Thursday, December 30, 2010

Disrespect

Zak over at Playing D&D with Porn Stars has written two fine posts about the elements of narrative in D&D, which everyone must be aware of already since he's a popular fellow.

I wanted to make some points on the second post, the one with the extensive musician metaphor, about how both musicians and actors are really dispensible and that the true masters of the creative industries of film and music are not the talent at all, but are in fact the producers, those people with money ... but after reading through the comments, I gave up any notion of commenting myself.  By the time I would have added my bit, the conversation had spiraled into the usual, meaningless internet pattern ... spouting agendas, not dialogue.

I have nothing against anyone on the internet having an agenda.  I think if you have a blog you have to have one.  Agendas are wonderful things, they inspire argument and debate, they provide food for thought and inspiration, they offer the possibility of change.  Agendas, when intended to be harmful to people or thought, can be bad things, but then again any agenda can be brought down by an intelligent presentation of the facts ... eventually.

And that is what I crave for this blog.  People who can argue for or against my position from a position of intelligence and knowledge.  If I post an argument, I expect the comments added below that argument to be relevant to that argument.

Let me be clear.  When I say "I expect," I mean that I have no intention of tolerating any alternative.  And although I don't believe that I'll be understood by most of the community when I say this, I encourage others to take the same stand.

It may seem that I'm not talking about D&D specifically with this post, but I assure you that I am.  With respect to the gentle reader, D&D and the culture surrounding it possess a juvenile reputation which I must say frankly is deserved.  When a rational metaphor about macaroni and cheese is answered with the response, "Man, fuck macaroni," we have to know that infants are clearly in charge of the daycare.

I don't expect bloggers to raise the intellectual capacity of their readers: there are obviously some prize morons out there, and vast numbers of them seem to like D&D, or reading about it, so the task of re-educating the masses is beyond our means.  But I would like to encourage bloggers like Zak, who take the time to write an intelligent post for the purpose of persuading readers, to delete childish comments from their blogs.  Why?  For the good of the community.

The default for most bloggers is to argue that every comment has merit, that every commenter has something to say, and that every kind of censorship is a loss for the community.  This, because it is believed that more is better, that the more people speaking and voicing their opinions the better the dialogue, and that it is better to coddle and pamper the infantile than to abandon them in a dumpster.  Only with patience and nurturing can we hope to change people's minds about things they don't really understand ... and it is our responsibility as the knowing, able players of the game to present the game kindly, thoughtfully, and without prejudices.

It sounds very noble.  As such, the very idea of deleting anyone's comment from a blog seems like a very ignoble proposition, the sort of thing only an asshole would do; certainly, a bigger asshole than someone making purposeless comments about macaroni.  We aspire to democracy, after all, and anything that hints the least little bit against democracy is immediately vilified to the extreme.

Except ... it isn't.

I would presume that we all have jobs, or that we'd wish to have them.  Many of us work in the sort of professions that bring us satisfaction from the work we do, because we are creating something important, or providing a service that others depend upon ... and doing a good job is important to our self image.

In the setting of our jobs, we take it for granted that there will be a curtailing of inappropriate speech.  One does not barf out random comments at the boss or prior to the performance simply because the comment has come to mind.  We are aware that such behavior has consequences.  Our co-workers and employers will believe that our clever little infantasies are irresponsible and undesirable.  They will, in fact, be insulted by our lack of respect.  And in the face of continued lack of respect, they will cease inviting us back to our jobs.

This fiscal restraint on your freedom to act like an asshole in the workplace is never seen as the destruction of democracy, because it is recognized that for workers to work comfortably together it is necessary that respect trumps personal will.  The freedom of your fist ends where my nose begins.

I am sometimes taken to task on this blog for railing violently at some individual's answer to something I've said.  My reasons for doing so are entirely premeditated: I wish to dissuade, through practice, the posting of stupid, insipid or otherwise useless comments on this blog.  I wish to drive away people who lack the strength of their convictions, who might otherwise be encouraged to continue posting naive comments here were I to be polite or considerate.  My practice in this regard is, without question, very rude and disrespectful.  I very much hope that it will be received as such.

This practice has served me well for many years, and fits into the example I give above about the workplace thusly: if you do not have the sand to comment intelligently on this blog, because you lack the comprehension or knowledge inherently, you will not be invited to join.  You have failed the interview, if that makes it clearer.  But unlike a potential employer who will lead you gently and kindly out of the office, knowing perfectly well that your presence will never be wanted, ever, I don't have to worry - as interviewers worry - that you'll break down crying when you find out you've failed to impress me.  I have the luxury of informing you, immediately, that you are not worth having around.  Perhaps, if the truth is made clear to you, you might strive to become something better than the cretinous bit of mold that you are.

Now, I don't expect other blog owners, such as Zak, to follow my lead.  But it is obviously possible to have this position and still enjoy a sort of popularity.  Those who come to this blog come knowing that the discourse here will encourage ideas, and not bury them in a miasma of irrelevant nonsense.  The gentle readers here may hate me, they may hate what I say, but they can at least hear it without needing to put up with a lot of banal noise.

If you cannot stand up to the crap posted on your blog, I encourage you as the blog owner to recognize that comments posted which dismiss you, or your ideas, out of hand are disrespectful.  Delete them.  Comments which miss the point entirely, or which demonstrate that the commenter has not bothered to find his or her answers in your post, are disrespectful.  Questions that come out of the blue, which seem blatantly stupid, and which could have been sent to your clearly posted email, are disrespectful.  Hijacking your blog to make a personal point about their world or their way of doing things, points that should be made on their blogs and not yours, is disrespectful.

Stop letting the children disrespect you.  Insist that the discourse in the comments be equal to the effort you've made to post something of value.  You deserve it.  Your blog deserves it.  The good of the game and the community at large deserves it.

Let's stop inviting the infants to the adult table.  Let's give the infants a reason to improve themselves, to recognize that if they can't be of value, they won't be invited to sit.  Let's create a community worth having.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Wiki, December 27, 2010

More than half the reason I don't post more information to the Same Universe Wiki is because most of the information I have is in a non-formatted, not easily understood table, or consists of scattered information that needs gathering together.  It should be apparent to anyone who has seen a good deal of the Wiki that my world is in a constant state of creation, or flux.  So I post material as I format it, and I format as I gather that material together.

Such as it is with the Father's Table which I've posted.  The original is somewhere on my blog, though I can't find it without combing through it post by post it seems.  This table is marginally updated, with some new professions and some of the added abilities (now called 'legacies') cleaned up after running with them.  My players love this table, since it gives them a bonus ability, plus a sense of origin; it is seen as a kind of lottery which you win or don't win at.  Every profession is technically a 'winner,' but some are obviously much better than others.  Life isn't fair.

Some of the bonuses fit into house rules for my world, which I haven't gotten around to posting on the Wiki because I haven't worked out yet how to standardize the rule.  The worst of these is the "+1 weather grade" benefit, which refers to an individual's ability to live comfortably in weather conditions different from that of their birth ... someone from a desert climate finding themselves in sub-arctic surroundings would be much more uncomfortable than someone who originated in a temperate climate.  The table for this has been on hold for more than a year (puzzling it through in my head), but my players tolerate these things.  I hope to have something together for it soon.

I have added the standard maps: the West Mediterranean, which isn't much of anything yet; Italy, which the reader should compare with this image here, prior to my completing the Italy map (northern Italy is included on the Germany map); and Greece.  Believe you me, the islands on that last map were no picnic.  I trust the maps continue to impress my readers.  I have received lots of feedback for them.

This being Christmas, I haven't much more.  I've added two tables to my Cities page ... not the standard fare, I assure you.  If you will scroll down the page you will find a list of independent territories, all including the population of that territory and - in some cases - the area in hexes.  It should be obvious from the cities links I've been putting up for weeks (Poland, Sweden, etc.) that the population numbers are not generated out of my ass, but result from reading through material on individual cities, assigning a population to those cities based on an algorithm computed to their 1952 population, and that information used to determine the total population of the area.  Hex areas are computed according to population density and land use.  The numbers for area are, I'm afraid, inconclusive ... since in the case of many of these nations I have total population statistics but not total area.  Still calculating the latter out, province by province.

You will find a break-down of the World Population & Area table below (still on the cities table) as two jpegs, Provinces A-L and Provinces M-Z.  This shows which regions have had the area computed and which have not.  The Ottoman Empire, for instance, is much bigger than 397.4 hexes ... but if you scan down the page, you'll find that only parts of the European Empire are accounted for.

I hope this will feed the fascination of those gentle readers who adore statistics.

For the rest of you, I continue to encourage you to get involved in publishing your own material.  We are regularly getting more than 1,000 page views a week, so I can assure you that posting will drive eyes to your own website and it will get you attention.  Contact me at alexiss1@telus.net if you have anything you'd like to see on the Wiki.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Micromanagement

A friend of mine made a unique connection about my post yesterday, which was about how I did not prepare for a session and how I preferred to work on big picture stuff rather than the finicky details of the campaign.  This friend - who may identify himself in the comments if he wishes - brought up the point that DMs who spend a lot of time preparing for their campaigns are like micromanagers ... a point I realized at once was brilliant.

