mixed with slime, that transfers a disease, a sort of mild acid; the clucking might be a form of mind control (drawing the victim towards the oral suckers).  The creature might be intelligent or not - though given its extreme ugliness, I like the idea of a superbrain controlling other creatures, perhaps clucking them into attacking.  Alternately, the purple frog might be a gentle yogi-like creature, ancient and with wisdom, rare and sought out by players seeking knowledge.  The field is wide open.

The civet is prized for its glands, that are used to make perfume - and while some might imagine making the small creature into something that steals food, I prefer a more elaborate, larger animal that uses it's perfume to transmit a pheromone - which may alter the party's perception of reality, produce slavery, produce odd lovemaking incentives, drive away interlopers or lure them to their deaths.

An intelligent form of the hornbill - ordinarily used in tribal ceremonies - might be in command over a village, directing the human tribe towards acts of evil, war, butchery or even kindness and gentle adoration.  This is India, after all.

I'm only riffing.  A proper action would be to take each creature and create at least one derivation from the original.  A giant, non-poisonous snake that at least causes considerable damage.  Bats that are independently weak and easily killed, that in large numbers produce a wind so intense that it scatters tents and animals - or, in swirling around a party member, potentially suffocates.  The deer that exists as a familiar for a local swami.   The langur that, from the trees, throws poisonous feces.

Steadily, we create a unique, independent jungle from the base materials - and the more we learn about the jungle itself, it's nature and it's singular effects upon its inhabitants, the better equipped we are to decide which sorts of profound, elaborate creatures ought to dwell there.  Better than riffing, coming up with things off the tops of our heads, are ideas which suggest themselves from the source material.

I haven't read near enough on the Western Ghats to properly decide what monsters ought to dwell there - and in the process, I improve myself, too.

The 100%

Yesterday, Tim Brannan left a fairly positive comment on my Jungle post - but for reasons having to do with the internet, he felt the need to begin with the following:

"This is the first post I find myself agreeing with you 100%."

Why, I ask, is it necessary to say this?

Without any fault directed at Mr. Brannan, this is the sort of thing that gets said very casually all the time - and defended just as thoroughly as a completely acceptable way to begin a comment.  Only, really, it isn't.  It is just the sort of thing that I've been letting myself off the chain in the past - and I want to explain why.

"This is the first time there hasn't been something wrong with your cooking."

"This is the first time I haven't found something wrong with the way you dress."

"This is the first time I've enjoyed an entire evening in your presence."

And so on.

From the above comment, I assume that Mr. Brannan has agreed with some of what I've said in other posts.  I assume he's agreed with enough of the things I've said to keep coming back and reading the blog.  But has he, all this time, been carefully keeping some record of what percentage of my posts he has been agreeing with or not?  I never yet received a comment that begins with, "I agree with 63.5% of the things you say," yet does it not follow from the above that some sort of reckoning has been made every time?  From comments made in the past, I know that this is a reader that has been reading me for literally years - so finally, AT LAST, I have written a post that he completely agrees with.  Pardon me, he 100% agrees with.  Not 99.7%.  One hundred per cent.

Without allowing myself the luxury of getting very sarcastic at this point - and believe me, several sarcastic options present themselves - I just want to talk about how this paints the rest of the statement that follows.  Mostly, it suggests that somehow I'm being rated.  Not read, not considered, not interpreted or applied to the present mode of thinking, but measured.

That is never a comfortable feeling.  Very few of us would like to have ourselves evaluated.  It is the strongest reason why would-be artists fail - because of this attitude.  The concentration on the small bit that 'doesn't pass.'  The little bit of distaste that the critic feels because - while everything else was wonderful - the hat that the woman is depicted wearing is hideous.  It isn't 100%.

I fully expect - one hundred per cent of the time - to be disagreed with.  In fact, I would say that is a central tenet of everything I write.  I expect the reader to disagree.  I expect to advance ideas that the reader has never considered or which the reader considers to be in error, and then to argue those points and prove the reader wrong.  That is the stance.  I am the voice in the wilderness that dares to say, your ideals, your perceptions, the measure by which you claim things to be right or wrong, is in error.  Let me explain why.

This is what makes good writing.  If I were to write that most young boys love their mothers, that your homeland is a wonderful place that you've grown to love or that beer is something good to drink on a hot day, without going further to challenge your perceptions about these things, then this would be a gawdawful boring blog.  I would have nothing to say except the very obvious, the very trite and the very redundant.  Which explains why so many of the blogs you read are execrable.  As the saying goes, they have nothing to say.  Except that which has already been said.

Thus, an assessment of this blog that begins with the reader never quite agreeing with me says a couple of things - in fact - that are not bad.  First, that I'm doing a good job kicking the cocks out of people's mouths.  Second, that the reader has failed to see past the reader's own prejudices.  The reader shouldn't be looking for the post that agrees, then making a point of saying so when a post does - the reader should be looking inward and admitting that he enjoys reading those don't agree with him.  Given that this particular reader, Mr. Brannan, has been helpful to me in the past - and that he continues to read the blog - the reader should be wondering about all those posts that didn't reach 100%.  Whose fault was that?  Mine, for failing to make the argument, or his, for failing to see it?

