Saturday, December 20, 2014

Taking to Pieces

Spent a little time seeking a definition of deconstructionism online and came up short.  Apparently, this is one of those subjects that has been co-opted by scholars who are more interested in obfuscating process than it's practice.  Looking at the straight dictionary definition tells you very little; wikipedia is such a mess that the website itself is encouraging users to simplify and make sense of the page.

Normally, in a situation like this I would jump back in time fifty years and locate an older, more judiciously edited article about the subject - but deconstruction is a relatively recent philosophical approach, lacking a clear, agreed-upon central premise.  This has not stopped it from being applied to virtually every field of study.  In other words, deconstruction is now a soup with a million cooks, all of which are ready to defend this or that principle of deconstructionism as though it were a giant academic internet flame war.

Result:  I can't tell you what it means.

I mean, I could try, but some dunce with an undergraduate philosophy degree would soon be carping about how I missed including the important perspective of Hartman, Miller and De Man, plus whatever other precious scholar of the moment is right now in ascendency.  It's always good to remember that the bullshit argument was invented in a shiny ivory tower.

Still, I'd like to argue the value of deconstruction, which is difficult without a definition.  Shall we try, then, to get a working framework, one that doesn't incorporate all the crapology of the linked wikipedia argument?  Yeah, what the hell.

This etymological dictionary tells us that, prior to 1973, the word was used primarily in reference to building and architecture.  That brings us back to the google dictionary in the link above, which uses the phrase "taking to pieces."  This is a sufficient framework for me.  Deconstruction is "taking to pieces."  With that, we can toss Derrida and the whole incestual butt-fuck investigation of these three words into the dumpster out back, then move on.

Why take things apart?  VeronaKid expressed half the reason for doing so in a post I wrote Thursday, the comment that started this post.  We take things apart so that we can understand what went wrong.  What, in the coroner's opinion, killed the patient?  Obviously, this can be helpful, as it can suggest ways that we could avoid creating a similar circumstance that would cause another patient to die.  More to the point, if the event is something that is ongoing - such as the patient is dying right now - then deconstructing the body in various ways will tell us what we need to be doing to suspend the inevitable result.

These are not reasons, however, that I would give for deconstructing a module (the idea I proposed).  I'm not interested in where the module "went wrong."  I am, however, interested in the examination of how the module was designed to solve certain problems - problems that face the DM whether or not a module is employed.

I find myself wondering if the average DM, involved in the creation of their own adventures, is even aware of the problems the module solves.  If that is the case, then, of course, many a personally-created adventure will fail.  The problem wasn't solved - or perhaps it was solved in a manner that never directly considered the problem - and the ensuing adventure suffers from the oversight.

Let's take the first problem - and one that continues to annoy and be insurmountable for everyone, not just RPGers.  The party is here, in the town, and the dungeon is there, somewhere outside the town, in an unspecified location.  Technically, the players don't know where it is, so they must somehow learn of the dungeon if they're going to go there.  How does this learning take place.

Modules have no doubt tried most everything, but the most common solution early on was the 'rumour.'  This was supposed to relay the necessary information by chance; the party overhears some people at the next table talking about the horrible events going on near such-and-such mountain caves.  Overuse of this idea, however, led to such stupidities as parties approaching the bartender to learn if there were any 'rumours' (try it with a modern bartender sometime) . . . and that in turn led to post-it adventure boards that parties could check whenever they were in town.  Metagaming of this kind solves the problem of getting the party to the dungeon - but at the same time, it begs the question, why have a world at all?  Why not just have pathways between dungeons?  Why not have a glowing sign that says, 'This Way to Dungeon'?  Why not a series of hawkers and stalls all along the route to the dungeon, selling potions, magic items, maps, medieval cheat codes and so on?  Why not have a dungeoneer's market place right in the dungeon?

Things we have all seen.

Medieval Romantic poets solved the problem (player + dungeon) by simply having their subjects roaming all the time, so that dungeons would be stumbled across at the start of the tale.  Since these poets did not have to account for many of the things that an RPG campaign does, it was convenient enough to create a quest for an item that could not be found, thus justifying the endless, itinerant wanderings of knights and wizards through endless empty forests.  The Robin Hood myths solved this problem by stuffing the merry men into Sherwood Forest, which then became a general crossroads of the world where everything ultimately came to them.  Both of these methods continue to work as platforms to support episodic television.

You, the creator, are faced with no less a problem.  You may try having an NPC anviliciously tell the players where to go, try to hire the players to go there, threaten the players if they don't go there or ask the players to come along.  I've often used the last option.  The rumour can be expanded into something that is more prevalent than a myth or a story by the fact that the creature is right now attacking the town, such as Beowulf or Smaug.  When the creature retreats, the party naturally follows.

Whatever you try to do, it will help if you view the matter as a problem to be solved, rather than simply inventing a set of circumstances to initiate the adventure.  You can't produce unique situations until you understand what technical difficulty each situation is meant to overcome - and that is what the player + dungeon problem is: a technical difficulty.

I suggest, for now, that you simply relax, remove the trappings of a possible adventure from your mind, then consider how to solve the problem.  The party is here.  They need to be there.  How do we do that - preferably without the party noticing?

The very best solutions, obviously, are when the party starts off without thinking about it - when they themselves are focused on the outcome and not the instrumental process of getting there.  How are you going to manage that?  What will work in this instance?

Take some time.  Think about it.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Time Saved!

Earlier today, Doug of Doug's Workshop made a comment that I'd like to run with a bit, specifically this part:

"Many people 'learn to cook' not by understanding the principles of the art, but by using the gadgets sold. Garlic press? Sure, you need one because garlic is awesome. Bread machine? Yes, because fresh bread is terrific."