Consider this:

"If you are a micromanager, the chances are that sooner or later you will realize that the employees are spending an increasing amount of time thinking how to deal with their supervisor rather than actually working. If you wait long enough, most of the good self respecting people would have left and you would be left with a team of mediocre employees who just know one thing, follow orders, no questions asked."

Now, I am as guilty as anyone in saying that I have players, they like me, so my world cannot be that bad.  But that's really bullshit.  It could easily be that I browbeat my players into playing, that I expect them to toe a line which - if not toed - will be stabbed through their hearts.  Perhaps my players are fretful, accepting worms who are so short on social life they have to play in my world since its their only solace from the cold, oppressed dungeon apartments they can afford to rent.

Without giving any answer whether or not that's true, I'd like to turn it around against people out there making the same claims I have made.  Claims such as their players being roleplay geeks, or pure as the driven snow, or the same six buddies they've been playing with since the 1970s.  What do such claims mean, exactly?  Are these necessarily laudable plaudits about the strength and quality of the campaign described, or are they distinct signs that something is seriously, deeply wrong?

Do you mean to say that in 30 years of play, not one member at the table has dropped out, or been added?  Do you mean to say that no person offering to play in your campaign has ever expressed a desire for their 'evil' player characters to rape someone?  Do you seriously mean to claim that no weak roleplayers have ever cast dice at your table?  Or is it that your world is so inflexible, and your personal style as DM so stifling, that anyone who has dared to enter the sanctity of your domain with "weird" ideas has quickly slipped right out the door again, grateful that it was only one night of their lives they'll never get back?

Let us address the micromanager quote at the start.  A micromanager, for those who might not be overly familiar with the term (there are people younger than 18 that read this blog), is an individual who feels they must personally control or oversee every detail of what is being done by the employees under their authority.  Most 18-year-olds are familiar with this, as most jobs you get at 18 are for people with zero or no management skills, who think 'managing' is the same as 'nit-picking.'

And do not many DMs behave likewise?  Micromanaging every die roll, or the quality of the dice (yes, sorry, though I did think it was a good post Cyclopeatron), or what moral standing the player is expected to have in the DM's world, or dozens of other things that one might expect to find tolerable in the work place only because there's a wage.  We've all read examples.  The result is exactly as the description of micromanager reads: what is the DM thinking?  What is the solution the DM wants solved?  How will the DM motivate the players?  Carrots, sticks, extortion, punishments, behavioral corrections, karmic responses by the world to slap the players if they step out of line?

(Yes, true, I did mention karma a few posts ago.  But I haven't implemented it, have I?  Part of that has a great deal to do with the thought processes driving this post)

If the players are all focused one hundred percent on the DM, then I think something's wrong.  I have written right here on this blog - more than once - that it is MY world and that the world runs according to MY rules.  But the reader should know the game is not in the rules.  All I do is establish the playing field, draw out the lines and describe the methods of play - just as an umpire or a referee.  After that, I am well out of it.  There are arguments in my world.  They go on between the players.  If there's a question about what to do next, I'm not the one that's holding up the show.  I'm in the kitchen making myself coffee, waiting for them to sort out what they want to do.  Running the game is ejudicating, not directing.  But I've said that before.

Most micromanagers, it must be said, are oblivious to their own management practices.  They look around at their offices and think everything is going great!  People are obedient, the work is getting down, everyone has their heads down and focused on their work, no one looks the least bit undependable ... then the higher ups drop a survey on the employees and the results look - well, the gentle reader can guess.

I want to put myself under a microscope, with the hope that others would do the same.  And as you read this, ask yourself what your players might say to a completely disinterested investigator, who had them answer a survey about your world that you would never see.  How confident does that make you feel?  Are you certain your confidence is a good thing?

1. How long has this present campaign been in existence?

Simple enough.  Four years.  Five?  Could be six.  Seems like forever.

2.  How many players do you have, and how many right now were present at the beginning of the campaign?

I have eight players.  Four were present at the beginning.  They were the same four I started with.

3.  How many of your players are family members?

Three of the original four.  My wife plays, my daughter and her common-law husband.

4.  How many of your present players began playing after the halfway point in the existence of your campaign?  How many in the last year (if that applies)?

Four.  I had two girls who started playing about 14 months ago, and a couple who have joined my game (after several months of expressing a desire to) in the last session.  That last two have been playing in my daughter's campaign, in which I am a player, for six months, so I know them quite well.

5.  How many long-term players (played for more than a third of the campaign) have you had that dropped out?  Were any reasons given?

One.  I had a player who ran a cleric until she was almost seventh level, who then stopped coming around to play.  The other players, who knew her better outside of the campaign - I only knew her as a player - tell me she had a change of life, stopped gaming altogether and stopped talking to her friends.  I was not given a reason by the player; she just stopped appearing.

6.  How many short term players have you had since the campaign started who did not come back?  How many of them gave a reason?

Four.  One that came for two sessions, two that came together for one session, and one who's appearance has been spotty over the last year (younger brother of one of the other players, and still 'technically' in the campaign, though I don't count him).  All but the last are regularly-seen friends of mine, but we don't talk much about D&D.  One of those three occasionally comments on this blog.  That individual sat down at length and described what he found undesirable about my world - specifically, that it was too serious, too focused on ambition rather than on spontaneous fun, heavy on detail and generally not his cup of tea.

7.  How many of the players in your world have never played a roleplaying game before?

Three.  My wife and the two girls who started playing the game 14 months ago.

8.  Estimate the appearance rate of your players.  How often does your campaign run?

About 92-96%, not counting the inconsistent player.  Games are suspended over the summer, but through the fall, winter and spring we play consistently, every two weeks.

9.  Name the three principle reasons for people not appearing in your campaign.

Shift work.  Secondary School.  Family obligations.

10.  How often is it that players in your campaign do not appear without having given a reason?

Never.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Two Seconds Before They See It

I have a quirk.  I know there will be a running on a given day, and I know the location where the party will be either investigating or at which they'll arrive.  There will be an important building, or underground, or description of the area that I ought to have on hand.  But as the game day approaches, I'll do nothing to prepare myself.  I won't design the building, or sketch out the halls, or even look up the information I ought to have.  Instead, I'll spend the whole week working on stuff that won't have the slightest influence on the party's game.

They may be in Hungary, but I'll be mapping parts of India, or Scandinavia.  They'll be on the edge of fighting a horde of mummies, but I'll be working on large mammals dwelling in Africa.  They'll want to spend the session exploring a half-cleaned out dungeon they haven't entered in a year's game time (which they're doing right now), but I'll be working out the trade products for Spain.

Why?  Because I don't 'prepare' in the normal sense.  I haven't in years.  I have gotten so comfortable playing by the seat of my pants that I simply never bother to draw a single micro-map outside of a session.  In the little wedges of time between the party cleaning up after the last room ("who needs healing") and the party deciding what to do about the next one, I'll sketch out the shape of the room, and think quickly to myself, there's a secret switch under that cornice there ... there's a spring that releases gas right in front of the fountain ... the fountain water produces hallucinations ... that's good enough.

I'll figure out what kind of gas out of the DMG if I don't think of an effect myself before the trap is sprung; I'll let myself wax poetic about what kind of hallucinations; and what's behind the secret door that the switch opens I'll figure out if they find the switch.  I am so used to thinking on my feet, and pulling the various random elements of things together at the end so they all make sense, it doesn't seem practical to spend time outside of the session doing that. 

I think the real key is having a sense for structure.  If the dungeon is filled with large insects, even the places behind secret doors, then it should be considered abandoned; who abandoned it, and why?  Obviously, because something really awful is at the bottom.  Is it sentient?  Probably.  But if it's really deep down, it hasn't seen anyone intelligent in years.  It might be lonely.  On the other hand, it might be xenophobic.  But lonely sounds like more fun.  If the party gets down that far, and finds something really horrific that wants to chat for comfort, isn't that unexpected enough to make the session fun?  And it might know something old and ancient.  Or it might be just the gatekeeper for something deeper, something more horrific, even a passage to another plane.  Or not.  Maybe after fighting through dozens of giant beetles, worms, slugs, crawlers and jellies, through level after level, the last room is ... an abandoned - and emptied - treasure vault.  Hm, that would be a pisser.  Which is it, let me see.  I should roll a die.  But not yet.  They're not down that far.  I'll give it a couple more runnings.  Maybe I'll think of a third option.  Then I'll roll a die.

I know I really ought to map it all out and know weeks and weeks ahead of time, but somehow that never matters to me.  The party can't tell the difference, and if I'm playing by the seat of my pants I'm never reading off anything.  It's all in my head as I go along, so there's always eye contact as I describe whatever's coming out of my fertile brain.