Well, that is the crux of all human discourse.  Argument, interpretation, comprehension and most of all, change!  It's not a static measurement.  While today it may be 56%, with more thought it might turn to 71%, then to 73%, then later to 89%.  Depending on the day, and the experiences of the reader as those accumulate over time, after reading the post, it may go up or down.  Change demands that what you read today as right or wrong may change tomorrow as you continue to learn and grow as a person.  Measuring opinion as an absolute only demonstrates a lack of awareness about thinking or learning.

It isn't as though this is the sort of comment made only on my blog.  The bulletin boards are full of them.  As a species, we should be aware of the message we're sending when we start with, "Allow me the luxury of making a judgement about your value before beginning to make my point."  The judgement - and the insidious emotionality behind it - isn't lost on the listener.  It is very definitely heard.  It paints everything said afterwards with a whitewash that diminishes all that you have to say.

If you want to be heard for what you have to say, say it without the judgement first.  Just say what you believe.  I, more than anyone, have had to learn this lesson the hard way.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Banner Day

I still haven't got the rhythm down of this vlog thing.  But . . . I wanted to show how big my table's banner is going to be for the FanExpo next week:


I've been putting this off for some years - but I am beginning to feel that the problem has to be addressed.

I do not like 'encounter tables.'  I spent much time in the first two decades of my world-building attempting to create random tables for encounters, only to find again and again that the results on those tables did not make sense in the circumstances.  It isn't enough to say that it's night in the jungle, there's a random encounter, let's see what it is.  The particular circumstances matter.  There are animals that do not emerge at night.  There are places where the party might camp where the appearance of particular animals either don't make sense or where the existence of the animal offers no threat.

If, for instance, an animal is specified that guards it's lair very closely, it doesn't work as a wandering monster, does it?  I would need to create some reason why the player is wandering, and not the monster, for the encounter to occur - and I don't like insisting that the player, on watch at three in the morning, wanders away from the camp to hear a sound.  What if the rolled-up monster doesn't make noise?  Or if the player refuses to wander away?

Most DMs would, I think, simply say, "Well, then there's no encounter, and the party wakes up and is fine."  Which makes some sense - except that we should be reasoning that this is what happens every time an encounter isn't rolled!  It's a jungle, nyet?  In a jungle, there are always monsters just a stone's throw from the party, perpetually.  To me, a 1 in 6 chance of encounter isn't the chance that there's a monster nearby that can be ignored - it means an encounter happens.  To get that, it means every monster on the rolled upon table ought to be one that moves.

Which means a table for the jungle at night, as opposed to one in the daytime.  It also means a different table for the party if they're camped near water, where they might get beasties showing up that wouldn't be in an upper valley.  In fact, encounter tables begin to proliferate, if what I want is for them to be useful . . . and I have never had that kind of time.

Worse still, 'jungle' in my Earth-based world doesn't mean anything.  Which jungle?  The Amazon?  The Congo?  Orissa, Mexico, the Mekong basin or north Queensland?  Because the same animals don't appear in all those places - far from it!

Nor can we say that well, at least the monsters are universal - because they're not.  A couatl is clearly based upon Olmec or Toltec roots, while the huge cow-like body of a catoblepas makes no sense in the watery Amazon.  The Amazon might logically be full of slaad and other giant frogs, but what would these things be doing in the mountain jungles of New Guinea or New Zealand?  'Jungles' are not all alike - they do not have the same vegetation, the same topography or even the same climate.  It rains practically every day in Panama, the year round, while the Northern Territories experience staggering dry periods - yet both are considered 'jungles.'

To make good lists, then, I'm facing a considerable uphill effort - made worse by the fact that less than a hundred or so possible jungle 'monsters' split into various tables gets pretty thin.  Which tends to make more universal monsters like spiders and centipedes occur again and again, until the party is spectacularly sick of them.

I'm not happy with a make-shift list of 8 monsters, nor do I understand why anyone is.  That works if the party wants to go to a jungle once for one adventure, then to go elsewhere.  What if the party decides to stay?  What if they remain through twenty or thirty sessions, because they're interested in what they can make the jungle do for them?  What are they going to do, fight giant centipedes and wolf spiders night after night?

Problems like this are the reason why I've given up on encounter tables - but running sessions lately, I'm beginning to realize more thought is needed.  I had one such encounter happen recently, with a jaguar, for which I was able to use some researched notes on the way jaguars attack that I had written four or years ago.  And it worked brilliantly.  I was so pleased I had those notes.  They were similar to the ones I included in this post.

Now, I realize I have to make more of those - no matter how much work that means.  But whew - and I looking at one big mountain to climb!

Good Times

We had a bit of a sad day, yesterday.  For the first time, How to Run managed to go 48 hours without any sales.

I want to thank everyone involved for making this a terrific month.  You've invested your time and your effort, you've spread the word and it's been a great experience.  I sincerely hope that the Guide has been of some help to your campaigns - for that is why it was written - and that it will continue to be.  For some of you, it may be that push you've needed to get back into the game, to feel more confident about your DMing.  I remember myself having that rush that encourages us to plunge in and get the game going after a long hiatus.

It's felt good doing the work and it feels very good bringing the work to you.  I hope I can do more in the future.  Thank you again.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014


"Ignorance brings chaos, not knowledge."
- Lucy

I experienced something last night that encouraged my faith in humans - just a little bit.