This got me thinking about gadgets in general . . . but before I go off on a tear about the way playing modules kills the imagination, I just won't.  Instead, I'll talk about cooking.

Garlic, for instance.  What you need is a good knife, one where the blade is about an inch deep.  Like the one shown.  Clean off the garlic clove you want.  Place the clove on the cutting board.  Then place the side of the knife over the garlic clove.  Point the knife blade towards you so you won't cut yourself.  Press down on the side of the knife with the heel of your hand, steady but hard, until you feel the garlic crushed between the knife and the board.  Pick up the knife.  The garlic should be very flat, split into several pieces and wet.  If the garlic is still one piece, you haven't pressed hard enough.  Now chop the garlic with the knife blade three or four times.  Your garlic has now been crushed.  Scoop the crushed garlic up with the knife and drop it into your pan.

Up to three cloves can be done at a time, if they're warm.  The total time this takes is about two or three seconds.  If you're in a hurry, you can do it in one second - but I wouldn't recommend hurrying that fast until you've done this about seven or eight hundred times.  Since the chances are you already have a knife in your hand when you need the garlic, this will save you a great deal of time in putting down the knife and picking up the garlic press, then putting down the press and picking up your knife again.  The knife does a better job, too.

Why do garlic crushers exist?  Because, a) people are afraid of big knives; b) refridgerators can be sold to eskimos; c) it sounds like a good idea; and d) it never occurred to your mother or father that a knife can be used to crush things.

In short, ignorance.  If cooking shops did not carry garlic presses, they'd be harassed by would-be cooks until they did, because the presence of garlic presses has become so expected that shops can no longer ignore them.  This is a sign of the supreme victory a marketing department can ultimately have over a population - eventually, even cooks will buy them.  I worked in a number of restaurants where garlic presses could be found among the various tools.  Ignored, of course.  Such things are purchased by kitchen managers and restaurant owners - people who 'cook' for a few minutes between office hours.  Real cooks do not have the time that garlic presses demand.

But there is something to be learned here, where it comes to the time we take to prepare things. We suppose, if there are two hundred garlic heads and the garlic press can crush one head every minute, then the total time it will take to crush all the heads will be 3+ hours.  Whereupon the cook comes along and does the pile in 40 minutes.

It is easy to think you have the right tool and the right method; but it may be that you've simply missed a lesson or two along the way.  I get that people watch that idiot Ramsey scream at people and waffle on about food with bucketfuls of meaningless adjectives, but actual restaurant cooking is about ordering actions in the least amount of time - those that survive are those who can keep their heads about them in a dangerous environment.  Cooking isn't about gadgets, it isn't even about skill.  I could teach any one of you a reasonable amount of proficiency with a knife if you did it every day for a year.  Cooking is about paying attention.  Noticing details.  Recognizing slight color changes, an odor in the air, a certain alteration in sound.  If you're told what to expect, it's actually very, very easy to manage these things.

If you've never been told - or you have been told and you refuse to listen - then you will always be a lousy cook.  But then, conveniently, we can identify the lousy cooks very easily.

Hm.  Now that I think about it, DMing works the same way, doesn't it?

Dungeon Vacations

While others are chattering about the 'end of the dungeon' (or even idiocy about the 'end of the RPG'), I might just as well ask the question, what do I think a dungeon is for?  What purpose does it serve?

First and foremost, from the players perspective.  Dungeons are a sort of combat-in-a-bag; unzip it and get straight into hack-and-slash without all the hassle of intrigue or reason.  A dungeon can have a strange monster sitting right below the surface that the party can jump in and overcome in a short time, with expectations for a decent treasure and as little consequence as possible.  This last is all important - the denouement following a dungeon raid is expected to be minimalistic.

That is what makes the dungeon 'fun.'  In we get, hack a monster, get out, conflict resolved, return to normality.

It may surprise some people that I encourage this sort of thing - but I do!  Players need to blow off a little steam, pull a fast reward and sort out some of the tension now and then by compressing a huge and difficult to comprehend world into a tiny zone of a few corridors and caves.  A dungeon can be much more than that, obviously, but there is a price the players pay for deeper dungeons - one that I'll pick up later.

As a DM, dungeons are good placeholders.  If I'm working out some rule changes or I'm anxious to hold off the campaign for a bit while the season changes, I've had time to update a table or two or I'm otherwise interested in relaxing the encumbrances of running the whole world, a dungeon offers a break.  I, too, can enjoy shrinking the world down to a small size and therefore having even less to prepare.

I know that for many of you, dungeon preparation is a big job . . . but I think that is because many of you miss the point.  The clue is to be found in the 'dungeon design contests' that permeate the net - it presupposes that better dungeons are those that are fabricated and interwoven on a deep level, such as graphic adventure puzzle video games like Myst (sorry I can't give a later example, but I despise these games and thus I don't set out to memorize their names).  The framework of a game like this inevitably becomes a rat maze mixed with a Rube Goldberg machine, in which an overly elaborate, over-engineered set of circumstances are carefully dovetailed into an adventure that endlessly requires the players to pull lever A before pushing in button B after killing monster C moments before entering door D that leads them to platform E and so on.  In effect, it is a railroad where everything - not only the adventure but everything - is predetermined right down to which drawer in the cabinet you ought to open first.

This, to me, is the anathema of the dungeon concept.  Players, in my experience want to kill in dungeons, not solve puzzles there.  Puzzles are the waiting rooms of dungeons.  They are far more enjoyed by DMs, who know the answers, then by players - again, in my experience.  I have had players who liked puzzles, but even they have admitted that they'd rather solve puzzles in a quiet, personal framework like a jigsaw or a crossword, then having to do so with three or four other players who aren't into it.