Sometimes I get stuck.  Sometimes I have a bad night.  Sometimes, frankly, my mind is just blank.  I've had a bad week, I'm run down, I don't want to control the mob (sometimes I'm up to eight players running); and on those occasions they are either patient with me or we talk it over and quit for the night.

I'm not sure a lot of micro-preparation would be useful for times like that.  If my brain isn't ticking over, it's because in reality I don't want the responsibility of running that night.  Not having to improvise probably wouldn't improve my mood.

It should be evident from the Wiki that in vast part the work I do on my world is macro-design.  The internet has certainly made this easier; it takes two minutes with wikipedia to scan through the details of a town or village, to familiarize myself with the local setting and to start describing what the nobles are doing, what's the latest news from the hinterland or how well the city is faring after the last major event.  Improvisation with this stuff keeps the material fresh, as the rhetoric changes from month to month.  In the big picture I see eventual wars, possible natural disasters or the deaths of important peoples affecting the party ... when I need a shift in the campaign, I'll instigate it.

This pattern of running lets me work freely on whatever large scale trade/mapping/biological design feature that interests me on a particular day, without worrying what my party is doing.  Then, when the party does wish to go to Egypt or China or Morocco, the maps are there ahead of time and the purchase costs at the local market is ready (and can be generated in less than two minutes).  The socio-political landscape I keep in my own head, fed by constant reading of history and other non-fiction texts.

See, it isn't that I design my world ahead of time, it is that I know it.  I know it because I live in it - and so do all of you.

Wiki, December 20, 2010

This last week I have again been working on maps, but moreso upon a character background generation machine in excel which, unfortunately for the general reader here, does not translate well to a blog page.  I have some vacation time over Christmas, so I hope to squeeze some space in between family and get up at least one of the periphery tables, the one that determines what your father taught you.

In the meantime, I offer on the wiki this week the meagre bit that I've added.  More cities tables (will they ever end?) for Poland and Sweden.  And five maps: Balkhash, the Altai Mountains, West Mongolia, the Selenge Basin and a mostly unfinished map that is part of Mongolia/northern China.

I have a reason for including these last four, all of which have large areas that are not finished.  This is the edge of the world as it stands right now.  I worked my way through these four maps last year, trying to map the source rivers for the Yenisey ... that's the part of my maps that isn't done here and here.  I've found that it is easier to map the lower river if the upper river is done.  The Yenisey, however, has several extensive sources, some of which are not even considered part of the origin of that river.  The Selenge River, which most readers will not have heard of, drains north central Mongolia, rising in a bunch of narrow river valleys that join together to flow out of Mongolia and into Lake Baykal.  The outflow for Baykal is the Angara, which then flows 1,100 miles before joining with the Yenisey and flowing into the Kara Sea.  Anyway, to map the Yenisey meant mapping the Angara, and to map the Angara meant mapping the Selenge, which meant working out the four maps above.  All this was done while I was 'on vacation' after my previous position went south when the magazine I was working for up to 2009 died with the recession.

Why bother to say all this?  I want to make it clear that the maps themselves, each being 30x35 hexes, are added as I follow political divisions or topographical features in this direction or that.  I needed to create the map that would allow the little corner of 'done' material that is in the upper left on the Unknown China map ... but I'm really uncertain what comprises the rest of that territory (the Gobi Desert, I think), so it remains unnamed.  It always gets me down a bit when what I'm doing requires 'one more map' - since it means identifying the elevation of every hex on that new map.  Believe me, it's not the sort of thing to be done piecemeal.

I'm not working on any of these maps right now.  I will eventually, and when I do I would like it if regular readers of the wiki would see that the process of building a world is done bit by bit.  Just add another province, and then another, until map after map is done.  That's how it goes.  It's what I recommend for people who design a world, and it's not new advice.  Just work around the edges of what you already have; don't worry about how much you're doing today, or this month ... because eventually what you will have to show will be a huge, sprawling map.

It is a question of having a clear idea of what makes your maps work, so that as you add and expand, you're not going back and doing the same maps over and over and over.

Though I've done that.  Oh yes, I have done that.  Once too many times, I can tell you.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

IMech 2: The Quest For Tension

Allow me to begin with two circumstances of roleplay, the first of which has come up four times in the last two years of my campaign, and the second that never comes up for my players, for good reason.

The first is interrogation and torture.  The party is smart enough to realize that killing everything is not always a good idea, that outside a lair they're about to enter it's a good idea to subdue a scout, tie them to a tree and interrogate them for information.

In fiction, this can be a tense, difficult moment.  The victim does not want to give in, but the interrogators must have the information.   It's a physical/mental struggle of the first order.  What will it take to break the victim's will?  How does the victim feed information to the captors, and what can the captors afford to believe?  There are lies on both sides, tactics, techniques, deceptions ... what will ultimately work?  How much can we torture and still retain our self-respect?

In D&D, there's nothing.  Why not take out the knife, stab the victim at once, swirl the knife into the victim's intestines, wash our hands in the intestines, eat the victim's kidney while the victim watches while keeping the victim alive with cure serious wound spells, etc., etc.  There's no emotion here.  And if the victim gives out information, we can know with another spell if its false.  And then kill him without any remorse.  Whether the victim is cooperative or not.  What value is there in letting the goblin live?  It's a goblin.  Get the info, stab it and let's get going.

The problem is that there's no emotional resistance to overcome.  As roleplaying, it's just words.  Now, if I could play it so that every time a player gave orders to stab the creature, I could throw an actual bucket of pig blood on the player, that might create the kind of discomfort/nausea inducing reality that actual torture releases.  Stab him again, another bucket of pig blood.  Some players would get to like it.

Then again, reverse the situation.  Interrogate the player and the answer will be (if the information is actually important), "I'll die first, go on, kill me, I'd rather roll up another character."  Either that or the player sings at once.

In either direction, it feels stupid in the session for A) the players and DM to be saying to each other, "I hit him again," since there's no connection whatsoever to the actual hits; and B) people sitting around a table pretending to scream in pain.  (In a way, making the scream does make some people uncomfortable ... but I play with at least one Dominatrix who likes it when I scream).  Everyone feels like an idiot and the whole situation feels like a farce.

Most IMech solutions have as their focus only one thing: does the prisoner blab?  Roll the dice and the result will or won't give you the information.  But it won't be very interesting as the conflict is resolved with very little emotion.  There's no tension.

Let's leave that on the shelf for a moment and talk about circumstance number 2:  gameplaying within the game.

The DMG gives a page over to the playing of different dice and card games, as has the occasional book put out by the 3rd Edition universe.  I don't know if 4e has, but I'd think it probably does.  It always seems like a good idea - to have players gamble with their coins, to place bets with one another and either lose or accumulate income this way.

Problem is, it's all boring.

One doesn't have to get very old before playing cards for matchsticks or meaningless poker chips becomes pretty dull.  I still play this way occasionally with people too uncomfortable to play for money, but I don't care if I lose, it doesn't mean anything and my heart rate doesn't climb above normal as the pot gets bigger and bigger.  The best game of this variety that I like to play is Rumoli, basically because it's a counting game that requires resource management along with playing poker.

Somehow, the reality that losing hit points will mean that a player will never again be able to run this character in my world is enough to create tension and fear.  But losing thousands of gold coins at the casino hasn't got that kind of emotional pull ... characters have most of the gadgets they need already to return to the lair again and at least pick up food money.  Food isn't very expensive.  A character can live very cheap if they need to (they feel no hunger, lack of companionship, boredom or angst).  If they win, its just another big pile of money, which usually just gets plowed into something else that doesn't really matter, like a storage place for their stuff (house), or a bigger storage place (castle).

So, players will either A) not care about gambling, or B) not care about losing.  The IMech isn't enough to create the tension of loss, since the loss of money does not carry with it the personal discomfort for characters that we are all familiar with.

The IMech solutions I read through yesterday, including those that were linked, are all ultimately based on a two-sided result: what you want happens, or it doesn't.  If it happens, you get the information, if it doesn't, no big deal.  Maybe you can get the information some other way.  The highly railroaded argument presented by this site, posted by Anthony, argues that you've got to provide three ways to give the player a chance at understanding this information ... as though this won't be cottoned-onto by the players, who will soon be sitting in your world responding to your clues with, "I don't get it either, but the next one will tell us what we need to know.  We'll wait for it.  No need to think."

Either way, we're still NOT talking about emotional involvement.  And this is the key.  Combat is more than just rolling dice and getting a resolution.  Combat is not about information gathering.  And just so I don't forget to say this with emphasis, any IMech that is based on information-gathering will suck.  It will suck hard.

Let's look at combat from two sides ... the information-gathering side, and, well, the side that addresses the point I'm moving towards.

If I swing a weapon, I am rolling the dice to see if I hit.  This is information gathering.  The weapon's affect is calculated against the enemy's resources, and an effect is achieved.  This effect is conveyed to me and again, I receive information.  I then make an assessment of the situation on the information I've received and decide what I'm going to do.