Three weeks ago I saw the film Lucy in a mostly empty theatre for a weekend matinee.  I came home to find that it had 6.0 on IMDb and that, for the most part, people thought it a bad movie.  Last night I saw it again - on a Monday night, when theatres are known to be a morgue.  The theatre was packed. Nearly every seat was taken.

It was clear from the warm up commercials that the theatre was not full of intellectuals.  And for the first minute or so of the film, there were those boys in the audience who thought the first images either silly or corny, who giggled to themselves.  That, however, evaporated very quickly - and as the cheetah tore down the gazelle, it was almost possible to hear assholes puckering throughout the theatre.

Lucy is a good film.  It is a smart film.  It is classic sci fi, in which the 'science' is a means to an end, it is not the end in itself.  Right and wrong are treated as what they actually are - interpretations slapped like bumper stickers onto the back of reality.  It is sweet.  Luc Besson has finally figured out how to direct.

I'm not sure why the fan boys hate it.  But they do.  They really do.

Of late I've been reading articles about why so many bad movies get made - and why the way Hollywood is designed practically guarantees it.  Apparently, it is all about how the scripts are purchased and how vehicles are proposed, how writers are used like tissue paper and why producers suck.  That is all well and good, and it certainly explains the Transformers franchise - but it doesn't explain how movies like Lucy get made.

A friendly warning:  I don't think this is going to get back to D&D.  I mean, for the moment, I don't have a connection for it - but as I write forward, I'll keep trying to think of one.  I wanted to pursue a thought first that occurred to me while watching the film - about not knowing things and the certainty of not knowing.

We are all told not to judge things before we see them.  We even use that philosophy as a weapon against others during an argument.  "You don't know what it's like to be me," we say, implying that until you ARE me, you have no right to say anything about who I am or what I think.

We also apply this to those who haven't done the things we've done.  A favorite is to say to your children, "Wait until you have a kid - then you'll see."  Hollywood likes to tell us that the moment our kid is born, a miraculous change comes over us in a magic moment that makes our hearts melt - because we cannot really know what it is like to have our baby in our arms until it actually happens.

Most, I think, agree with these arguments.  There's room for quibbling, but the arguments are made so many times by so many people that we have to at least accept that society believes the arguments to be true.  Don't judge a book by its cover.  Don't judge someone until you've walked a mile in their shoes. You'll never know what its like to be a parent until you are a parent.

So if we chastise someone for making their minds up about a movie they haven't seen, why is it we are all so casual when it comes to telling others what death is going to be like?

Everyone has an opinion, don't they?  You're God's problem or your worm food, isn't that how it pretty much goes?  But nobody knows . . . and nobody is in any position to know.  Death is way less known that a film you haven't seen or a parenthood you haven't experienced yet.  Brothers and sisters, just give it a think.  What the hell do you really know about what happens after you're dead?

There are two times in your life when you'll become obsessed with death.  When you're very young, and you're just trying to get a handle on what it is and the fact that it is going to happen to everyone; and when you're very old, and you're finally realizing that yes, you're not getting out of it alive.  In between, death just gets put on a shelf.  We get reminded of it every once in a while when someone around us dies - particularly our parents.  My mother died almost two years ago.  My father is 78 and he's definitely beginning to slip.  That's becoming pretty clear - and the cold, hard truth of it is that this is how it goes.  Slowly, steadily, this is how it goes.

It would seem really trite right now to talk about death in D&D.  It would seem equally trite to talk about those blogs who feel they must post something every year about the death of some minor celebrity who is deeply remembered and deeply missed.  It is a strange, mocking ritual, but it all fits the pattern of trying to manage something about which we know absolutely not a thing.  Viewed from a distance, it all makes sense.  We do what we can.  We comfort ourselves as we can.  We invent, we rationalize, we construct castles in the air and populate them with our imagined balm.  There's nothing else we can do.

What is the alternative?

"Think of them as fleas on a dog hit by a car driven by a drunken teenager whose girlfriend has just given him the clap.  It will help your sense of perspective."
- Lawrence Fassett, The Osterman Weekend

Well, I'm not sure that's helpful.

I'm encouraged that film and art hasn't given up the debate.  I'm encouraged that the theatre was full last night despite the campaign going on that Lucy is a bad film.  Word of mouth showed demonstrably that it's not.

"We never really die."

Monday, August 18, 2014

Acquiring Faith

Going forward, I should try to make it clear why I've said something irascible.  I felt I did a good job on the last post explaining why I had put in the katana reference - and the specific way that I addressed Issara's comments on Greek City democracies seems to have hit a positive nerve also.

There's no question about it.  I do search for universal laws that can never be wrong.  That is my nature.  It emerges from my heroes having been fellows - mostly scientists - who demonstrated something to be true beyond a shadow of a doubt, silencing critics and expanding the envelope of human knowledge.  Unfortunately, I did not pursue science as a career - and thus I entrenched myself in a world where doubt rules.  People do not call for 'proof' in order that they may change their minds; they demand proof as a justification for why they should never change.  In science there is proof.  In rhetoric there is only opinion.