The difficulty with the long dungeon - and complicated over-engineered adventures inevitably become long dungeons - is the lack of choice that accumulates over time.  In my sandbox world, as the player enters the dungeon, the player adopts those limited choices as a responsibiliity. Having entered, they make a handshake agreement - "We will enter this dungeon and suffer a lack of choice in expection of the combat and treasure we hope to receive."

If, however, the dungeon traps the player, this contract becomes increasingly exploitive, leaving the player to say, "When we entered this dungeon, we had no reason to expect that we would be forced to remain here for eight continuous months of real time adventuring."  Complaints about the dungeon will increase session by session - most competent DMs, I feel, will begin to get the hint and find the players a way out of the dungeon before complaints become rebellion.

But why wait until then?  Why drag the players through endless empty rooms, meaningless imagery and mindless traps if those things are no more than a buffer between the player and their treasure. What sort of player-game behaviour are you anxious to teach?

I am not clear on why players must go through some kind of made up scourge before they fight the monster and get the treasure.  It is understandable for video games - these are played alone, the combat mechanics are necessarily simplistic and without all the timewasting, such games could not be sold for $60.  But note that the more successful video games just now are those where you just start playing.  The whole value of candy crush or farmville (or whatever is making a billion dollars this year) is right there from the start.  You don't have to sit in a waiting room before you earn the right to play the game you came to play - you jump right in!

The 'game' part in an RPG is combat.  Role-play offers huge numbers of other features, the interplay of emotions, implementation of status, accumulation, personal growth and investigation, but those parts are not played as a 'game' the way combat is.  These other things are mental acquisitions, that are best when they sooner or later lead to conflict.  Nothing equals combat in an RPG than when the success of a mental acquisition hinges on the die roll played out through a game conflict.

Sometimes, however, the players just want to hack.  For that, fitting in a small side hole is a convenience.  Small, so that when they want to return to their mental acquisitions, they can step out, brush themselves off and get back to business.

Dungeons are vacations.  When you try to make them more than that, the result changes.  Think of it as the difference between spending an interesting week in Paraguay compared with living there all the time.

(Sorry, JB; was the most obvious example)

Thursday, December 18, 2014


In the interest of fostering enthusiasm . . .

There's no question that I am generally seen to be a negative person.  Most would consider me anything but fostering, since I seem far more concerned with tearing down than I am with offering aid and support.

Yes, I agree.  I have done my best with that.  From the start of this blog, I've set out to blast the sort of games I've always hated - railroaded games, simple-minded games, games run by tin-pot generals, games based on cheesy bought materials, etcetera.  By the time I wrote my first post in 2008, I had certainly 'fostered' a long and bitter distaste for these things, a distaste I have given free rein in the past six-plus years.

I don't think it is quite washed out of me.  Another six years should do it.

To 'foster' is to offer food, to nourish and to support.  I have always felt that food given ought to be good food, food that will do more than simply fill your belly for an hour or two.  I'm not in the habit of giving brimstone and treacle.  I could easily draw up dungeon room after dungeon room - working my way up through the monsters not merely in terms of stats but in actually laying out an encounter for each and everyone.  Hell, I've cooked up at least three thousand such encounters, it's part of running the game.

Yet I do not see that as offering food - for me, it has the sick taint of charity.  I would rather that you, the reader, took it upon yourself to produce that list - to create a single, stand-alone encounter for every monster in whatever game set you play with.  Not to post it, but to DO it.  To feel the confidence that would let you do it - and to learn how so many of the monsters are pathetically similar, so as to be interchangeable.  Expecting you to do it, pressuring you, producing the guilt that makes you try, will do more to improve your game than me spilling my brain over these pages.

See, that has been the problem from the beginning.  What people want - more freebie crap to insert into their campaigns - is not what people need: the ability to do it themselves.  The resistance against self-reliance is a conditioned response, one that has been promoted by the consumerist culture.

There is a belief that it is impossible to improve on what can be purchased.  Bought material is so much prettier and nicely laid out, with art and shiny paper, that home brews pale by comparison.  I find it the height of idiocy when a DM flips open the module they've just bought so their players can Oooo and Aaaah over the content, as though any boob can't just go out and buy the same damn thing. I wonder how many realize this translates into the same idiocy that makes people feel special or superior because they bought one sort of mass produced status symbol as opposed to another.  People ask me what my problem is with the bourgeois middle-class . . . there it is, the idiomatic ideology that supposedly confers importance to the purchaser.  It is an odd sort of pride that was a fundamental part of my world where I grew up, which I have long since turned my back on.

This perceived status is coupled with a sense that producing an encounter or an adventure is a HUGE work load, as the would-be maker stares into the amount of so-called work pressed into your average store-bought adventure.  "Hell, it took how many people how many hours to produce that adventure? And now I'm supposed to reproduce this, on my own?"  As if most of the content written down isn't painfully repetitive, superfluous, obvious to a DM or otherwise unnecessary to setting up and carrying out the campaign.  The reason every nut and bolt must be included in the plans results from the possible stupidity of the user.  The company is culpable to the user, no matter who that user may be, so the company must design for the dumbest possible person with enough money in their pocket.

Designing your own adventure means skipping over 90% of the details - but you don't do that, because you've already been coerced into thinking you have to write everything down.  This to the bafflement of all of us who hear about some out there taking 15 hours to prepare their weekend campaign.  15 hours?  I spend about 20 minutes doing any actual writing down, myself - and this I can usually do right in front of the players, as they're settling down to play.

There's a true story about James Whistler, the painter, that wikipedia is nice enough to have included. In it, Whistler wins a case in which he supposedly overcharged a client for two days of work.  The crux of the case came down to the client feeling that he had been cheated, because Whistler hadn't worked long enough or hard enough for him personally.  Whistler felt - rightly - that a life of experience was a perfectly substitute for time.  I don't spend 20 minutes preparing my campaign because I don't respect my players; I spend 20 minutes because the whole adventure is laid out, in detail, in my head, where it does not take me 15 hours to design.