If combat was not two-sided ... if it was just me rolling the dice to see if I hit, it would be awfully boring.  Imagine a shooting game in D&D that had the player standing in front of a target trying to hit that target by rolling dice.  Dullsville.  But this is what IMech information-gathering is ... one-sided rolls to determine results.  The clues do not roll dice against you.  And if you miss, all you are is ignorant.  No penalty is incurred.

This is the other side I'm getting at.  Combat has enemies, who are trying to kill you.  There's more at stake than getting information ... you know that if you FAIL to hit, it will allow the other side to try.  That could mean your death.  That could mean a very lucky roll for your enemy that could smash you for twenty-two points that would be devastating.  And that's the chance you take every time you miss killing him.  A chance that comes with every die roll.  It only takes one to kill you dead.

You understand ... there are consequences.  There's more than what you're able to gain, there's what you might lose.

In the gambling problem above, I pointed out that the loss isn't very significant.  It's only money.  Neither is the gain, for the same reason.  Last night, talking about this, I was proposing an ad hoc solution: suppose I laid out the following set of rule:

1) You are able to gamble once per session; you may play for a period not exceeding one hour.
2) You must declare your stake in g.p., that being the number of gold pieces you have on hand at the start of the game.  There is no limit on the size of your stake.
3) When your stake is gone, or the hour has passed, you must stop playing for that session.
4) Wins are not assessed until you declare you are stopping.
5) When you declare that you are stopping, for every 10 g.p. you have more than the amount of your stake at the start of the session, you will receive 1 x.p.
6) Gambling houses may have limits on the size of your bets, or ultimately a limit on the size of your total winnings (depending on the size of the city you are in), but beyond this there is no limit on winning.

This should make anyone deeply indoctrinated into the game take pause.  There's no specific rule against this sort of thing, but it is generally conceded that players shouldn't get experience just for sitting there gambling.  If I start with a stake of 10,000 g.p., and I choose to play in my world's Monte Carlo, I can sit and play roulette at 35:1 odds.  If the bet limit is 1,000 g.p. per spin (and it would be, at least), with ten spins I have pretty good odds of hitting for 35,000 g.p. - 2,600 X.P.!  Minimum, since I'm assuming there that the last spin is the winner.

Maybe not very much for a character that has 10,000 g.p., since they're at least fifth or sixth level, but still ... a lucky player could win enough to push them from fifth to sixth, if they had a good run.

Scoff if you will, but ask your players if they would play, if you were serious.  Don't listen to what their mouths say - watch their eyes as you tell them.  Even as the gentle readers right now are shaking they're heads, they're wondering if it's really all that far out there.

Beyond the point that I wouldn't do it, the real problem is that there's no punishment for loss.  There needs to be.  So let me add this, and really upset the ethical community:

7) For every 100 g.p. you declare as your stake, you must put $1 on the table.
8) If you lose that 100 g.p., the dollar goes in the DM's pocket.  Money won back up to the amount of your original stake will be refunded at the end of playing, but the DM is not required to refund the difference between your original stake and your present g.p.

Now, I don't know about you, but I've had players - joking and serious - who have offered to pay me money for experience.  It is the dark, seedy side of the game that no one talks about.  Business that can only be conducted in the dark hallways between the bathroom and the gaming table.  Let me state very clearly that I have scruples, I don't need the money that badly and that, if it isn't clear, I'm not suggesting that any of this be done.

But I am trying to make a point about REAL gains and losses.  Experience levels and death are real sides of a coin, much more meaningful than information/no information.  An IMech, on some level, must have characteristics that punish the characters for failure.

For months I've been thinking about a post on how the game of D&D is gambling, or rolling dice to get a result.  In gambling, you lose.  Without loss, there is no gambling.

Let's hope you're still with me at this point, because I still have points to make.  Bored yet?  Good, we can move forward.

Like the above never to be implemented example, an IMech which is added to the game is going to change aspects of D&D that will be uncomfortable.  There is a finite number of existing numbered characteristics acribed to the characters - all of which are held to be sacrosanct - and therefore a limited number of things that can be reasonably changed.  Steelcaress makes reference in a comment on the previous post about inventing a new kind of 'hit points,' but I really hate that idea.  It lacks creativity, it divorces the whole IMech issue from other aspects of the character and it really reduces the verisimilitude of the familiar stats that have developed meaning over the years in favor of something that feels 'tacked on' and therefore tacky.

In playing the wins and losses of IMech, the stakes should be things that matter.  Having some other scale of wins and losses only matters if, when the points are reduced to zero, something happens.  Something as permanent and distasteful as death.  Something that makes players stop and panic.

Let's return to the torture scenario, and let's say that our prisoner doesn't want to talk.  Let's say the success/failure roll indicates that the player WON'T talk.  So the player says, "I stab him in the belly with the dagger, and the cleric will stand by if it goes hard with a death's door spell."

(As an aside ... your torturers kill you, actually kill you, just slightly dropping you into the death state, then pull you back from that door to zero h.p.  Every ... damn ... day.  Pretty nasty, that.  Who wouldn't talk?)

In the old system, if the dagger stab doesn't work, we just stab the prisoner again.  But suppose you add a wrinkle, and explain it to the player: "If you coldly draw blood against a helpless victim, there's a 1 in 10 chance of losing a point of charisma.  Permanently."

Watch how quickly how the prisoner's information seems less important.

But if that seems unfair, or drastic, or problematic for assassins, consider this alternative, as I wrap things up:

Reputation.  Assume that anything that happens on account of the party's 'failure' to force information will make its way to the ears of somebody ... if through no other source, than by a failed wisdom-check by the party's dumbest member, who saw the torture (or failed attempt to talk to the king, or failed effort to find the murderer in this town) and just felt the need to talk about it to the local bartender.

What if the players get to be known at those annoying, pestering, supposed do-gooders that can't seem to recognize a goddamned clue if their lives depended on it?  What if the players want to be Sherlock Holmes, but they've blown their rolls so often that now everyone knows they're just LeStrade?  Are you telling me that won't create tension?

This was, more or less, the destination I was going to reach for with the charisma-related post I was going to write yesterday.  I've gotten there by an entirely different means, but the point is still the point.  It isn't enough that there's a roll that must be beaten in order to achieve a success.  There must also be a roll that must be beaten in order to avoid failure.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The IMech Problem

Carl, who has no profile, added a well-argued dilemma related to my position in the previous post.  I include part of it here for convenience (the complete would be comment #20 here):

... we still have no mechanic for charisma/intelligence/wisdom in the DMG.  I fully-support slow-witted players running super-genius mages. This is a fantasy game afterall, and every player should be allowed to indulge their fantasty [sic]. But how do we handle the problem-solving situation that's bound to arise? Do I as the DM decide that the character is smart enough to see the solution to the puzzle, even if the player cannot, and then essentially take control of their character for a moment along the lines of, "Wiznor glances at the pieces on the chessboard for only a moment before moving a single pawn and declaring, 'Checkmate. Now, tell me where the princess is being held.'



Poignant, since I was about to sit down and discuss my thoughts about influencing NPC's since writing this post.

But first, Carl, let me discuss your point.
Without any doubt, the lack of Interaction/Intelligence Mechanic (I'll call it IMech) was a drastic oversight, or at the very least showed a supreme a lack of foresight.  It is handled pathetically in the DMG (reaction/loyalty) as a very obvious afterthought that, I doubt, received any serious play-testing.  The failure to recognize that IMech needs to be as complex as combat resolution has been consistently ignored by every edition that has come out since ... arguably as fan-service to those thousands in the roleplaying camp who would see it as blasphemy should any serious effort be put towards limiting the 'essentials' of play such as puzzle solving, taunting opponents, haggling and self-panegyrics, with the associated aspects of coersion and deception.  Beyond Carl's point of puzzle-solving, there is an equal resistance against rolls that would allow players to say, "I attempt to bribe the guard - am I allowed through?"; or "I lie to the bartender - does he give me a free drink?"; and finally, "I enter the king's castle as a spy - where are the jewels kept?"
 
Once you have given some aspect of control over to IMech dice rolls, you can be certain that players will set about abusing it at once, pushing the envelope to make their lives easier.  Peripheral knowledge is useless in getting their characters past this crisis ... just show the way out and tell them how many monsters they have to fight.  IMech problems slow a game down, they often devolve into bookkeeping (this guy's name, his position, the location of the contact, which door to knock on, where to find him again, this password, that phrase I have to repeat exactly when we come to the gate), puzzles prove all too often too difficult to solve, or ultimately only lead to new problems (what, this is Final Fantasy?) ... geez, if I can handle all this crap I don't care about - but the DM does - with a few die rolls, please tell me what to throw.
 
It isn't that throwing dice is more interesting.  But it takes much, much less time.  For exactly the same result.  You have to have a particular sort of character to enjoy going around and around with a fictional being voiced by the DM, with a particular view of looking at things.  I confess I love writing dialogue - the books I write are full of it - but most people I've played with either didn't pick up on subtleties, or don't give a rat's ass. 
 