I don't know why I chose the latter.  In the beginning I certainly preferred science.  I read all that I could consume, I set out to collect bugs and study the stars, as well as other aggressive activities, in an effort to apply that science - but in the end, as I got closer to how a career in science would manifest, I withdrew.  I did not want to be a bottle washer.  I did not want to push electrons for a living.  I was in love with the glamour of writing about things . . . and I suppose that is how I wound up doing this.

This matter of 'universal laws' has been preying upon me all weekend.  There are laws that apply to rherotic and presentation, but they're much more squiggly than laws applying to math.  One plus One is never only Two in the soft sciences - because, in fact, 'one' is never just 'one.'  The reader's one and my one are completely different animals, raised in vastly different environments and responding to the present environment very differently.  The fact that I or you ever see eye-to-eye is a mystery; how can we, when I operate upon my abilities and expectations, while you operate on yours?

Suppose I make a proposition - say, that the work done upon the game should be of this nature or towards this purpose.  First, I must begin by justifying the purpose - a justification which may never be accepted.  I must argue that 'my' purpose has relevance for you.  I must somehow elaborate upon the possibility of the purpose I expound having a credible superiority to the purpose you already embrace.  This is already insurmountable, IF the purpose you embrace is one that you've adhered to since the beginning of your experience.  It has perhaps never occurred to you that there will ever be a reason to change - whereupon you encounter someone who is suddenly saying, "you must change if you're to improve."

Why should you improve?

At the beginning, therefore, I am dead in the water.  If change is not needed, not searched for, not even conceived of, how shall I promote the means by which change happens?  I might just as well describe the workings of a sewage plant in answer to someone seeking directions to the theatre.

As a writer, then, I rely upon a certain percentage of the readership feeling 'lost.'  The game is not working for them.  They've tried a set number of tactics, all of which have failed.  They encounter my proposed tactic and try it only because it is the next in a long line of experiments.

I find that praiseworthy.  After all, I did come from science.  I'll respect anyone willing to experiment.  Hell, I like to experiment even when there is no need to experiment.  I never know what I'll stumble across in the process.

This post is an experiment.  I've stopped and started a few times now, worried somewhat that I'm going up my own asshole.  Still, I feel that there's something to be said here.  The habit most have - and I think it is a legitimate habit, based upon the tried and the true - is to lash out against anything different or out of the norm.  The failure, I think, isn't to be found in hating a new idea, it is in finding reasons to hate a new idea.  I can appreciate the reader who simply says, "No, I'm not going to try that."  I feel somewhat less about the reader who feels the idea must be torpedoed - most often with the sort of quibbling that was addressed in the last post.

It may be that the idea deserves derision.  Some ideas are stupid.  I've certainly progressed a long way with ideas, first advanced on this blog, elaborated on and then eventually abandoned.  Invention and innovation includes failure, not just once or a few times, but constantly and discouragingly.  Some ideas really should be slaughtered in the pen before they're allowed outside.

Before this can be done usefully, however, the crux of the idea must be understood - and as a species, we are awful at trying to understand things before finding reasons to hate them.  We would much rather put that cart before that horse.

There is a whole other point to be made, I suppose, for why we continue to love things that were long ago demonstrated to be silly, not of much use or otherwise non-productive.  But that would be the reverse of what I'm speaking - and I don't wish to take it up now.

I don't expect anyone to read this and suddenly find themselves more inclined to consider or embrace the new.  It is not in our nature.  Writing this has been more of an exercise than a prescription.  I'm seeking a better understanding for why I react so aggressively when advancing ideas, which are in turn shot at by angry mobs.  These mobs rarely hit anything - but from my perspective, they fill the air with so much ammunition that they're able, somehow, to convince themselves otherwise.  Whereupon I very stupidly feel compelled to argue that they've missed - while they clap each other on the back and head home.

That really shouldn't piss me off as much as it does.

It comes back to letting people be wrong.  It means having faith that some people saw the same duck-shooting farce that I saw.  That is the lesson I never learned - still haven't learned.  I still think that making an argument depends upon my preaching both to the backs of those walking away and the choir that's waiting to sing.

I have to learn how to have faith in people.

Friday, August 15, 2014


Sadly, I grew up in a house that quibbled.  There are a lot of parents that will correct a child's grammar, but this went way beyond that.  In my home, everything was corrected.  If I said that amethyst were purple, my father would quickly correct me that some were pink, red or blue.  If I called the nearby road Brisebois, "bris-boy," my mother was quick to correct me that it was "bris-bwa."  If I told a friend we were going to the mall and then the grocery, either parent would be quick to point out that we were going to the grocery first.  This sort of thing was constant and unrelenting - not only between my parents and I - they did it between themselves, also.  And as I was youngest in the family, both my sister and brother had picked up the habit long before I'd reached the age of eight.

So, quibbling is a deeply entrenched habit with me.  I carried it forward through school, through university and through my daughter's upraising, and right here onto the internet.  It is one of my worst habits, one that I hardly realize I'm following.  I see something that's, quote, 'wrong,' and I leap to correct it.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, there are a bunch of gentle readers saying, "I told you so."  But don't pretend that a lot of you don't do exactly the same thing - the internet is full of it, as the cartoon on the left clearly
indicates.  I was not the only one raised with this habit - else I wouldn't have people rushing to point out to me that not every government in ancient Greece was a democracy, or that a video isn't 'skype,' it's a G+ hangout video.  Pointing out that things are wrong is a national sport.