The community and I do not see eye-to-eye on this point.  Where I would prefer to 'foster' the community, the community wants the work done, in its entirety, right now.  They've been trained to expect it, to parade it about when they've got it (as though buying a module makes them cock-of-the-walk) and to disdain all other work as crude and second-rate.  Faced with this, I find myself given to draw out my pitchfork and my torch and go to work.  If I can't explain the better way to play D&D, then I am damn well going to demonstrate why the accepted way is pure shit.

It's been a good year, though, because I've been able to do both.  On the blog, here, I continue to tear and rend, while I have presented a book that is 100% positive in its fostering of gaming.

On both counts, I still have a lot of work to do.

Compositional Mistakes

Damn, I have been so sick.  Walking dead sick.  Hit me Monday evening and has hardly let up.  I'm a bit bleary now as I write this Thursday morning - wondering where the hell two days went.

Ray Doraisamy called me out on my Backstage post with this quibbling point:  "Those who ask 'where do you get your ideas from' may be seeking the answer to 'what's your process - what mistakes have you made that we can learn from before we make those same mistakes ourselves?' "

The question is my fault.  I wrote in the post that outsiders tend to think that composition (writing, music, art, whatever kind of creation being done) is easy for the composer . . . and I failed to state clearly afterwards that original composition is NOT easy, it's difficult and aggravating for everyone. Going a step further, original composition defies process, since whatever methodology you've used in the past for other compositions, it invariably fails when you try to apply it to something new.  Part of the creative process is the creation of a new 'process' for every creation.

In my book, How to Run, I propose an argument that in order to create your world, you have to think about it.  At length.  You should brainstorm, writing down as many ideas as you can accumulate over a period of weeks before beginning to create.  The idea is to create hundreds of ideas, without measuring them or confining yourself to one limited perception.  This takes practice - particularly in keeping yourself from becoming fixated upon a single idea in exclusion to all others.  Moreover, all this practice can only occur inside your head.

Because you are a very different person than me, you will eternally view this process differently from me.  There's no getting around that.  Even if we stumble across the same idea, we will approach it from our personal viewpoints, creating problems which are equally personal.

Creativity is not 'science.'  Two investigators in science will inevitably find themselves facing the same issues in resolving a matter because those issues occur outside their experience.  The problems are created by the world, not the scientists.  But where it comes to composing, we create our own problems - because of what we choose to see as a problem than needs to be solved.

I'll try an oversimplified example.  Suppose we each decide to write a story about a homeless man living on the streets of the same city, where the man's wife and daughter have died, leaving him without the will to gather his life together and move on.  Certainly, we can both imagine coming to the same specific circumstances behind our individually proposed novels; even a few changes in those circumstances won't matter much.

The question is, how will you and I solve the homeless man's dilemma?  Some might feel his problem is disassociation, that what he needs is a family of some kind to support him - thus they write a novel on how this man finds a family.  Others may feel he's disenchanted with the world and that in order to regain his pride, he needs to help the world make a change.  Others may feel the man's problem is insolvable, preferring to write the novel in terms of the homeless man circling the drain until he dies, to highlight the horror in society.  Still others will view the homeless man's recognition that he's never accomplished anything, so he changes himself to be a better person.  And so on.

None are right.  None are wrong.  They are all individual, as individual as the creator.  The value isn't in the idea of the book or in its manifestation, but in the alacrity of the story telling and the design.  A great idea will do nothing for you as a composer.  Nor will a really great theme.  You've got to make the story valuable yourself, through having the skill to compose the thing.

You'll find, very quickly, that giving the thing true merit will mean changing yourself as a person in order to rise to the occasion.  Producing the How to Run book changed me!  It forced ME to see the game differently, to self-examine and accept that what I knew before was secondary to the new knowledge I was gaining.  This is what good composition does.  It changes the composer.

I can't tell YOU how to avoid the mistakes I'm making because you're not writing the same composition.  The mistakes are unique.  It may sound well and good to think that there are a finite number of mistakes to be made in the world, and that once you stop making them you'll be a great composer, but that's nonsense.  There are far, far more mistakes to be made than I could ever point out - hell, I don't even know the mistakes you're going to make in your career!  I'm on an entirely different path.

This was my point before - that there are no short-cuts.  There are no right ways.  Mistakes are necessary - beneficial, even, in that they produce a composer with unique skills.  The endless question, "How do you do it?" is begging for a cheat code.  And there is no cheat code.

I'll say this about my writing and making money from it.  I didn't quit.  Everyone else around me that also wrote or played an instrument or dreamed of making it big someday, they mostly quit.  One by one.  All the ones I know now who are still at it, they have some level of success.  Like me, not a great level of success, but some.

So don't quit.  The biggest mistake is quitting.  Best advice I can give.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Time Wasted?

Throughout this year, I have been reconsidering my original stand on Extra Credits.  A large contributory factor to that has been the well-researched historical presentations they've done.  That aside, however, I keep bumping into them.  I'm digging around for a discussion about something I want to write about and there they are.  Usually, saying the most pedantic and obvious things possible; usually carrying the great PC or SJW signboard . . . but there.  So in my head I've had to back off a bit.  Despite my feelings on their politics, I have to admit - reluctantly - that some of the stuff they pull up is worth discussing.

So I confess.  This post was inspired by this Extra Credits video, which asks the question, "Have you ever finished a game and then looked back a few weeks later and thought, what the hell was I doing putting 80 hours of my life into that?"

In the video, the question is rhetorical; they're using it to support their argument that a better game uses techniques other than operant conditioning to promote interest.  I want to examine the question differently, in relation to role-playing, since I'm not sure that, for RPGs, the rhetorical answer 'yes' is one that the reader is having.