Suppose, for instance, I have the NPC only say, "Yep, used to go up there.  Been six years now.  Want some tea?"
 
If I'm lucky, a player will ask "Why?"  More often, they'll ask something completely immaterial, such as, "So what do you do now?"; or "What kind of tea is it?"; or "How far is it to the next town?"
 
At which point I'll answer, they'll wave goodbye and continue their way along the road and wonder just why in the fuck was I wasting their time with that guy and his stupid campfire.  They never learn about the crack in the mountain behind them, or Attila's Bridle or anything else I may have planned for a four-session romp through that dungeon.
 
Which puts me in the situation of either A) hitting them in the face with it by having the guy say, "Yeah, you know there's a crack that leads into the mountain up there, probably good for treasure, just telling everyone that passes today"; or B) throwing meaningless encounter after meaningless encounter until someone bites.
 
If you're the sort of DM that designs everything ahead of time, you have to pick option A.  You have to give the player's information they never asked for, like, "He seems to be hiding something"; or "He keeps staring up at the mountain, oh, loooook at him really stare hard"; or "He needs help to get something up the mountain and he asks you to come along."
 
And don't tell me the gentle reader doesn't do it.  Death Frost Doom was full of that shit, as has every other module I've ever seen.  This kind of writing drifts into fantasy fiction and wow, does it ever look like dingo's feces on the page.  You have to paint signs all over the damn place that might as well read, "THIS WAY TO MONSTER" and "TOUCH HERE TO RECEIVE EFFECT."
 
The question arises that, if you have to distribute the information bluntly to the players in order for them to correctly follow the clues, what difference does it make if the clues are solved by dice?
 
Look at the Carl's Puzzle above.  What is the purpose of the puzzle?  To get information.  Why do we want to get information?  To get to the actual rescuing.  Puzzle solving is really nothing more than research, and the process of research is, for most people, deathly dull.  Speaking for myself, I do the research to write the book, or the article, or the post, but its the actual writing that I actually like.  The research is a means to an end.
 
Why not simply hand a book to the players, tell them that there's something relevant in chapter five that pertains to the situation they're in, and wait for them to find it?  Here's what I'm getting at: for many players, it would be no less boring, no less interesting, no less time consuming than having to solve any other puzzle.  To speak on their behalf, they would clap their hands with joy if they could roll a die and have the damn thing out of their way.
 
Those in the roleplaying camp would argue that the chatter is really exciting and interesting, that's it's fun to challenge wits with the DM, and succeed in convincing the DM to give them what they want, because it's really satisfying to succeed at a battle where I prove I'm smarter than ...
 
Well, that only brings me back to the last post.  Really, whatever.  I feel I must point out that for all the many people in the world who love to do a particular kind of puzzle, there are many, many more who don't.  And if puzzle solving is your thing, and you're not getting it from D&D, there are plenty of other sources.
 
Quite a digression, but I'm in no hurry.  The whole matter with IMech is that along with being heartily discouraged by much of the gaming community, it is immensely difficult to invent.  Most inventors who have tried to sell their ideas to the gaming public have been kicked into the gutter for even the attempt.  If I want to write a post that gets little or no response, I'll advance ideas about how to do it (the post I was originally going to write today).
 
However, it is deeply needed; if only to give the game a new vista in which to expand.  The roleplayers have to be told to sit down and shut up for awhile, that fixing the IMech problem is the puzzle we're trying to solve that doesn't involve besting someone who knows the answer.  No one knows the answer.  That's what makes it a much more interesting puzzle.  I happen to think that it is worthwhile ... if for no other reason than that an interplay of arguments supported by dice in a sort of combat framework might support investigations into strategies and gaming concepts previously unconsidered.
 
I will pick up the subject of my intended charisma post in a day or two, but for now let me offer the sort of thinking process that I think we need to start with.  Rather than simplifying Carl's chessboard down to where a single pawn needs to be moved, perhaps the comparable intelligence of the players indicates how many random moves the dumber player must make before being able to actually play.  Perhaps additional experience with the game (measured by regular play) can decrease the likelihood of one's own random moves and increase the likelihood of the opponent.  Obviously, in any case, the player would need some fundamental knowledge of the game, or else all the random moves in the world wouldn't help.  But I can see how incremental changes in the mechanical aspects of the game could be influence by IMech considerations.
 
No?

Monday, December 13, 2010

Enlightment And A Change Of Direction

A few days ago I had an epiphany which has been difficult to put into words.  It was fostered in large part by this post from Lurking Rhymically, a smashing rebuttal to a post on Trollsmyth's site that, sadly, I find myself having to link here

The critical 'eureka' moment, however, occurred with the comments on my last post, specifically this one from Wickedmurph:
"Good roleplaying, I think most people would agree, is acting in a manner consistent with that of your character, including making bad decisions."
Now, I don't know Jeremy all that well. He disagrees with me occasionally here, but he offers thought-out arguments when he does.  I think he's probably a stand-up guy, and I don't want anyone to get the idea that this post is about him. I would recommend reading the above quote in context, which you can find in the comments section of Screw Average.

Out of context, the line above caused me to jerk awake (the second time I read it), remembering the last act of the character Delfig in my online campaign. Definitely a 'bad decision,'  in my opinion, since it was his last act.  But it was an act that the player believed that the character would do in his situation, and roleplaying in the player's mind trumped 'winning.'

The last two relevant matters I wish to bring to this discussion come from my always being told that D&D is a "game" and that it is meant to be "fun."  That D&D is a game is usually used as an argument against making things too complicated, usually with the adverbial addition that it is "only" a game.  That D&D is meant to be fun is usually used as an argument for virtually anything the individual wants it to 'prove' ... since 'fun' is a highly subjective discription of a wide range of activities pursued by a remarkable variety of personalities.  'Fun' truly is the most pervasive, consistent and least meaningful argument advanced, though it is certain to be advanced by 90% of the gaming community almost immediately once the subject of the game's quality or nature is placed on the table.  It is rarely considered that what may be fun for the individual advancing that self-same argument may be extremely dull or juvenile to the listener ... but that is of no nevermind to the advancer.  The game is meant to be fun.  Period.  No other arguments are needed.

Very well.  I have no interest in denying either argument.  D&D is a game, and it is meant to be fun.  Let that be clearly and certainly understood by every gentle reader out there.

If I may be so bold, I'd like to propose that the players of D&D have steadily gathered into two camps.  There are those for whom the mechanics of the game are the thing: dice rolling, accumulation of wealth, advancing in levels - with the ideal of applying increasing skills to increasing challenges.  The second camp would be those for whom the roleplaying aspects of the game are the thing: imagining a character, living vicariously through the life of that character in a strange and wonderful world - with the ideal that creative thought shouldn't be limited by mechanics.

I don't suggest in any way that there aren't people who have chosen to embrace both camps, or that there aren't those who live in either camp interchangeably and comfortably.  Nor do I wish to dismiss that there are also many who find aspects of either camp fascinating, or who would argue that both camps have both good points and bad, depending upon one's personal perspective.  I think I must say that, for myself, I believe in the roleplay/mechanic blend.  But nevertheless, it must be acknowledged that there are those who reside firmly in one camp or the other, and who believe passionately that they are in the right, while the other is in the wrong.

Why is this so?  Why is it that the roleplaying camp finds itself under seige by those who insist upon mechanics, while those in the mechanic camp find their game degraded in some manner by those who love to roleplay?  And why is it that both camps feel they must defend the belief that, in the beginning, their particular style of play was the original intent of the game?  Why does it matter?

I don't want to become embroiled in an argument about original D&D.  But I do want to describe what I think was the motivation for the roleplaying camp, since that establishes the confession that is the core of my epiphany.

I believe that for a fair portion of the gaming community, something more was wanted than a game about hacking and slashing.  The game, it was argued, ought to be about more than swinging my weapon and hauling away loot.  If I may put myself in the place of that argument, I would think that I'd want to spend each session dwelling upon a more worthy pursuit: living the life of the character, to be specific.  After all, my pleasure derives from pretending to be someone that I am not, in an environment I could never hope to be part of otherwise ... so why should I not invest myself into the character fully?  My character, therefore, will think before blindly entering combat.  My character will have higher motivations than loot.  Perhaps I will play someone who eschews coin, who seeks to resolve problems through insight or cleverness.  If, after all, I am able to rescue the princess through my wits rather than by my sword, that is every bit as laudable as hacking my way through dozens of mooks ... more laudable, in fact, because I am using my brains over brawn.

The problem, which has been apparent for decades to anyone who has applied this sort of play to the game, is that the mechanic as written contains no reward for playing the game in this fashion (excepting the pecuniary benefit, which does not always occur).  Those few paragraphs or words contained in the early volumes of the game, from the various boxed sets up through AD&D, suggest firmly that the brains-over-brawn roleplay option is certainly included in the game's concept, but no actual hard rules are included for how said behavior might be compensated.