I know I have to give it up.  I know that my resistance against giving it up has nothing whatsoever to do with me, it has to do with my parents and having developed the habit so deeply in my psyche.  The worst thing about habits like this is that for years and years it is possible to hang onto the certainty that things should not be wrong.  They should be right.

See, that is the worst of it.  There is a lot of confusion about wrongness and rightness - particularly in people who don't care about either.  All my life I've had people say of me, "You need to be right; you can't bear to be wrong" - which is, at best, a half-truth.  I don't 'need' to be right - I've done the research and the source material says I am right.  Other source material may indicate something else, but then it's a debate between other people, not me.  The argument that I 'have to be' right would suggest that even when I'm wrong, and I know I'm wrong, I'm still insistent that the listener acknowledge it.  This is flat out something I do not do.  My peculiar attitude towards rightness doesn't allow for deception - either towards others or myself.

In the past few months, several times, I've been wrong.  My response to being wrong has been to admit it.  I find that hard and unpleasant, but I can bear it.  Correct, Greece was not entirely a democratic culture.  Correct, it is a G+ hangout video.  Satisfied?

Since I rarely hear anyone admit they're wrong, I've been able to identify the value of people all my life by their ability to accept their errors and change their minds.  People who do neither have little value for me.  People who do not do the research have even less.  And people who argue resolutely that doing the research is bullshit and unnecessary, for whatever justification . . . well, hell, I don't see people like that as even human.  Deeply, I feel the world would be a much better place without those people.

Firing off a missive about someone's inaccuracy is a way of testing to see what sort of person they are.  At least, that's a lie I've been telling myself for years.

I realize I have to change.  I have to let go.  More and more, I have struggled to just let other people be wrong in more ordinary, daily life, and it has been noticed by friends and family.  They have remarked on it - particularly in situations where they know from their experience that something inaccurate was said, and where I didn't respond.  That is very, very unlike my parents.  That is not the way they raised me.

Here and there, in posts for the next month or longer, I'm going to be talking about a series of military figures, all from the old Civ IV game:  spearman, galley, archer, cavalry, missionary, axeman, swordsman, explorer and so on - and there's going to be a lot of quibbling about those.  There is so much misinformation and half-information manifesting in lies and errors and dogma that no matter what I write about those things, someone will rush forward to say, "No, it's this" or "You've got it wrong about that."  The source material - even that deriving from universities and academia - is so full of bullshit, fostered by children who grew up on bad films and bad documentaries, that what's real and isn't real has completely degraded.  The Katana is just a sword.  And not even that good a sword.

I'm going to write those posts anyway.  I'll do my research and put in the hours and carefully choose every word that's written down, constructing passages and arguments in an effort to get across the more important themes of game-play and design.  Then someone who hasn't done any research, who hasn't read a single book on weaponry, who will take no time whatsoever to think about their language or about themes, will rush - like my parents - to tell me that a Katana was magically folded over ten billion times or whatever the hell else they learned from the great god Tarentino.

Because this is the internet.  This is where we quibble.  This is the arena my parents unwittingly raised me to correct.  This is the battleground between bullshit and blunder.

I'd like to take a step back and just be referee for a while.  I wish - I really wish - my blood wouldn't boil when some idiot says something stupid.  After all, in reality, that idiot is already surrounded by a lot of people who already know the value that person really has - and karma is doing my work better than I ever could.  I have to stop letting it bother me.  I have to accept that people have always gotten it wrong - that this will never, ever change, no matter how much effort I give.  Stupidity flourishes.  It is what stupidity does.

Thursday, August 14, 2014


Please take note.  Much of the following content derives from two works: New Perspectives on Ancient Warfare [Garrett G. Fagan & Matthew Trundle] and Chariot: From Chariot to Tank, the Astounding Rise and Fall of the World's First War Machine [Arthur Cotterell].  I'm afraid that I couldn't get hold of the whole text for the second work; I could find just enough to demonstrate that the authors do not agree with one another.  There's no reason they should.  Almost everything we know about the use of chariots, their development and decline, is a matter for speculation.  I remember L. Sprague de Camp's book, The Ancient Engineers, was specific to what can be learned from the archeological evidence - that they were typically a two-wheeled contrivance pulled by typically two to four horses, that they were used as a taxi to enter combat and leave it, that they worked as a higher platform from which to shoot missiles and that later on they were used more for prestige than for combat.  A hunt around the internet will lead to other interesting details.

I know it isn't typical for me to open a post like this with sources, but this is one of those subjects into which everyone likes to weigh in as though the matter were decided and settled absolutely for all time - with the current speaker specifically knowing all the precise details while of course everyone else is deluded.  I am not going to write that post.  We know almost nothing about the use of chariots.  What we thought we knew from Homer and other sources has lately been demonstrated to be improbable, so that at the moment no one is making any definite statements.  Therefore let me emphasize that this post is NOT an academic work.  This post is largely speculation based on other speculation, written expressly for the role-playing crowd.  Please feel free to interject on the subject and provide details of your own, so long as you're aware that you're as full of shit as I am, and so is whatever source you feel justified in quoting.  There's a lot of bullshit scholarship out there on the subject - don't think because you have a book written by Billy-Bob that you've got the definitive work.