Considering the question above, do you find this happens after role-playing?

I could set the question up as a poll, but polls are limited in how much reliable information they provide.  In any case, this is a subjective issue.  Does the 'bad' you feel from having played a long, repetitive video game until you've beaten the thing compare remotely to the feeling you have playing a character in anyone's world?  If RPGs do occasionally make you feel bad, is it guilt from time wasted?  I've heard people say that they came to understand that they were getting too old for this, that they had to leave off and move on.  I've also heard the story from others that it was interferring with their career or their schooling, that they didn't have time to invest in anything, much less a role-playing game.

I have felt bad after a game, but that's a feeling that comes from letting down the players, whether I have or not.  It is hard to have any perspective on whether or not I've delivered a 'good running' in a particular night.  I wasn't playing.  I felt a bit mushy about details or that the scene on the meadow, between the party and the spirits of the dead, felt a little flat.  When I'm told it wasn't, I still have my perspective and my memories of the moment, so I don't know one way or the other.

I can recall days when getting worked up to run was a BIG effort.  And I can recall days when I just didn't make it, when we talked or gave in after an hour, playing poker instead or picking up a movie.  Sometimes, the energy it takes to make the game happen just isn't there.

But I can't ever recall thinking back a few days to a game and thinking, "Shit, I really shouldn't have blown my Saturday doing that.  What a waste of time.

Hell, as long as the audience is going to keep showing up, I'm not wasting my time performing, am I? Which is why this is a question for players.  I've had a few chances to play this past year, but not many.  That's why I have to let others answer.

There must be something that stops a long-time player from getting out to a game.  Some of these players who quit must come to feel it's time wasted.  They must walk away from some sessions, thinking, "Shit, well, that makes another one.  Why the hell do I keep going?  What's left that appeals to me?"

I've made the argument that players keep coming because the game is their social network.  This is what their friends do Saturday.  That's all the game is for those players.  I suppose they must also feel it's been a horrible waste of time, just repetitive die-rolling, another damn dungeon door and another 435 experience.

I'd like to hear from someone who can tell me if they feel they should have done something else.

Three-Dimensional Characters

We've all seen it.  The player that decides, "My character is an asshole," then sets out to justify every bad thing they do from the perspective of a character that is bad.  "Why does every character have to be a goody-goody," they argue.  "My character was the product of a broken home, a dead father, an evil uncle that beat him every day, etcetera, etcetera."

I thought I might write a post today about characterization and developing character, on a subject not covered in my How to Play a Character book.  Specifically, what makes a good character?  What makes a character that is three-dimensional and therefore alive, rather than two dimensional and wooden.

Part of the misconception in creating characters comes from the Second-Rate-Writer's Character Development Handbook, which says that to create a more developed, interesting character, what that character needs is a back story.  The back story, the argument goes, provides motivation for the character's present behaviour, thus offering reasons why the character acts in a certain way.  For example, if Jim's uncle hits him every day, then we can expect Jim to grow up distrustful and mean. Therefore, when the character Jim does something aggressive or self-interestedly, it's only a reaction to his upbringing - Q.E.D.

The player who proposes this sort of logic deserves a good slap up the back side of the head. Alternatively, you could keep a stack of hard cover psychology books on hand so, when the player makes an argument along these lines, you could pick the book of the appropriate size and weight for the given moment and hurl it at the player.

We are NOT the product of our back story.  The idea that we might be was an attempt by various criminal lawyers in the 1950s and 60s to take the new psychology of the time and develop it into a legal defense:  "Your Honor, my client Jim could not help killing those three people, cutting up their bodies and disposing of them in the East River because Jim is the product of a broken home.  He was beaten every day by his uncle, so that today Jim is a victim, not a criminal.  He deserves our pity, not our condemnation."

Guess what?  It fucking did not work.  While Hollywood writers thought the idea was brilliant and ran with it, producing a mess-load of mastubatory, self-congratulating movies in the 60s and 70s about woebegone criminals smashing up cars at high speed (a trend that goes on and on), the courts decided that - upon hearing evidence, something movies don't have to provide - that people are responsible for their actions.

That is because we are NOT robots.  Jim, it turns out, eventually grows up and becomes aware of why he is being beaten.  He sees plenty of examples of other people who are not being beaten and knows perfectly well that once he is free of his uncle, there are endless different lives that Jim can lead.  Even as a child, Jim learns all the places he can go to escape these beatings.  He has memories of thinking that it's wrong and why it shouldn't happen - he can reason, he can see the right path and he can take it if he chooses to do so.

Jim is not an automaton.  Humans do not work by the rule, plug coin with beating uncle into machine, machine becomes a raging bastard.

When your player says, "The back story gives my character dimension!", your player has chosen to conveniently forget the tens of thousands of other events, experiences, moments of time, people and lessons the character has learned.  In other words, your player has deliberately chosen the most wooden and two dimensional justification possible for their crappy, 2-D character.

3-D characters are created not with justifications or motivations, but with uncertainty.  Note that I don't mean indecision, where the pathetic Peter Parker cannot make up his mind between two alternatives, neither of which add up to a whole personality.  I mean uncertainty, the condition in which real people live every day, not being certain of what its all leading to or where this existence is going.  Except for the very old, who are bedridden and left without alternatives, we all live our lives in the future, not the past.  Even those who claim to live in the past are really just bitching about their fear that the future is never going to get better than what's going on right now.  Such people always have one other fear, the fear we all share:  that life is going to get worse.

Jim's third dimension comes from Jim's uncertainty that he's made the right choices about his reactions to his uncle.  It results from his hesitation is behaving this way or that, the uncertainty that this really is a good moment to behave as an asshole . . . followed, as all uncertainty is, by guilt feelings and regret that we did not make the right decision.  It is regret, doubt, denial and so on that causes us to behave erratically, all the time, even when we are trying so damn hard to retain a sense of proportion or reason.