This has led to the firm and steady divide between the two camps: the hard-bitten mechanics who argue that since there is no reward, the roleplayers must either cave in and swing a sword once in awhile, or at any rate accept roleplaying as its own reward; and the frustrated roleplayers who have for three decades struggled to incorporate some kind of meaningful reward mechanic for roleplay that is not based solely upon the DM's personal bias.  To this I would add a hardcore element of the roleplayers who have increasingly taken the position that no reward is necessary, and that no-reward D&D is the 'true' path of the future.

It is in the matter of mechanics that I find myself motivated to write this post.  If I return to the argument that D&D is a game, then I must consider that the fundamentals of any game - and please understand, I really do mean ANY game - are the mechanics of that game.  Most games do a great deal with the mechanics of a game which are, substantially, roleplaying.  If I am a linebacker rushing my opponent at football, and I am trash-talking the fellow I'm face-to-face with in those few seconds before the ball is hiked, I am roleplaying.  I would not naturally say those things in any other environment.  But in that place and in that time, I want to taunt my opponent in some way so as to put him off his game, make him rush me ahead of the snap, get him offside or even anger him to the point where his team takes a penalty for unnecessary roughness.

By way of using my own experience as a metaphor, I used to be pretty good at this.  The reason I used to be pretty good came from two things:  I've been ridiculed for everything from my appearance to my behavior for most of my life (used to it); and I am a lot smarter than most dumbass football players.  My eyes, my stance, the tone of my voice, the manner in which I emphasize certain words or my observational skills that tell me when I've pushed a button - with my talent for finding multiple ways to keep hammering that fucking button once I've found it - would all work at the time to initiate a chase scene as I ran from the scrimmage to keep some part of me from being broken.  And to gain five yards for my team.

Roleplaying in football, or many other games, is used as a means to take advantage of the rules as written by encouraging others to break those rules.  Intimidation is used to discourage opponents and reduce their focus.  Misdirection is used to undermine their strategy, or cause them to waste resources and energy.  Out-and-out lying about my intentions can trick others into fumbling mistakes, even when they think my lie is a lie - since my wanting them to think I'm lying is also a kind of roleplay.  None of these strategies are written into the rules, but they are just as relevant as the actual skill of the contestants.

This post at A Paladin in Citadel's demonstrates profoundly the lack of comprehension that many players have about the application of roleplaying in a competition.  The question revolves around which of two armwrestlers (in the game) would win, if both had a 13 strength.  The general consensus is that a mechanic should be applied: the players should roll to see who wins.  Of course, the only mechanic considered in the comments is the strength of the two opponents.

I made the point that the obvious winner would be the one who wanted to win ... a comment that was lightly cast aside.  It shows a lack of experience - actual armwrestlers know that there are many factors at play beyond just strength.  Appearance, for one thing: competitors work hard to create an image that is impressive and suggests power; they stamp around to show their confidence and authority; they develop a steely glare, solely to intimidate doubtful opponents.  The competition is won and lost in the head.  The winner is usually the most conceited, egotistic, baddest motherfucker imaginable.  The only other competitor who wins is someone too thick-skulled to be intimidated.  Competitions are never won by people who just happen to be strong.  Everyone there is strong.

I include all of this side-bar about roleplaying in other games to make a point about D&D - it, too, allows for intimidation, manipulation and misdirection ... only in this case, between the DM and the player.  The DM has a lot of power, and can level that power however he or she wishes, when he or she wishes, for reasons that can be utterly indefensible where the game mechanic is concerned.  The player, if they are to survive within this personalized jungle, must adapt and overcome as best they can.  Even the most tyrannical DM imaginable will find players who enjoy playing in the dynamic of that DM's world ... for the challenge of surviving, if nothing else.  They will think that it's 'fun.'

I don't think, however, that where it comes to the community we are looking to hold up tyrant DMs as a template for how everyone would play.  This is why, I think, people would want to 'bolt' on rules as measures to restrict the manner in which a DM would conduct their world ... and it would be hoped that DMs would consider the source of said measures.  Naturally DMs could feel free to disregard anything of that kind - do they not have players, are they not playing the game, are they not having fun?  Of course they are.  So fuck others and their rule measures.

As a player, I have less options than the DM about the rules.  I may creatively trash-talk the situation, I may obscure my motives or casually manipulate the DM ... but I must consider that DM's patience with me and the mechanics of that DM's world.  Roleplaying will only carry me so far.  When the rule is invoked, I'm back to rolling dice.  Just as when the ball is snapped, I have to stop relying on my roleplaying skills and I will have to throw myself bodily against the other fellow.  Hopefully, I'll have disconcerted him enough that I'll go right through him.  Hopefully I have controlled the situation enough that when the die roll doesn't go my way, I won't die.

But there comes a point when the player is free to ride roughshod over the DM, because the player is more clever, because the DM is less inclined to tyrannical behavior, or when both player and DM are so unfamiliar with the rules that those mechanics that would stop one and support the other are simply forgotten or overlooked.  And here we come to the point of my epiphany.  D&D has so many rules.  it's easier to circumvent D&D's rules than it is the rules of football or armwrestling.  And what do we call it when one player so bamboozles the other gameplayers that they get away with things outside of the rules?

Cheating.  We call it cheating.

It seems odd to me that after all this time playing the game, I have never given any serious thought to the matter of cheating except where it is applied to the mechanics of the game, specifically the dice.  And I have always been an advocate of bending the rules, as in taking advantage of the DM's limited knowledge of the books.  I have been vilified on this blog for being candid about doing exactly that.  Under the title of 'A Harmless Bit Of Deception,' no less.

And I begin to see where I am wrong, and have been wrong, for many years.  Call it a late spurt of maturity, call it a clarification of ideals brought on by years of writing on this blog now ... but I have begun to feel in these past few days that players have a responsibility towards the rules that I hadn't considered before.  It isn't that I would advocate strongly for the death of a character if I thought of a reason where the DM did not - though that might come, who know? - but I wonder if using my personality to dominate the game is necessarily a valuable asset to the overall game.

It is certainly fun for me, but just how much fun is it for others?

In the wider picture, I begin to question the whole roleplaying camp.  I certainly appreciate the argument of brains-over-brawn, but my experience has been that the more likely scenario has been brains vs. brains ... specifically, the ability of the player to successfully ignore the rules - or more to the point, to reinvent the rules any way they please in order to get the results they want.  Rules which, as I say, may be read in a variety of ways, if at all, and rules that are constantly changing and being rewritten to suit the players of the 'game' to ensure more 'fun.'

When it ceases to be a game where the contestants play by the rules, and becomes a game where the players reinvent the rules ad hoc, it ceases to be a 'game' at all.  It may still be 'fun' ... many things that are not games are fun, including thrill rides, music concerts and sex.  'Fun' is not a relevant argument defending a method of playing that, really, isn't 'playing' at all.  It is people sitting around a table playing mind-fuck with each other, according to agreed upon limits of discourse.  It isn't D&D.

But then I must ask, why is it fun?  Why have I found it fun, when I've done it?  Well, I'll be honest: it's a pleasure to best other people at thinking.  It is pandering to one's own ego.  There is pleasure to be gained at drawing attention to oneself, in pompously conjuring up a "great character" at the expense of the game.  It feeds a person's vanity to demonstrate how well we can talk the lingo, how fast we can think on our feet, how quick we can throw others off their stride and have our way ... and be praised for it by our little group of friends, who are each striving to satify their own prideful appetites.

And how much the worse when that vanity transforms itself into visual representations of mages and fighters, when we spend more time making our clothes than in learning to play the game ... in the same way we realize that a mohawk and a bad attitude go farther to winning the armwrestling championship than a strict attention to the rules.  Better, in fact, for a well-placed tattoo on my thumb can distract the judge's attention long enough for me to cheat my grip - just as a wizard costume can intimidate other players at the convention table and convince them that I am the better player.  Just look at how I am dressed!

Roleplaying is not a bad thing.  It certainly has a place in the game.  It does not need to be strutting, preening vanity.  Where roleplaying adds to the mechanic of the game, where the swing of the sword accompanies a cry of victory, where a practiced word accompanies the reaction role ... roleplaying can be a rewarding experience for every person at the table.  It is only where roleplaying is represented as an alternative to mechanics, rather than as a augmentation, that the problem arises.

I apologize for my previous support for that sort of behavior.  I will, in future, struggle to curtail my tendencies in that direction.  I wouldn't suggest this means I'm going to become a nicer person - this blog isn't a game, and when I defend myself it's because I believe in things passionately (even when I find later that I've been wrong).  But I will change my behavior at the table.

Wiki, December 13, 2010

Confession time.

I spent virtually the entire week working on maps.  I was in the mood.  Vegetation maps for those which I've already posted, and a lot of time hammering out my Italy map, which I am happy with despite the fact that 20-mile hexes are awfully general for a country with Italy's terrain variability.  Sorry, no, won't be posting Italy for a week or two ... there are still details to be added.