Since I'm mostly interested in why or how chariots could figure in D&D or other role-play, I want to talk about why chariots ceased to be relevant in warfare.  First and foremost, we need to understand when chariots were employed, and when they ceased to be relevant.  For that, we need a basis in history.

The most artwork of a chariot created by an ancient artist, the one best known to me, is the depiction of Alexander the Great fighting Darius III of Persia at the Battle of Issus, 301 BC.  Darius, incidentally, is the one aboard the chariot - the figure of Alexander is the one that is furthest to the left.

The Alexander Mosaic, circa 100 BC, believed to be a copy of a 3rd century Hellenistic
painting [possibly by Philoxenos of Eretria].  On display at the
Naples National Archeological Museum

It's a fascinating image all around.  For those unfamiliar with a mosaic, the above is made with little tiny stones - thus the picture's dimensions being 8 ft, 11 in high and 16 ft, 9 in wide.  This thing is immense.  If you find yourself in Naples, be sure to get a look.

The symbolism of Darius, the loser in the fight, directing the battle from the chariot, while Alexander, the winner, fights from horseback like a soldier, shouldn't be lost.  We don't know, of course, that Darius did fight this battle from a chariot - except perhaps that the original artist had spoken to Greeks who claimed as much, after the fact.  Still, we know that people make shit up, that stories go around and that any important looking guy riding around on a chariot could have been mistaken for Darius. We just don't know.

From archeological evidence, we know that the chariot was huge and very successful a thousand years before the above depicted image.  We know that the Hyksos, a violent horse-riding people from west Asia, used the chariot, the battle axe and the composite bow to overrun Egypt in the 17th century BC and establish the 15th Dynasty.  We have plenty of evidence for the invasion, the appearance of those weapons and tactics and the time period the dynasty thrived - for about 100 years between 1650 and 1550 BC.  Thereafter, the chariot became the crux of Egypt's power over the eastern Mediterranean during the next four centuries - most notably under Ramses the II.

The chariot was also in wide use as early as 2000 BC on the steppelands of Turkestan, between the Tien Shan and Altai mountains on the east and the Caspian Sea and Ural Mountains on the west.  This was a bronze age culture known as the Sintashta that dominated the vast region for 300 years - from 2100 to 1800 BC. They were probably instrumental in the Hyksos adoption of the chariot; they were certainly instrumental in the development of the modern horse.  The 'horse' as we know it originated in this area, circa 4000 BC.

It is hard to fathom how long ago any of this was happening - just as it is hard to grasp that while the chariot was around in the time of the Romans, Britons and even the Byzantines, as an instrument of war it had ceased to be effective sometime about a thousand years before Christ.  There are a number of reasons for this given by the sources above . . . which I shall try to recount.

I know that many readers will not be aware of the 'dark age' that occurred in Europe and the Middle East between 1200 and 850 BC.  This would be after the rise of the Phoenicians and Minoans, after the Mycenaeans, after the mythological/historical events at Troy and after virtually everything the reader knows about the court and lifestyle of Egypt.  The Assyrians and Romans came after this dark age, while the Sumerians and Akkadians were very definitely before.  More importantly, widespread use of the chariot happened before that dark period.

Called the 'Late Bronze Age collapse,' there are a number of theories for its occurrence and exactly what happened that caused a wide range of cultures to fall into decline.  My favorite personal theory has to do with core samples in Greenland, where the years of ice can be separated like paper and examined for all sorts of things - including dust and pollen contained in the atmosphere - going back thousands of years.  Conclusions have been drawn that a shift in air currents similar to the Little Ice Age produced a 'drying out' of the Mediterranean, so that plant life went into a decline first before human culture very quickly followed.  This was NOT a theory popular with my Classics professors in university, but as with most humanities instructors, science is a myth and does not really exist.  But I digress.

With the eradication of culture in the late 13th century BC came the demise of the chariot.  The chariot calvary never recovered as a military force.  It is probably that the cost of putting a chariot together afterwards became prohibitive.  Consider - two horses must be trained to work together in tandem, whereas with the rise of ancient Greece in the 9th century BC the possession of one horse was enough to consider a man to be wealthy.  Then a rider must be trained to operate the two horses; the carriage must be built, which is no mean cost, particularly when compared with the cost of only a saddle.  To put together a whole force of fifty to a hundred chariots would have been a monumental task - an impossible one in a democracy like Greece or a republic like Rome.  Even the Kingdom of Persia - where there was some use of chariots post 900 BC - would have found the effort arduous (particularly when one considers that the Persian 'Empire' was really a bunch of semi-independent satrapies who paid tribute to a central authority.

As the coffers emptied and personal freedom developed, the cavalries of the 2nd millenium BCE became impractical.  But this isn't the only reason for the chariot's decline.

Consider where it was used during that ancient period.  India, for example, where the chariot was certainly in use during the writing of the Bhagavad Gita and the Rigveda, is FLAT.  Very, very flat. The same is true of Egypt, Mesopotamia, the lowlands of Anatolia (where the 2nd millennia Hittite culture flourished) and the steppes of Turkestan.  Flat, all of them.