The key here is that there is no precise way that any 3-D character will respond to any given stimulus.  If we already know before it happens how the character will respond, then what we have is a WOODEN, lifeless character.  The reason why film directors are always getting on the wrong side of fanboys is that the fanboys LOVE the wooden character and want the character to stay as wooden as possible, forever . . . whereas the director is trying to make the character human, which means there's no such thing as an action the character cannot, under certain circumstances, perform.  Thus Superman can kill.  The Empire can resort to using Black Stormtroopers.  James Bond can cry.

Your player's desperate, sad attempt to create a character via back story only serves to create a character that supposedly has a blank cheque to perform the same miserable, shit-justified action over and over - without doubt, without reason, without hesitation and without humanity.  Don't rubber stamp that shit.  Call that shit out.  Point out that if the character really had been beaten by the uncle, the character should feel deep, unimaginable remorse, on a level that would threaten the character's will to go on.

In other words, institute a suicide saving throw . . . and every time the player has the character act like a total fucking prick, roll a d4 - and that number of days later, the player has to roll 9 or over on a d20 or wander off and kill themselves.


Anytime a known writer speaks in public, at a library or a university, and the field is open to questions, there's always one adventurer who will rise from the audience and ask, "Where do you get your ideas?"

I have seen a number of answers to this question: polite answers, vague answers and academic answers.  I remember seeing Mordecai Richler speak (for non-Canadians, this is a 'famous Canadian writer' whom every body praises but nobody reads).  When the question came up, he became quickly incensed.  "From my BRAIN" he bellowed, having obviously answered the question a thousand times already.  Then he added, "Sit down, you stupid girl!"

On some levels, I think that may have been the best answer.

There's little difference between the question above and those who cannot help but ask, "How do you come up with hooks for a campaign?"  Or, "How do you make adventures the players will want to play?"  Every composer (for that is a nice generic term for everyone who designs or envisions something from scratch) will cast about - especially at the beginning of their careers - for a methodology or an approach that's better than the one they're using.

This is born out of a belief that some people find composing easy.  I reach for a book when I'm twenty and find myself mystified by the author's ability to create these profound characters, fill their mouths with dialogue and pull them together in these marvellous ways in order to bring the story to a conclusion that knocks me for six.  At twenty, it is impossible to imagine how this is done.

We presume that the composer's mind must somehow work differently that our own does.  We look at our own work and compare it to the composer and suppose that it must have something to do with their biology or intelligence or a special sort of damage that was done to their brain at an early age. Or we suppose that the composer must have discovered a trick, some magic formula that lets them organize their minds in such a way that we cannot.

In truth, it is all perception.

Compare writing to the way you see Christmas now - an example I'm choosing because the reality behind Christmas starts to hit home just before you reach the age of twenty.  This way, the metaphor should reach most of the readers here.

At six, everything about Christmas is magical.  You may have figured out that Santa isn't real, but you're not sure enough about the world yet to feel that is completely confirmed, especially as everyone insists on talking about him.  The lights, the stories about elves and reindeer and so on that you watch, the excitement of being given things by your family - particularly after that long drum roll for weeks before you open the presents - come together in a time of wonder.  All around you are cookies and sweets, things you eat until you're physically restrained from eating more, you get full or they run out.  You're not able to see these things with a jaundiced eye because you're young and easily amused - and you don't really understand how or why any of this happens.

As you age, however, you are slowly and steadily separated from the magic.  You begin to see the process from a wider perspective.  You see how the cookies and things come together.  Santa evaporates into a well-meaning lie.  The presents get worse and worse - and you recognize they are things that are actually available for purchase all year round.  Bit by bit the pretty decorations become paper and tacks; the ornaments on the tree grow tacky and worn.  You think less and less about Christmas, except for the chore of shopping, until the last moment.  In your late teens, you find yourself working on Christmas Eve, Christmas or Boxing Day, shortening the 'holiday' to just a few hours.

Yes, you'll find other things about Christmas that you'll appreciate.  As your kids grow, you'll enjoy Christmas through their eyes.  But Christmas will never be the same again, because you understand all about Christmas now.

Composing is the same way.  As you read or write more, as you plumb through more role-playing material and design more campaigns, bit by bit the bloom will rub from the rose.  If you return to read the books you read with eyes wide open as a child, you'll recognize where the characters are weak, now.  You'll see where the author took short-cuts.  Instead of elegant nuance, you'll begin to see how and where the composer hammered things together.

You may go too far and find yourself losing a taste for everything.  You may become so wrapped up with how obviously crappy everything is - especially your own work - that you quit composing altogether.  You may go one step further from there and take it upon yourself to keep everyone else in the world from composing, from the bitterness you feel that the world isn't the wonderful, beautiful place you were so falsely told existed when you were a little child.

Or you may recognize that composing requires a bit of knocking together to make it work.  You may begin to understand that success isn't getting it perfect (since no one does), but in managing the best you can.  Steadily, you may begin to realize that you can see things that others can't, because you've been walking around backstage all this time and they've been out in the audience.

This is what composers mean when they say, "Keep writing, keep working, keep composing."  They mean, "Keep walking around backstage.  Get into the habit of watching how it's done.  Don't worry that its all fake and pasteboard, that its wood knocked together to make it seem like it's beautiful - that's just how we do it here.  No, there's no trick.  No one back here is special.  It's only that we've been doing it for a long time."

I should add that there are some who will tell you otherwise - but believe me, they are trading on their time and your ignorance.  They're counting on you to think they're geniuses - they may even be deluded enough to think that they are.  It's all crap.  Everyone fucks up.  It doesn't matter.  We keep at it, we keep learning, we accept that it isn't magic and that we do it because it has become a vocation. We knock it together, slap some plaster and paint over the nails, cock our heads and call it, "Good enough."  Then we move on.