As a result, the wiki is shy some any new tables, and shy any new monster information.  To be honest, those tables I've added so far were those that were easy to bring up to a publishable state.  But there will be more in the future, added as I steadily upgrade them.  There's no rush for me ... I said I was on a four-year plan.

In the meantime, I have a list for what I've added this last week.  First of all, because it's easy, three more cities tables - the second half of the Lesser States of the Holy Roman Empire (aren't you impressed with how many there are?) - which I had to break into a separate image because of size - along with Hungary and Ulthua.  Hungary in 1650 is a narrow buffer state between the Holy Roman Empire and the Ottoman Turks; you can find the provinces listed on the cities table on the Carpathians map.

Ulthua is my name for the land of the Elves, which occupies northern Finland, Karelia and the Kola Peninsula.  The map for the area is B 02 - Lapland, to which I've added a vegetation map (scroll down the page).  I've also added a vegetation map to B 01 - Lofoten.  I'll be adding further vegetation maps as I continue the process of labelling the maps themselves (I did a lot of that this last weekend with the Lapland map, as well as adding mountains to it. ... it is a slow process).

Finally - and its a shame this is all - I've added maps for the Don Basin, the North Caspian and for Kirghizia (western Kazakhstan).  I will continue to have additional maps to post each week for quite some time.

Finally, I should like to encourage others to step forward and offer material to appear on the wiki.  At no time was it intended to be for my contribution alone.  There's a great deal I have little talent for: floor plans, artwork, more tables, creatively new monsters, even adventures and modules that you don't mind delivering to the reading public for free.  Be brave and contact me at alexiss1@telus.net.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Screw Average

"Average is dumb."
Harvey Pekar, American Splendor

I have been thinking about this for awhile, after receiving a year's worth of comments about how this stat or that stat was just a point or so off average, and therefore I had no justification for penalizing a 7 intelligence or charisma.  Now I'm not going to write a screed about it - R, for one, wouldn't be happy with me (a shame he doesn't have a real profile).  Instead I'd like to point out a few pertinent things regarding the angle the game plays on 'average' stats, high stats in general and the anxious desire of players who want their characters to live.

I have those kind of characters.  The survivalist types, those that get upset when their characters die.  They might not throw things about or scream and whine about it (they're adults, after all), but they don't shake it off in five minutes, either.  Believe me, I appreciate it.  I think if there's anyone I'd rather not have playing in my campaign, it's someone who sees their character as nothing more than scratched, impersonal numbers and words on paper.

I don't see any reason why a character can't become a living, breathing entity in the player's mind - there's no difference between this kind of 'creation' and the creation of believable, wonderful characters from literature.  If Peter Pan, Conan, Nicolas Knickleby, Lazarus Long, Benjamin Braddock and Rorschach can feel real enough to be tangible in our imaginations, why not Frith the Thief, Leothan the Mage and Mavis Blackwater, assassin extraordinaire?

There may be an argument to be made that some who have come into my world to find the players deadly serious about survival - which is really just character development by another name - a problematic expectation.  They don't wish to invest so closely in something that a die can kill ... and would rather keep all that personal involvement off the table.  In other words, they would rather mess around, play the game at arm's length and spend the session in sarcastic, snide, superior strutting splendor.

Or so I have noticed.

Now that's fine, for those that play that kind of game, who spend most of the session with others of the same ilk, topping one another in wit and genius.  And for those players, who I know are out there (many a blog testifies to it), a 7 or a 17 wisdom doesn't mean a whole lot.  Their characters can get a good rip off the NPC head guard's dialogue regardless.  And that, for them, is what the game's all about.  The measurement of fun is, I believe, recorded in PPH: puns per hour.

But we who want to live resent most heartily our 7 wisdoms, because we know that stat is going to be the death of us.  It is going to be the roll we have to make at the most critical time possible, the one that keeps us from walking into an empty mine shaft when the doors opened.  And we'll fail.  Epically.  And that will be the end of Mavis, Mavis that we loved and whose body was never found.  Oh, sure, we'll roll up Ikhnaton the Mage, but he'll just be a placeholder for four or five levels, the inadequate stand in for our poor, lost Mavis.  Excuse me, I need a few minutes.

Sniff.

Okay.   I'm fine.  I want to make the point that a 10 of anything is a lousy, worthless stat ... not just because it won't let us slaughter a dozen orcs in a dozen rounds, but moreso because it is the weakest point in the chain that is keeping us alive.  The roleplaying pundits can ramble on all they wish about the pleasure they find in character roleplaying a bad stat, but that same bad stat will also limit the lifespan of that wonderful roleplaying.  Yes, there was something lovely about Mavis' lack of wisdom.  True, she was a marvellous carouser, she did get drunk and stagger home after curfew on quite a few memorable nights, and there was that pregnancy scare that ended when she got fireballed and the undetermined fetus didn't make the saving throw.  But the whole time that shaft waited, patiently, not going anywhere.  Given the choice, it would have been much nicer if Mavis' wisdom had been 9 ... the number the d20 actually showed.

Now, Iknaton's not bad.  Lowest score's a ten, I think.  And after awhile, I think I'll get to like him quite a bit.  I think I can find some very interesting qualities to absorb into his higher stats just fine.  I don't think every defining character trait needs to be a flaw.  In fact, I kind of like Iknaton's 17 dexterity.  Keeps him from getting hit quite so often.

If survival's the thing, that average 10 stat is going to get you killed 50% of the time.  You've always got to remember that, and play around it, so you're not put in the position of running away from a monster when the mine shaft door opens.  Which limits, really, what your character can hope to accomplish.  Speaking for myself, who runs every character as a megalomaniac bent on taking over the world - why else would you play? - I hate having to play around limits.  But that is the game.  I haven't been lucky enough to roll six eighteens yet.

But someday, I will.  And damn, will I love that character.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Fall Out!

If a party were to have it's way, this is the formation it would be in no matter where or how far it travelled:



And that's very understandable.  The moment something jumps up from the bushes, its best if the fighter is right there and if the mage is far away and out of danger.  It's even better if everyone can take an attack on the first round, killing it quickly.

However ... people do, occasionally, have to go to the bathroom.  People get distracted as they journey along a road, they lose sight of the potential danger when mile after mile has to be trekked.  Petty disputes arise between people, with sore feelings and a strong desire not to walk within fifty feet of each other.  People have to stop and retie their packs, or sort through for some food.  Mounts get stubborn and upset, and burrs have to be pulled out from under their saddles.  There are a hundred ways in which a party gets split apart - in the real world, that is.

Take a hike with five or ten other people sometime, in the Rocky Mountains say (which are right by me).  Warn them about bears and cougars, about watching their footing and about not wandering off the path ... and then set out through some dense bush for ten miles.  See how long it takes them to drift apart.

I remember being nine, and being on just such a hike with one hundred other boys, as we walked down from the cub camp where we'd been, to the parking lot where the cars were.  The whole walk couldn't have been more than three miles.  But I can remember at one point on that route being all by myself, other kids behind me and other kids ahead, but too far away to even hear them.  I remember relishing that walk, all by myself amid the mountains and the sounds of the forest.

But suggest to a party that they're too far apart to hear one another as they strike out in the wilderness, and they will soundly protest.  I've had players protest against their characters going off to be alone behind a bush so they could pee.  "I'm not shy," they'll say.  "Manners were less important," they'll say.  "Nobody cared about people shitting in front of them," they'll say.

It's that marvellous picture of the public toilets in Ostia, Rome, that is always used to prove the point.  "If the Romans weren't shy, why would we be?"  Well, how can you argue with that?

I have a rather funny image of player characters marching to the side of the road and standing in a circle while one has a really, really bad movement - protected, of course, in case anything attacks.  Of course, depending on the quality of the last inn, it might be a really wide circle ...

If a party expects to stop as a group every time one member gets a stone in their shoe, or stops to remove snags from their sword scabbard, or thinks to dip their hand into the little stream dribbling from the nearby rocks, the party is going to move awfully slowly.  What normally happens is that the point sets the pace, with others stopping, dealing with their particular issue and then running to catch up again.  If, on the other hand, everyone stops, then there's no need to catch up to the pace, is there?

As far as the party refusing to walk together, on account of that tiff I mentioned earlier, well ... every party knows they never have arguments, right?  No, they get along perfectly happily, never wanting to be more than five feet away from their good friends, practically clutching one another as they march down the road together.

There's no desire for most DMs to challenge that.  By  the principles the game is played by, we're not allowed to point at two of the party members and say, "You and you, you're angry at each other right now."  There's no privilege for it.  I might be able to make a point that when the thief and the monk have a moderate dispute at the table, their characters separate for a time - but frankly, I'm usually looking up things at that point and I've learned to tune out table disputes.  If they go on past my needing to get ready, its a good opportunity to leave the room and pee.  And no, not everyone comes with me ... but my residence isn't the wilderness, is it?