Curiously, we have evidence that shows Egypt did not commonly use chariots in its own valley - where fighting units were more often supported by boats.  The reason for that is clear, once the extent of the nile's flood is fully understood.  See this video, starting about 7:20.

Compare, then, the terrain of Greece, Italy, Spain and Sicily ('Greater Greece') where the Greeks and Romans fought their battles.  Very much not flat.  In some parts of Greece, even the horse fails to be of much use.  The Carthaginians were blessed with flat country (northern Tunisia), but horses were in short supply, the land is fairly dry for horses and elephants were available (there were problems with elephants, but we can address those on another post).

Result: no chariot fighting.  Why go to the expense and effort of having one if the instrument can't be used because the enemy has decided to defend from a hill?

By the 1st millennia, the chariot had become a taxi for sure - this is how the Britons surely used them. The Assyrians built really large chariots, but these were mostly VIP carriers.  The most valued use of the chariot in Rome was as a sport - which it continued to be until the 7th century AD.

Think about the incorporation of chariots in your campaign.  How are they an improvement over horses?  By the time of Alexander the Great, firing a bow from horseback had become widespread - what benefits, then, does the chariot serve?

It is certainly a fascinating device.  On that I agree.  But the disappearance of the chariot was surely that it was improved upon - by the very animal that enabled the chariot in the first place.  I feel that what really happened was that we learned much, much more about the horse, making the chariot an unnecessary affectation.  It was a good idea, but in the long run, a disposable one.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014


Haven't written one of these Civilization for awhile.  Some gentle readers, I know, felt I would never write one again.  Yet here we are.  Know that I like writing these posts also.  It is only that my creativity was sucked dry by other things.

The 'Worker' is the last unit that would come automatically at the start of the old Civ IV game.  I have been writing a lot about working of late - it is a central theme to the Guide, as I believe firmly that work gives us purpose and therefore happiness.  I've never met anyone completely comfortable with not working - even the least motivated people I've known worked diligently at something - becoming a better snowboarder or a better musician comes to mind.  Whereas I have known hundreds of people who worked obsessively and were certainly happy - even those who worked right up until their first heart attack.

This civilization, this culture, exists because at some point in pre-history it became evident that work was a practical alternative to hope.  By this I refer to an old Chinese parable - literally thousands of years old.  One day, a hunter is walking through the woods, looking for his dinner, when he sees a rabbit suddenly dash from the nearby wood.  Before the hunter can take a breath, the rabbit fails to see the stump of a tree in front of it and hits the stump full on, knocking itself senseless.  The hunter need only walk up, seize the unconscious rabbit and make it dinner.

Forever afterwards, having gotten his dinner so easily that day, the hunter returns to the same stump - where he sits and waits for another rabbit to appear and knock itself out.

It is part of our make-up that we do this.  Having had fortune smile upon us, we sit and wait and waste our lives away waiting for fortune to smile again, knowing that it's better if we return to hunting. Fundamentally, the decision of stone age cultures to give up on chance and embrace effort was the defining moment in establishing every complex structure we see around us now.

Consider - once the tribe transforms itself from random hoping into a unit that diligently manufactures tools and procedures in order to ensure food, a reorganization of that tribe must take place.

A herd of animals forage - every gazelle in a herd, for instance, is responsible for its own food and its own survival.  Instinct draws the herd together because a herd helps protect the individual - only one gazelle need sense danger in order for every gazelle to be aware of it.  Running together increases the likelihood that you won't be pulled down so long as someone else is slower and more vulnerable.

You and I stumble across a grizzly and it turns on us.  We both break into a run, whereupon you shout, "This is impossible, the bear runs faster than we do!  We'll never outrun it."

And I answer, "I don't need to outrun the bear - I only need to outrun you!"

Work reorganizes that principle.  As the tribe develops tools and procedures, it becomes plain early on who is best at finding game; who is best at throwing a spear; who is best at drawing out game; who is best at cutting the meat off the bone and so on.  When it comes time to decide who will stand where in order to kill the game to get us meat, or who will forage today as opposed to hunting, every individual within the tribe has a superior skill that we want to exploit.  Now, if the slower fellow is killed by the bear, the whole tribe misses out because that guy used to make the best spears.  Personal achievement begins to define our importance as individuals.

Thus the joke is redefined if I am a slacker and you're a doctor.  I may, at that moment, realize that your life is more precious than mine - because you've spent your life wisely and I have not - and stop running.  I may let the bear get me.  I may let you be the faster runner, even if you're not.

We spend so much time in role-playing concerning ourselves with who is playing the tank and who is playing the healer and so on, we forget that we're individuals, too, with individual skills having nothing to do with what class we play.  We do that because on some level we think, "Well, if Jeremy's fighter dies, it doesn't matter because we'll still have all of Jeremy's gaming skills when he rolls up a druid or an assassin or whatever."

We don't care if the bear gets Jeremy's character - because for all the role-playing rhetoric, Jeremy's character isn't real . . . except to Jeremy, who perhaps doesn't want to lose this particular incarnation. But that is another post.