Saturday, December 13, 2014


Okay, seriously.  Don't quit.  I know that feeling is on your back and that you're thinking about it all the time, but don't do it.  Believe me, that moment of relief you get and the time afterwards when you tell yourself that you're glad, that passes.  In the long run, it just becomes regret.

Yes, I know, it seems pointless to go on.  You're just rehashing old stuff and you've done everything.  I get that.  Only, that's just the way it feels.  That isn't the reality.  Right now, you're just burned out and because of that you can't think of anything good.  It happens to everyone.

All you need is distance.  You've been spending too much time on this lately and you've put off a lot of things.  That's probably true.  But you don't have to quit this to do those things.  You just need to let this rest for a bit, so you can regain your perspective and remember why you got into this in the first place.  In a few months, you'll feel better.  You'll be able to look at this with a clear head again.

I've gone through this too.  You feel like you're butting your head against the wall and no one seems to care.  This is the best work you've ever done, yet no one seems to care.  You've been pouring your whole heart into this and yet no one seems to give a gawddamn.

It's an illusion.  People do care.  They have noticed.  But it's hard for them to express what they're feeling and their praise seems inadequate when they think of telling you outright.  It's a communication problem, one brought about by embarrassment and uncertainty.  It isn't that they don't think you've done great things, it's that they don't want to diminish those things with a few clumsy phrases.

So don't quit.  Keep the work you've done and put it on a shelf until you feel better.  It doesn't have to be all or nothing.  When the cloud has passed and you're on your feet again, you'll begin to realize you never wanted to quit.  You were just under pressure.  It was stress.  And you'll be glad you didn't make a hasty decision.

Then, when you start again, it can be just a little at a time.  Bits and pieces.  Nothing that's going to compromise whatever else you've started.  You'll feel better, too, because you'll be fresh.  You'll have gotten out from these frustrated corners you've driven yourself into.  You'll see.

Give it a while.  Don't force this into a decision.  You're only tired.

Friday, December 12, 2014

The Day Before Yule

Twas the day before Yule, when all through the town
An orc tribe was pillaging, with dire wolf hounds.
The inn was ablaze ‘neath the high chimney there,
From the staff of the wizard on watch in the square.

The townspeople were frightened, for many were dead,
While ten hung from high poles, missing their heads.
And mamma with her khopesh and I with my axe
Had just come around to pay the year’s tax.

When off to our left there screamed a mad hatter,
“Kill them both!” he ordered, “And leave them in tatters!”
So that mob turned about, and rushed us in a flash
With spears used for rending and whips made to lash.

The blood on the armor of our new rushing foes
Fed a lust that we’d gained to lay a few blows.
When at once with my wandering eyes I saw clear,
That wizard was readying a spell to be feared.

With the face of a weasel, so pale and so sick,
I knew in a moment it must be Quaint Slick.
More terrible than weapons his casting became
While he danced and cavorted and called each demon’s name,

Now Juiblex! Now Orcus! Now Hezrou and Vrock!
On Yeenog, On Balor, Glabrezu and Plock!
Sour their blood and make their hearts stall!
Now slaughter them, slaughter them, slaughter them all!

As thought follows action when death threatens by
I had thrown my war axe without knowing why.
It had hit that mean wizard and ruined his cried hew –
His spell it fell flat - and Quaint Slick he did too!

And then, in a twinkling, I heard Mamma give proof,
That she could handle every ruffian, head, hide and hoof.
Though I raised my axe and I turned fast around,
Not an orc was left standing, nor a dog to be found.

Then I saw Quaint rise and limp off on foot,
“Hurry on,” I cried, “It’s no time to stay put.”
So we chased him through town ‘till we came to a shack
The hut of a peddlar, at the end of the track.

The place it was shambled and a little bit scary,
We knew to approach it, we had to be wary.
I felt a cold sweat arise on my brow
And heard Mamma say, “What do we do now?”

I took in a sharp breath between gritted teeth;
I slid out my runesword from inside its sheath.
The wizard’s hut shook as if made of jelly,
Then the ground all around grew terribly smelly.

“Gawd that’s awful!” said Mamma to herself,
“It’s as bad as a bath house run by an elf!”
I had to agree, as the stench hurt my head,
Much more of this and we’d both soon be dead.

Then I remembered, trying to think through the murk,
I had an old item that just had to work!
It was down in my pack beneath my clean clothes,
I fought with the straps (‘cause that’s how it goes).

I pulled it out and blew it, that sacred old whistle,
The fat woman said it would cast magic missile.
Then I heard the sky clap and saw with delight,
A hundred magic darts, ending the fight!

(And as Quaint died, there in the shed
We celebrated the season asleep in our beds)


This was not copied from elsewhere; I wrote this original version yesterday.


Fantasies are fun.

There's one that my Tamara and I have talked about now and then that is unquestionably a fantasy - and not one that is so very different from what I hear from co-workers who dream of getting out of the office and into a vocation that offers 'freedom.'

Throughout the Maritimes of this country, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, there are little harbour towns that grew up around the timber industry.  Nowadays, the locals thrive a bit on the tourist trade, transforming grand old houses (that are fairly cheap, given that there's no work to be had and therefore no demand) on the water into bed & breakfasts.  A three-thousand square foot house can be gotten (by a savvy agent) for less than $200K, potentially with a dozen acres or more of untamed land.

Together, Tamara and I have worked in both food service and housekeeping.  We have a clear idea what sort of work is involved and how it certainly wouldn't be freedom - hotel work is slavery, as some neophytes discover to their sorrow.  It has two saving graces, however - the first being, if the people know what they're doing, a smart income can be made.  The second is that tourism is a seasonal activity.