Whatever the reason, and whatever the argument, it is patently ridiculous for the party to think it can remain in the pictured formation above every minute of the day.  The chance of them all being within 5' of each other at any given moment is pretty nigh zero.  It is a point that will be disputed violently by players - until they understand it's normal - but a point worth the DM fighting for.  Here's why:

It makes an ambush by the enemy effective.  It makes the wilderness truly dangerous.  It forces players to rely on their own abilities, and not on those of their companions.  It provides opportunities for personal bravery.  It creates greater moments of drama, as the players hear a scream, and then silence, from behind the rock where Bunkle the Dwarf went to shake his fig.  The battles are fought more haphazardly, with the party not being able to rely on the same, boring tactics repeated over and over again.  Depending on the environment, they have to improvise.  Particularly when it's the thief, the mage and the bard trying to decide what to do about the fighter who just went around the corner ahead, and is now gone ...

Do not let your players push you around.  The game is more than the world surrounding their 'perfect' order ... dismantle their order and watch your game get better.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Wiki, December 6, 2010

Here is what's been added or changed in the wiki this last week:

A table that outlines Combat Actions for use with my combat system.  In truth, the inspiration for these came straight out of a 3rd Edition book, I think the Dungeon Master's Guide for that edition, though I'm not sure.  Only goes to show that some things can be stolen from anywhere.  I haven't seen that original table in years, though, so I can't say how similar my version is to the original.  I know I had to fix up the times to suit my needs.

As an aside, I must laugh.  I defended that I played D&D to Zzarchov in the last week or so, and it says right on the blog post I've linked for my combat system that I don't play AD&D.  What a liar I am.

Cities lists for Saxony, Trier and Lesser States of the Holy Roman Empire.  I'll be honest, I don't know how useful these lists are to anyone but me.  I am enjoying putting them up because it's a digital back-up for me, should anything happen ... and at any rate they show the consistency in the overall data I'm offering.  The cities in these lists can be compared with the maps that I post, so that it can be seen how large this city is, or how small those are.  As well, the Lesser States table above certainly shows the considerable array of German states ... every one of them annoying to fix on the maps, I can testify.

I've also added maps for the Carpathians and for the Mouth of the Danube and western Ukraine.  I only added 2 more, since I added 5 last week.  To date, that's 22 maps.  I have another 43 left to post, all the same size.  Yes, that's not a typo.

I added information about clerical Tithes & Boons, which the gentle reader can familiarize themselves with from the link.  If you came across it last week, there were some errors and misplaced information in the text which has been fixed.  I have had very few incidents where players have taken advantage of this ... it's too expensive, overall.  But it is a means of collecting wealth for higher level players who have constructed churches.

And finally I have updates for the Monster Presence and the Monster Encounter Behavior tables.  I did not quite bring them as far along as I had hoped to this last weekend, but Christmas is beginning to take hold (and we had a 10 hour running on Saturday).  Still, both tables are greatly expanded.

Enjoy.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Time For A Break

Why would anyone ever use a battle axe as a weapon?  Forgive me, I ask because the rules in AD&D show that a battle axe does the same damage as a long sword and it needs two hands to wield.  It actually does less than the long sword against L-sized creatures, if you use that rule (I don't).  Therefore, for no gain at all, you're losing an opportunity to use a shield.  Why use a battle axe?

The tendency would be to repair the problem by A) increasing the damage caused by a battle axe; or B) giving the battle axe other power, such as being able to throw it, or that using it as a two handed weapon somehow increases your AC.  Either of which is a problem, since the battle axe is not the only weapon that has problems in the system as written.  No, rather than revamping the weapons damages (its been done), or the combat system to reflect two handed weapons (which must have been done somewhere), it would be nice if the battle axe had some intrinsic quality that made it practical to use as an option.

And I have it.

For a long time I've been playing a house rule that a 1 on a d20 'to hit' was a dropped weapon.  For a time I played it so that if you dropped, you spent the next round recovering the weapon ... but I don't play that anymore.  You lose part of your next turn recovering it, but not your whole turn.  I've considered a modifier so that sometimes you dropped your weapon farther away than at your feet, but not so far.

What I do play is that if you drop your weapon, you roll again to see if you break it.  For years and years, this meant rolling the d20 again on a 'drop,' and if you rolled a 1 a second time, the weapon was broken.  Then the group I played with wondered if you rolled a third 1, and we decided that you would break your arm.  On a fourth 1 in a row, you'd somehow accidentally kill yourself.

We didn't worry much about how the weapon broke, or as I said, how far it bounced.  The modifier I mentioned before could have it that if you threw a 2 on the second d20, the weapon landed five feet away.  Or ten feet.  Or a 2, 3 or 4 on the second d20 had different consequences.  But as I said, I haven't decided about that yet.

Incidentally, during the mass combat I ran earlier this year, I had two broken arms occur from three 1s rolled, and 1 death.  But those weren't quite 1:8,000 and 1:160,000 odds.  Because last fall, a bit more than a year ago, I changed the breaking rules.

Rather than the second roll being a d20, I changed the die to a d6.  I did this so I could reflect the value of cheap weapons vs. really valuable weapons, those which didn't happen to be magic.  An ordinary, crummy weapon, I reasoned, would break 1 in 6 upon dropping.  A 'hard-forged' weapon would break on a 1 in 8.  A 'blessed' weapon, one that had been hard-forged and both lucky and loved in its construction, would break on a 1 in 12.  And a 'mastercrafted' weapon would be the kind made by an artist ... and it would break on a 1 in 20.

The odds of a weapon breaking in any given round 'dropped' from 1 in 400 attacks to 1 in 120.  At once, weapons started breaking as part of normal combat.  Not just for the party, obviously.  Most every weapon used by a goblin or an orc is ordinary.  I thought the party would start shelling out for better weapons, but no.  A hard-forged weapon is three times as much as an ordinary one; a blessed weapon six times as much and a master-crafted 18 times as much.  The party's practice has been to simply double up on the weapons they have, and if they break one in mid-combat, they'll fight with a dagger or whatever secondary weapon comes to hand.  They'd rather be without the weapon and save money, than pay a bit extra to reduce the chance of their weapon breaking.  Go figure.  No one has yet figured out that in the long run it increases the chance of breaking their arms.

But the rule does allow me to make the weapons of high-intelligence races all of better quality, so they don't break as easily ... and it lets me give less breakable weapons as a treasure that differs from another magic weapon.  Granted, it isn't +1, but that beautiful sword I got from that Elven princess doesn't break on me.  Plus, it strongly creates a purpose for characters to build up an armory.  The attrition rate on weapons in a large battle over 20 rounds is considerable.  Overall, this breaking thing has been a successful rule.

I realized, as well, that it also redeems the lowly battle axe.

The gentle reader may never have noticed that there's no price for javelins or quarterstaffs in the books.  No doubt some well-meaning soul has corrected this, thinking it was a stupid oversight, but in fact no.  Either weapon is quite easily fashioned from a stout sapling - taking longer for a javelin than a quarterstaff, granted - and in fact there is a literary source that proves it.  Robin Hood has no staff when he encounters John Little on the bridge (he isn't 'Little John' yet).  The tale goes, he asks for leave to go 'cut one,' and John patiently waits while he does so.  It doesn't take long.  And when Robin announces he's ready, his staff is every bit as good as John's.

The benefit to both weapons is that they cost no money.  They are peasant's weapons for precisely that reason.

Keeping that in mind, then, what part of a battle axe do you suppose breaks, when it breaks?  Yes, that's right, the handle.  A sword or a dagger are both forged as one piece, and if they break, the handle and blade are both pretty nigh useless without being completely reforged.  But a battle axe's heavy blade isn't going to break, since the stress is delivered to the handle, which like the weakest link gives before the head does.  And when the handle breaks, do we need to go out and buy a new axe?

Nope.  We just need to replace the handle.  And the handle is free.

This makes it the perfect weapon for Vikings, or anyone who spends a great deal of time away from civilization.  There's a ton of mineable iron in Sweden, but not a whole lot of towns with blacksmiths to forge that iron.  Can't be making the three hundred mile journey into Stockholm everyday.  Once a lifetime will do, until finally the blade tarnishes and gives out.

And the same can be said for a number of other weapons, such as the flail, mace, morning star, military pick ... they all have easily replaceable handles.  If you want a good grip, and a good balance, they'll take more whittling than a quarterstaff, but we're only talking a good day or two of effort - depending of whether you like to carve your handles or not.

So the question arises for me, since I haven't considered this prior to a couple of days ago.  What's the cost on a mastercrafted axe handle?  Is it really a question of craftsmanship, or is it the wood that's used?  Does it require a master to carve and fit heavier woods - like ironwood or teak - or can anyone do it?

I don't know.  I haven't answered that yet.  Probably, a combination between a battle axe never being mastercrafted, but harder woods providing a 1 in 8 chance of breaking as opposed to a 1 in 6.  Remember, the strongest wood will break if swung hard enough, even against a baseball.

So in the end, if you can afford it, a sword is still probably better overall.  But if you're marching into the wilderness, make sure to bring an axe along.

UPDATE:

I had meant to mention; magic weapons break on a 1 in 20, regardless of material.