The role-playing format establishes a set of specialties for the player that we're expected to adhere to - but those are just conveniences.  Of greater importance is the work the player wishes to invest into the game in order to provide the party with a greater chance of survival and success.  This work does not rely upon what class the player is or what the player's character skill sets are - because innovation does not result from pre-ordained skill sets.  Innovation results from a willingness to look at the game from every angle, see the exploitable facets in that structure and increase the probability for achievement.

The invented spear exploited the strengths of the human arm; it exploited the comparative weakness in the skin of animals that could be penetrated by a hurled, sharp point.  It exploited the natural material of wood and bone.  It exploited the comparative availability of time that allowed for the spear to be made far in advance of the time when the spear would be needed.

It meant that the maker of the spear had to suspend their immediate gratification while being conscious that, once the spear was made, it would be used later to great effect.  The maker had to work now, sweating and diligently fashioning the spear in a manner that the spear wouldn't break when it was used.  As simple as the culture was that invented the spear, that culture had to understand the importance of quality control.  It wasn't enough to make a spear-shape.  The spear had to be tough, it had to last, it had to be reuseable and it had to be reproduceable if the time ever came when the spear broke.  The amount of value the spear produced in taking down game had to be greater than the amount of time it took to make the spear - else a better spear had to be designed and then made. Young people had to be given tasks that enabled them to understand how the spear was made so that one day they'd be able to do it without help.

All this meant that some people in the tribe had to be left alone and exempt from other tasks for the time it took to make the spear. The spear-maker could not do it alone; he needed a support team that would gather wood to keep the work space warm, to bring him food, to knead out his sore muscles, to give him emotional support to keep working, to forage and obtain food from other sources, and perhaps to find perfect samples from the wild from which other spears could be made. The whole spear-making process - the process of all the work that needed to be done by the tribe - was complicated and deeply involved.  To enable all that needed to be done, a 'cultural' framework had to be made, to describe who did what, when, for how long, in what capacity and to what purpose, as well as a punishment system for those who would not fit into the culture.

We make the mistake of thinking this modern world created this culture of work that we experience, but that's a very limited perception.  All cultures come into existence because of the manner in which work in that culture is required.  Even the most violent of orc cultures would be structured according to the work they did when parties were not actually breaking into their lair. 'Evil' is not a work ethic.  It does not define what a culture is or how a culture manifests.

If you want your world to express itself in terms your players will understand - or if you want to know what your place is in the party - you must begin to redefine the motivations of your world and its habitants by the work they do, rather than the beliefs they hold.  Work comes first; beliefs are a means of motivating a culture towards doing a specific kind of work.  Decide, before giving your inhabitants an alignment, a reason FOR that alignment.

Things will begin to make greater sense thereafter.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Visceral Reaction

Earlier, I linked this video as a resource for writing essays about how to improve the game.  Having had some time to think about it, there's a few other things I'd like to break down about the video's opening and why it annoys me so much.

As of late I've had a number of discussions with my players about filming a game session.  It isn't as easy as it sounds.  Sound is definitely a big problem.  I know that when I watch junk like I Hit It With My Axe (yes, I know there are worshippers), I'm annoyed by random ambient noise, crap sounds that the players make, mumbling, dramatic changes in sound levels from one cut to the next, comments of general insignificance and the need for players to echo each other (if one says 'your turn' another one has to say 'your turn' too) and so on.

Editing is necessary, to keep the speed of the event flowing, but it is woefully easy to overcut the material in an attempt to make it look like a rock video, destroying any of the pacing that is actually experienced in the game - and reality of pacing is definitely something I'd want to preserve.

The reasons for editing come from the reality that four or five different angles are necessary to tell the viewer who's speaking or rolling dice; role-playing is 360-degree event that takes place in a very small space, so that every possible single or dual camera attempt to catch the action will invariably leave someone with their back to the camera or giving a poor profile that captures none of their involvement. The alternative, a moving camera, is shaky, annoying, and frankly not fast enough to catch the pace of change or involvement that is part of the game.

In short, I've come to the conclusion that I don't know enough to properly film a game.  I'm looking into finding an expert; and sorry to say, as much as people love I Hit It With My Axe, I'm really hoping I can find a director that will look at that and say, "Wow, that looks like shit."  For that is how I feel when I look at it.

The linked video above, however, is a completely different issue. It is based on the recent skype concept, where everyone has their own camera on their own computer, so we get a good face shot of five people.  However, please note that throughout the entire video, the DM is the STAR.  All we get of the other players is a tiny facial view stuffed together in the bottom corner of the picture.

I cannot begin to explain just how infuriated that makes me.  The action, and therefore all the emotion and interplay, happens between the players!  The only emotional response we get from the DM is his big smug superior mug, depicted as a MASSIVE IMAGE compared to the lowly, diminuative players.

Really?  I mean, fucking really?

This bothers no one else.  Because the representation, the "I am so Holy that I shalt be the center of attention for the whole two hours," really makes me want to hunt this guy up and punch him in the face.  I wouldn't do that, obviously - but that is the visceral reaction that I experience.  It just makes me HATE him.

It is a game played by everyone.  The DM is not the star, the DM is the facilitator - and deserving of as much camera time as a referee at a football game.  That is, if the ref has a judgement call to make, we'll watch him wave his arms for three seconds - and then it is time to show the players again!

No one, absolutely no one, deserves top billing.