For six months, your life outside work ends.  You begin as the sun rises and you are still at it long after the sun sets.  You suffer guests, you suffer things that break and deliveries that don't arrive. You suffer from inadequate staff and disgruntled staff and no staff at all.  People steal from you, people deface or destroy your property, people break into fights and ruin everyone's night.  For months on end, you're tired.  You are the dead walking.  For months, everything that you've been doing is done on fumes, mild drugs and auto-pilot.  Then it all stops and you rest . . . forgetting to give the attention your property needs, something that will bite you in the ass next Spring.

Why would anyone do this?  Pride of ownership.  Pride of service.  A sense that the world is working according to your timepiece, if the reader can make sense of that.

My own notion about this arrangement would be to run D&D for guests seven nights a week. Sessions would begin at seven and end after ten - during which time the kitchen would be largely closed, since I wouldn't be working there.  I imagine a selection of soups and a cold table would be made available, rich with pasta and potato salad, cold cuts and breads for sandwiches, that sort of thing.  But hot service would end at seven (my kitchen helper would manage for the last half hour while I prepared for play, before putting out the cold table, cleaning the kitchen and getting off shift around nine.

Obviously, the D&D games would have to be tailored into one night sessions - though I can think of ways to make it fun for someone to step into an ongoing campaign and enjoy some interaction before we stopped.  The hard-core people would arrange to be there a week, where they could wander the surrounding villages during the day, antiquing, fishing, enjoying a nearby beach, before heading back for a dinner meal and game play.

In the off-season, I would work on my world, write and adventure outwards myself, perhaps south into America or over to Europe.  If our income proved sufficient, I could give myself a half-day off now and then during the season - though I'd probably want that for sleep.

Realistically, I haven't stood in a kitchen for years - but I worked with plenty of fellows who were the age I am now.  Like anything, it's all in training yourself.  Tamara and I have often talked about the menu we would put together.  I suppose in that part of the world it would be much seafood, mixed with significant Italian and Greek entrees.  I make a very satisfying tandoori, every kind of stir fry imaginable and with a little practice I could certainly improve my butter chicken.  I spent a decade cooking breakfasts, so without question the morning menu would be thoroughly refreshing.  I've always thought a short, steady menu of solid food complimented by at least sixty to a hundred potential specials offers the best fare.

But this is a fantasy.  Because in the end, I'm never going to sacrifice that much of my time for something that isn't writing.  Still, nice to think about once in awhile.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

A Word From Your Parents

Hah. This guy:

"Over the last few months I've been noticing an incredibly stupid trend developing where people are actively arguing that having fun isn't all that important in playing a game."

Damn. I sure hope I'm responsible for this.

Maybe I've been wrong about this whole thing.  Maybe the reason why so many people write about RPGs being 'fun' is because none of them are having any.  Perhaps their campaigns are so bereft of fun that a few words written by random people on a variety of web sites threatens to crush the last vestige of non-misery lingering around their gaming tables.

Frankly, as the loudest voice preaching that the game isn't about fun, my games seem to be full of happy, excited, laughing people, taking a ride on the tension and having a hell of a good time.  That's because, as I wrote, fun is easy.

If you don't believe me, perform an experiment.  Gather as many people as you can, bring plenty of food and drink, then take them all out to the park for a picnic.  Period.  That's it.  Make no plans.  Prepare no events.  Do not give away prizes.

Magically, fun will happen.

If it doesn't, you clearly have not brought enough drink.

Every year, regardless of the temperature, there's a little suburb outside Calgary that puts up christmas lights, sells hot chocolate and prepares their little pond into a giant skating rink.  That is the entirety of the preparations.  Lights.  Hot chocolate.  Free skating.  Every year, thousands show up. Even when it is 40 below.  I have been there when it is that blistering cold, complete with a 20 mph windchill.  Makes no difference.  Everyone enjoys themselves - except, of course, for the few teenagers who will, in 30 years, drag along teenagers of their own.  The only thing fun requires is willingness and freedom.

People who write posts about how the game should be fun can't possibly be having any.  Otherwise, why the hell would they care?  How the hell does it make a difference at their table?  What is it, exactly, that bothers them?  The danger that they'll have a player that shows up at their game, saying, "Is that all you did to prepare?  This game is shit.  I'm leaving."

That's the only reason I can suppose.  Makes no sense, otherwise.

Now, I know why I preach, "Don't make fun your message."  The reason is simple.  The worst fucking picnics in the world are when some group of assholes come along and say, "Hey, you people all here drinking, eating and talking?  We want you to have fun!  Everyone wants to have fun!  Let's play some games!  Let's give away some prizes!  Let's treat you free, willing people like fucking ten-year-olds!"

Fuck those people.  Fuck them.  We were all having fun until they showed up with their fucking control issues.

I preach, "Make tension your message.  Make purpose your message.  Make the game your message."  In other words, build the fucking park.  Build the benches to sit on and the gawddamn bridges and lay the fucking grass and fire those dumb motherfucking part-time workers who don't do their jobs.  Because building a park is hard fucking work, it's labour, it's time spent sweating and getting dirty and being miserable until the job is done.  And when the job is done, get the hell out.  Go home.  Put on some comfortable clothes, get your kids, then come back and enjoy the park.

Those people pissing and moaning and crying that the game should be about fun?  They want you to have fun their way.  Or they want you to go out into the street and find some place to play on your own, because fuck you, they're not building a fucking park for you to play in.  "Go have fun you little pissants, don't expect me to do fuck all for you.  I'm a fun person.  I'm about people having fun.  On their own.  Without bothering me.  You little fuckers."

Remember?  Like your parents used to fucking tell you.

Jeez.  I have GOT to stop listening to Lewis Black.